Rural Manitobans who commute for work say the province needs to come up with more alternatives to driving alone, as they face the pressure of high fuel costs.
“The price of gas is ridiculous,” said Shauna Chanas, a teacher from Selkirk who started carpooling to Beausejour – a roughly 35-kilometer drive – a few weeks ago, when prices surged at the pump.
“I do not know how people can afford this. Everybody’s struggling.”
Chanas meets a co-worker at a little parking lot next to an outdoor hockey rink in the rural municipality of St. Clements. More free parking lots like that would help her family save money, she said.
“My sister is working remotely,” said Chanas. “They asked her to come back to work downtown and she’s really, really struggling now that she has to worry about paying for gas and parking. It’s really stressful.”
Sandy Chiborak uses the same parking lot, near the intersection of highways 44 and 59. She drives from Selkirk to meet her son, who comes in from Winnipeg. Together, they commute to their jobs in Beausejour.
Chiborak misses the bus that used to run from Selkirk to Winnipeg.
“I used that in the ’80s when I worked in Winnipeg,” she said.
“Now there’s really nothing. It’s the carpool or the buddy or beg somebody.”
Chiborak wishes the government would subsidize more transit options between communities.
The RM of St. Clements said it’s looking into more options to make people’s commutes greener and cheaper, such as rural bus service, but that would take support from other municipalities and the province.
“We’ll try to see if we can find out where we can encourage people to park and ride at the outskirts of the city of Winnipeg, and then use transit,” said St. Clements chief administrative officer Deepak Joshi.
Right now, Winnipeg Transit only offers service as far as Riverbend to the north, and to St. Norbert in the south.
In a statement, the province said the Ministry of Municipal Relations is looking at “regional approaches to shared infrastructure investment… which could include transit.”
Manitoba’s Green Transportation Strategy was released a year ago, but is still under review.
In a separate statement, Environment Minister Jeff Wharton said his department is focusing on installing charging stations so commuters can use electric vehicles, which have been identified as “a key opportunity to reduce transportation emissions. “
But transportation expert Babak Mehran said that’s not enough.
Electric vehicles “will not solve the congestion problem or access to public transit transportation issues,” said Mehran, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Manitoba.
“And we should note that EVs are extremely expensive, not affordable for most of the people living in the province.”
Mehran researches transportation models, and said a rural transit network would take a lot of planning and money.
But other solutions could roll out more quickly, such as smaller buses or passenger vans that could offer service on demand, he said.
“When a service is on-demand, people do not have to wait outside in cold weather – they can be picked up at their door,” he said.
“The smaller capacity will make it more justifiable than a bus. It does not need to travel empty all the time.”
But until those strategies are developed, rural commuters are left to figure it out for themselves.
“You have to go to work to be able to feed yourself,” Chanas said. “But how do you afford that gas?”
She said she feels lucky to have a co-worker with a similar schedule to share part of the daily ride, and the cost.