With Canada’s government short on specifics for how the billions in “smart investments” promised in its recent Fall Economic Statement will be spent, the Globe and Mail is calling for deep investments in public transit as a timely and just use of the funds.
While programs like a national child care plan seem like a good way to spend the up to C$100 billion promised by Ottawa in the November 30 fiscal update, such initiatives aren’t a good fit for monies clearly earmarked as one-offs, writes the Globe’s editorial board.
What does fit the bill, the Globe says—especially in light of the Trudeau government’s expressed desire to invest in ways that are, “at least in part, supposed to make Canada ‘greener’ and ‘more inclusive’”—is public transit.
The funds would be more than timely: as people flock back to work and lingering pandemic caution continues to drive up car use, the country will need transit uptake to increase.
“It has to,” writes the Globe. “Cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal will choke on their own traffic congestion, while eviscerating Canada’s climate goals, if everyone tries to commute by car.”
Investing to ensure that transit serves the needs of all Canadians would also acknowledge a fundamental reality: namely, the deep injustice that the absence of a good transit system will force many low-income people “to incur the considerable expense to buy, park, and insure a car, simply to live life and hold down a job.”
Better transit “doesn’t have to be about megaprojects,” the Globe adds, pointing to new bus lanes being rolled out by the Toronto Transit Commission. Simply adding more buses to those lanes could be a fast track to healthier and more sustainable cities, and to a thriving economy.
But making sure any transit expenditures tick the “green” box on Ottawa’s investment wish list is going to add a lot of challenges—which means those responsible for making the switch to electric and away from noisy, polluting diesel fleets will need to pay attention to previous efforts in other cities.
And a good place to start could be the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).
“Canadian pioneers such as Toronto offer lessons for other transit systems aiming to transition to greener fleets for the low-carbon economy of the future,” reports CBC News. The TTC is participating in a $140-million, federally-funded pilot program involving 59 electric buses sourced from three different suppliers as a form of product testing: Winnipeg’s New Flyer, Shenzhen’s BYD, and California’s Proterra.
“They all had their strengths and weaknesses, based on their backgrounds as a traditional non-electric bus manufacturer, a battery maker, and a vehicle technology and design start-up, respectively,” notes CBC. With a target objective of reducing city emissions by electrifying its public transit system, the TTC “hopes to have an entirely electric fleet by 2050 and is currently weighing the high cost of the vehicles against fuel savings and environmental benefits.”
CBC says Toronto shares this goal in common with the feds, who plan to put a dent in national emissions by adding 5,000 electric buses to transit and school fleets within the next four years. “You are seeing huge movement towards all-electric,” said Bem Case, TTC’s head of vehicle programs. But the transition “can’t happen overnight.”
The first key decision on the table: the right bus. That choice won’t be quick or easy, Case cautioned, pointing out that no electric bus has yet remained in service for its full expected lifetime of 12 years. “Until then, we don’t have enough experience…to commit to an all-electric fleet immediately.”
And the biggest challenge facing transit authorities like the TCC is charging infrastructure. As with the buses themselves, Case added, there is no pre-existing script to follow.
“Each bus type needed their own chargers, in some cases using different types of current,” notes CBC. And the price tag for the chargers was steep: “about $70 million, or about half the cost of acquiring Toronto’s first 60 electric buses.”
The pilot project is also experimenting with the battery efficiency of various bus route lengths, and up-front costs are also proving to be a challenge, with a $200,000 to $500,000 premium per bus over diesel models. But an electric fleet promises lower operating costs, potentially saving $50 to $70 million in fuel per year, according to the TTC.
“Because the electric buses have fewer parts than diesel buses, maintenance costs are also about 25% lower and the buses are expected to be more reliable,” CBC adds, and costs for electric vehicles are falling over time. “Case expects they will eventually get to the point where the total life cycle cost of an electric and a diesel bus are comparable, and the electric bus may even save money in the long run.”
And then there are the benefits that accrue to both people and climate: a quieter and cleaner urban environment, and emissions reductions of “150 tonnes of greenhouse gases per bus per year, or 340,000 tonnes for the entire fleet.”
In fact, electrification of urban transit—combined with less vehicle use overall—may well be required if Canada is to meet its targets under the Paris Agreement. CBC cites a recent University of Toronto civil engineering study finding that “90% of U.S. passenger vehicles—300 million—would need to be electric by 2050 to reach targets under the global Paris Agreement to fight climate change.” But that shift would put “a huge strain on resources, including both the mining of metals, such as lithium and cobalt, that are used in electric vehicle batteries and the electrical grid itself.”
Study author Alex Milovanoff told CBC the plan only “becomes a feasible picture” in a world with far fewer private vehicles, heavy use of public transit, and a lot more cycling and walking.
New York City, too, has become a useful case study to watch as Canadians wait to see if Ottawa will invest in public transit. As New York’s essential workers return to their city’s legendary system of buses, trains, and subways, two spectres still loom, writes the New York Times: COVID-19, and the complete collapse of the system workers depend on as rider volumes across the system remain below sustainable levels.
“The widening ridership gulf between wealthier Manhattan neighbourhoods and lower-income areas illuminates one of the enduring disparities of the outbreak,” the Times reports. “Many people with white collar jobs can still work from home while lower-wage workers, who tend to be people of colour with long commutes, are venturing to jobs daily even as the virus resurges.”
And as these low-income workers keep the subway moving, it is they who “will likely bear the brunt of the service cuts and fare increases that officials are weighing as the transit agency faces the worst financial crisis in its history.”
New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has warned of drastic “doomsday” cuts, like reducing subway service by 40% and instituting steep fare increases to make up a US$15.9-billion shortfall through 2024.
Avoiding this doomsday will depend on whether the MTA secures the $12 billion in federal aid officials have been desperately lobbying for. While the odds of getting the rescue package have improved with the election of Joe Biden, securing sufficient bailout funds will likely depend upon whether Republicans retain control of the Senate.
The uncertainty—and the odds of a poor outcome—are delivering further suffering to some of the most vulnerable people in the city, the Times adds. “For most riders still using the system—many of whom are only just finding their footing after being laid off this spring—higher fares and less reliable service that delays their already long commutes would be a severe hardship.” But, as one rider told the Times, there isn’t much choice.
“You have to go to work. You have to pay your bills,” she said. “What should I do?”
Elsewhere in the pandemic-stricken world of mass transit, the Canadian Press reports that B.C transit services—including the province’s ferries—will receive more than C$1 billion in a federal-provincial cost-sharing deal to help them stay afloat (figuratively and literally) until ridership levels return to normal.