We've all heard the line about the first step to solving a problem is understanding there is one. Sometimes, the second is understanding who can help you solve it and what makes them tick.
For Dan Hendry, a Climate Reality Leader in Kingston, Ontario, the problem of Canada's car culture was crystal clear. Not just in the tons of pollution streaming out of tailpipes daily, but also in the damage it was doing both to the planet and the health of people all across the country.
Dan recognized there was one group who weren't yet a major part of this culture and one group with a particular stake in changing it: young people. He also recognized that if there's one thing that most young people want, it's to be independent and explore the world.
He knew that public transit could be a great way to empower thousands of young people to do just that, all while cutting down on emissions versus driving themselves or being driven by parents. So after local politicians agreed to give high-school students bus free passes, he got to work, developing a new program to train students how to safely and confidently use the city's great transit system, providing passes on orientation day at school.
The program has been an unqualified success, increasing annual high-school bus riders from 28,000 to a staggering 600,000 before COVID hit. What those numbers don't show, however, is the personal growth and life opportunities the program opened up, as teenagers suddenly had the means to pursue jobs and other extracurricular activities.
No surprise, other places are taking note, with over 40 other communities and organizations now looking into replicating the Kingston model for youth transit. A subsequent research study has also concluded that the transit pass is an essential stimulant for travel independence for high-school students and suggested that the program could be applied to other mid-sized North American municipalities.
What else can advocates learn from Dan's experience?
"Part of mobilizing people will always be a good story. It is also important to reach out to the right people with the right skills, responsibilities and passions and make it easy for them to act. This is accomplished through clear, honest communication and explaining environmental, financial, health, and equity benefits. But above all, clear timelines and expectations, receiving clear commitments, and knowing everyone’s interests are aligned make this all possible. You must often be willing to adjust your message based on your audience and speak to their goals."
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In Their Own Words
What was the problem you saw?
Youth transit programming is a solution that helps create a greener community and helps move us towards a more significant impact in zero-emission transportation. Youth were unfamiliar with public transit, despite it being accessible in our community. There was a need for education and the promotion of ridership and use of the transport system. Ridership drives the ability to develop quality transportation, and quality transportation makes more ridership. There needed to be a way to bolster ridership that wasn’t drastic or expensive.
What was your idea/insight to solve it and the end result/vision you wanted to achieve?
The idea was to use bus orientation and free passes for high school students to bolster ridership. This would result in the students becoming more comfortable using public transit. This empowers the students. It means their parents would drive less, and students would be able to work, volunteer, and attend extracurriculars. This creates a symbiotic relationship where education empowers students to go more places, literally, in their life, and these students’ ridership helps better the transportation system they use.
Why is this solution important to your country and community?
On a national level, this program is a blueprint to support Canada in moving away from a very automobile-centric culture while reducing emissions. Over 40 communities and organizations across Canada have expressed interest in learning more about the Kingston model for youth transit programming. For the community, the benefits include empowering youth to work and engage in extracurricular activities. It also creates equity and labour market opportunities, and the ridership allows the city to invest in the transport system. Fewer cars on the road translate to added health benefits such as the reduction of smog, not to mention cutting down on overall traffic.
What were the biggest challenges you faced/ran into?
The politicians and organizations in Kingston were very enthusiastic and ready to help, making ideating and implementing the program a lot easier. Assisting other communities to replicate it, though, you need to be able to get different organizations to sit down and realize that this aligns with many of their values. It involves the transport authority, the education system, and the municipality, each of which has different layers of stakeholders, each with budgetary, financial, and regulatory concerns that need to be addressed individually. In the end, the opportunity is to create a common goal.
How did you mobilize people to take actions?
Part of mobilizing people will always be a good story. It is also important to reach out to the right people with the right skills, responsibilities and passions and make it easy for them to act. This is accomplished through clear, honest communication and explaining environmental, financial, health, and equity benefits. But above all, clear timelines and expectations, receiving clear commitments, and knowing everyone’s interests are aligned make this all possible. You must often be willing to adjust your message based on your audience and speak to their goals.
Who were key stakeholders/partners that worked with you?
The main partners were the transit authority, politicians, senior staff, operational staff, and the drivers themselves. Also, there is the school board side; on the governance level, there are trustees and senior staff; at the school level, you have principals, teachers, parents, and the students themselves. You also can’t forget the community supporters. This includes the media and not-for-profit organizations that may focus on youth, the environment, accessibility, and public health. There is no such thing as too much support or goodwill from a community.
What insight, ideas, or suggestions would you offer someone looking to take action in a similar way?
Firstly, there is a guidebook and a Tedx Talk that outlines the story and process of the Kingston model for youth transit programming. Use these as guides as you try and communicate your message. The process could look slightly different in various states/provinces and communities. Look through your community’s strategic plan and identify the key players in those communities. Use the “Kingston Model” as an example to bring those in the community, whether politicians or affiliated with the school board or transit authority and have them see the overall vision. Help people see that this can align with all their values.
How did this project you created promote equity or justice in your community?
This program opens the community for everyone that enters the ninth grade; there are no other criteria that need to be met. It gives students the power to work, participate in extracurricular activities, and volunteer. In addition, the transport system is accessible with kneeling buses and specialized seating for those requiring mobility aids. The program is available to people until the end of grade 12, and usage data shows that the 12th graders use it three times as much as the ninth graders, meaning ridership increases over time. People who previously faced barriers with transportation no longer do.