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Smog doesn't prevent Witmer from driving

Environment minister blames poor transit for her choice

From Canadian Press


A thick, yellow blanket of smog has become a standard feature of a scorching summer’s day in Canada’s most populous city. So, too, has an almost daily onslaught of smog alerts and health warnings.

But while many do their part by taking public transit to work, Ontario’s environment minister is not among them.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a transit system in Canada that allows for that to happen,” Elizabeth Witmer said Wednesday, adding that when in Europe, she does what the Europeans do - she rides the train.

Witmer said she looked for transit options for her hour-and-a-half commute to the legislature from her Kitchener-Waterloo home, but couldn’t find any. Instead, she makes the roughly 100-kilometre commute in her government-provided car.

Reports from Witmer’s own ministry say vehicle emissions are the largest home-grown contributors to air pollution in Ontario.

To combat air pollution, the ministry advocates little things everyone can do on hot, heavy days - car pool and refrain from using outdoor machinery like chainsaws or gas-powered lawn mowers.

But most important of all: use public transit.

“I think we need to encourage people to get out of their cars and use public transit wherever possible,” said Witmer.

But at least one group says her reluctance to practise what she preaches points to a bigger problem.

“The minister or other people will not be guilted out of their cars,” said John Wellner of the environmental watchdog group, Pollution Probe.

People need efficient and affordable transit alternatives, he said.

While the provincially funded GO Transit doesn’t provide service from Witmer’s hometown - a ticket agent said the nearest city they stop in is Guelph, 23 kilometres to the east - Via Rail does offer Kitchener-Waterloo a commuter service that arrives in Toronto by 8:20 a.m., Monday to Friday.

A month’s worth of daily commuting, or 20 round-trip tickets, costs $428.

“I’m going to grant the minister that she has a long and difficult commute,” said Wellner.

Still, “we would hope the minister would lead by example.”

According to a study by the American Transit Association, 160 kilometres in a car adds 1,506 grams of smog-causing hydrocarbons to the air.

That means that each week, the minister’s daily commute could pump about 9 � kilograms of these particles into the air.

Just last week, the provincial Environment Ministry announced 145 new standards aimed at reducing smog-causing emissions by 50 per cent within three years.