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Commuting, public transit, traffic and voting

"Appalling commute times make it much harder for students"

CivicAction student panelists with moderator Mary Wiens of CBC Radio (all photos by John Guatto)

Young adults in Ontario, often chided for their lack of participation in politics, need to ensure that their voices are heard on issues such as transportation gridlock and long commute times in and around Toronto, members of the youth wings of four political parties said Wednesday.

“Young people think that politicians are just in the background and aren’t going to listen to us anyway so it doesn’t matter if I vote or I don’t vote,” said Michelle Johnston, president of the Ontario Young Liberals and a recent graduate of the University of Toronto. “But I don’t think people realize how much politicians do listen to the youth wings.”

Johnston gave the recent example of fellow alumna and Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne who asked for the policy papers of the Young Liberals group before speaking at one of their conferences so the premier could see what was most on the minds of young people today.

Transportation is one issue close to the hearts of students, many of whom don’t have their drivers’ licences and rely on family or public transit to get around, said Alanna Newman, president of the Ontario PC Youth Association. A third-year student studying political science at U of T, she was part of the panel organized by the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance, a non-partisan group that brings together senior executives to tackle social, economic and environmental challenges. 

"Young people do have a role to play in this discussion of transit. Students need to get involved in a political party or an issues-based group like CivicAction and ensure their voices are heard,” Newman said.

(Attending the transit discussion were mayoralty candidates Sarah Thomson and alumnus John Tory, former chair of CivicAction, both of whom have discussed transit issues in the past. (See a photo gallery of the event.)

The university itself has a social obligation to collaborate with partners to address the most compelling issues of the day – including transportation, said Meric Gertler, president of U of T and renowned professor of geography and planning. 

“Transportation infrastructure is a factor in the continued success of institutions like the University of Toronto, not least as it affects the quality of student experience on our three campuses,” said Gertler (pictured at right with CivicAction chief executive officer Sevaun Palvetzian). 

Gertler noted that 68% of first-year students live off campus and rely on transit to commute from the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas.

“The region’s appalling commute times make it much harder for students to engage in university life both inside the classroom and outside the classroom in the co-curricular and extra-curricular activities that are a key part of post-secondary education.”

Alumna Laura Anonen, Central West representative on the Ontario New Democratic Youth Executive, commuted for years from her home in Brampton to Toronto for both university and work, a ride that could knock off hours of her day when the traffic was poor.

Anonen said young people constantly talk about transit problems and need to use their strengths in social media to ensure politicians know how they feel.

“Tweet your MP, tweet your city councillor. You can directly send a message to a politician at any level. If we’re all talking about it, they can’t ignore it.”

The cost of transit is also an important issue for graduates, many of whom work in unpaid internships, said Jesseca Dundun, the anglophone communications director for the Young Greens Council.

Dundun’s commute from her home north of Highway 9 includes taking the GO Train ($7 each way) and then a subway ($3 each way) – about the same cost as when she drives and parks at her job.

Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor of geography and planning at U of T, said the Toronto region has a history of “misaction and missed opportunities” when it comes to transit.

Siemiatycki said it all boils down to two questions: how people prioritize mega-projects like transit and how and who pays for it.

Young people have an important role in this conversation, he said. “For youth especially, voting is key. You need to make your voice heard. If you don’t vote …it will just be the same old constituencies who have their voice heard.”

(Read more information about CivicAction.)