Over on spacing’s website, my friend John Lorinc has written The case for way more electric buses in which he wonders whether Toronto should just give up on building rail lines and focus on buying a large fleet of electric buses.
What New Money? And a Bit of History
The impetus for this is that the Federal government is handing out a potload of money for electrification according to a recent press release. Before I get into the details of Lorinc’s article, there is a vital statement in the press release:
This funding is part of an eight year, $14.9 billion public transit investment recently outlined by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and will also support municipalities, transit authorities and school boards with transition planning, increase ambition on the electrification of transit systems, and deliver on the government’s commitment to help purchase 5,000 zero-emission buses over the next five years.
Yes, that’s right, this is not “new money” but a carve-out from a previous announcement that, when stretched over coming years, is a lot smaller than it sounds. Now we learn that of the $5.9 billion planned for 2021-2025, $2.7 billion or 46 per cent, is earmarked for electric vehicles. Transit systems that might have had their eye on other projects will have to think again.
Updated at 9:05 pm March 5: I have received a reply from Infrastructure Canada confirming my interpretation of the press release:
The Prime Minister’s announcement on February 10, 2021 provided $14.9 billion for public transit projects over eight years, which included permanent funding of $3 billion per year for Canadian communities beginning in 2026-27. In the first five years, $5.9 billion will be made available starting in 2021 to support the near-term recovery of Canadian communities by several means, including supporting the deployment of zero-emission vehicles and related infrastructure.
The announcement made on March 4th to invest in electrifying transit systems across the country funding is a part of this initiative. The funding is separate from funding currently available under integrated bilateral agreements in place with provinces and territories.Source: Email from Infrastructure Canada Media Relations
The problem here is that by dedicating the funding to a specific type of project, the type of spending cities will make will skew to where the money is available. Indeed, they will rush to buy new buses with federal funding even though their existing fleet might not actually be due for replacement.
A further problem arises if the feds expect that this will be a cost-shared program. Will Toronto and Ontario pony up their share of a bus purchase plan, especially if it is accelerated beyond normal vehicle retirement cycles when they might have eyed the federal dollars for projects like the Waterfront LRT and the Ontario Line that are in various stages of engineering and procurement?
This continues the distortion of spending priorities we saw when Paul Martin’s government threw its support into hybrid buses. There was lots of money for hybrids, even though they had a 50 per cent cost premium over diesels, but if a transit agency simply wanted to buy more buses to run better service, and get the best bang for their buck with diesels, no federal money was available.
The cost premium for battery buses currently sits at about 50 per cent above hybrids, although this is likely to fall as the technology becomes more common.
Update March 6 at 8:00 am: With the cost of an eBus sitting at $1.0-1.2 million, generously assuming prices will fall as the industry ramps up, 5000 buses represent a capital cost of over $5 billion. It is quite clear that the federal program will not cover 100 per cent of the new vehicle costs. In the TTC’s capital plans, future buses remain largely in the “unfunded” category, and new City and provincial dollars will be needed. The federal funding reduces the cost of eBuses and infrastructure but does not represent a sudden supply of “free” vehicles.
At the TTC, there is a love for big bus replacement orders because it shifts costs from the operating budget (with small subsidies) to the capital budget (with very large subsidies) both by avoidance of vehicle rebuild costs and by shifting a large chunk of the fleet into a warranty period. (Warranty repairs effectively come out of the purchase price of the bus on the capital side of the ledger.)
This approach works well enough if the new technology pans out, but the TTC had a lot of problems with its first batch of hybrids. Generally speaking, the technology has not achieved quite the benefits originally hoped.
That issue of “benefits” bears examination too. Some cities expected to see big drops in diesel fuel costs, but this depended on buses running in a very urban stop-and-start environment where a lot of energy could be recouped from braking. The situation is very different on suburban routes. If one were looking to save big on fuel costs, hybrids might not quite achieve what one hoped.
Conversely, if the aim is to eliminate tailpipe emissions and the transit carbon footprint, that is quite another matter. However, it comes at a cost, and that at a time when transit systems are just trying to keep the lights on. There are hopes that going electric will save money, but this depends on the interaction of many factors:
- How efficiently will a battery bus use power, allowing for conversion losses, and can a bus run a full day’s service without needing to recharge?
- When will recharging power be consumed? Overnight when, presumably, there is surplus power for the taking, or during the day when power is less available and more expensive?
- Will buses be built to last longer than 12 years on the assumption that without the vibration of a diesel engine they will last longer? What would be the implications for subsystems such as batteries and electronics? In effect, can the higher capital cost of the vehicle be amortized over a longer period?
- What scale of charging infrastructure will be required, and how much does this effectively add to the per vehicle cost?
This is not to disparage electric buses. After all, I was part of a group that fought to save Toronto’s trolleybus system, an idea that reached the stage of a preliminary plan for network expansion by the TTC. However, there were forces working against trolley bus retention including:
- TTC management who preferred to have an all-diesel fleet (this was 30 years ago, and hybrid technology was unheard of).
- A “new technology” group in the Ontario Ministry of Transportation who had little to show for their existence.
- A bus builder who wanted an easy contract to build vehicles for the TTC.
- The natural gas industry which had, at the time, a surplus of product looking for a market.
- A manufacturer of pressure tanks looking to market his wares. (I am not making this up. “Industrial development” gets into odd corners of the economy at times.)
The result was a move to buses fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG) that were pitched as “green” and therefore an alternative to electric buses tethered to overhead wires. This scheme did not work out as well as hoped, and CNG had a short life as a transit technology in Toronto. But management was rid of the trolleybuses, and their real goal was achieved.
The TTC regularly claims that it has the largest fleet of electric buses in North America, although if you press them on the issue, they must admit that this only applies to battery buses. There are fleets of trolleybuses in other cities, some larger than Toronto’s ever was:
- Vancouver has about 260 of which 74 are 18m articulated buses.
- San Francisco has about 275 of which 93 are articulated.
- Seattle has 174 of which 64 are articulated.
- Boston has 50 of which 32 are articulated.
- Dayton has 45 standard sized buses.
- Philadelphia has 38 standard-sized buses.
All of these have off-wire capability to varying degrees allowing for short diversions when necessary. This was held as a shortcoming of trolleybuses by their critics even though off-wire was already a feature of new trolleybuses three decades ago.
The big change today is that the technology to carry on-board power has improved a lot, and cities can go electric without having to string a network of overhead wires.
This may seem like a lot of history to go through before I turn to the question of the future of electric buses in Toronto, but it is worth knowing of past technology issues and the unseen hand of government, through targeted subsidies, on the scales of transit planning judgements.
The State of LRT Planning in Toronto
Lorinc begins with this statement about LRT:
Exhibit A: According to the City’s latest estimates, the cost of the Eglinton East LRT (Kennedy to Malvern) has now doubled, to $4.4 billion – an eye-watering sum for surface rapid transit, no matter how worthy.
I cannot leave that accusation of doubling just hanging out in the air unchallenged. Other factors are at play:
- The EELRT as now proposed would run north to Malvern Centre rather than terminating at University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus (UTSC).
- Earlier costs did not include a Maintenance & Storage Facility (carhouse and shops). Originally, a single carhouse on Sheppard at Conlins Road would have served both the Sheppard and EELRT routes, as well as a converted SRT when that was added to the Transit City network. Now the EELRT must bear this cost alone. Although the fleet will be smaller, the amount of specialized repair equipment will not scale down proportionately.
- The approach to Kennedy Station now includes an LRT tunnel that will surface east of Midland Avenue. Previously, the LRT portal was just east of Kennedy Station, but the Scarborough Subway Extension structure is now in the way.
- The original project cost does not include inflation due to delays in project initiation.
My thought experiment is this: why, instead of the ceaseless melodrama of the subway/LRT projects that only get more costly by the quarter, are we not pouring money into a first class e-bus fleet running on dedicated rights-of-way on arterial roads across the city?
If the TTC allocates even a fraction of the capital into this kind of BRT network — no-carbon buses, high frequencies, reliable service, and therefore far less over-crowding — it can deliver huge mobility gains to parts of the city that wait and wait and wait for better transit.
Meanwhile, at great expense, the great and powerful transit Pooh-Bah, Doug Ford, will bury the Eglinton West LRT extension lest his constituents be frightened by the sight of streetcars passing through Etobicoke’s leafy groves on a street that was originally intended to be an expressway corridor. In Scarborough he will deliver a subway in place of an LRT line that could have been open now for at least six years.
This gets us into two fundamental questions that bedevil debates about transit in Toronto:
First, is it reasonable to expect that road space would actually be made available for true BRT operations in Toronto? Would the taking of lanes on Eglinton East (Leaside to Kennedy, now under construction), Eglinton West (Humber River to Renforth, now proposed as a tunnel), and Finch West (LRT in the early stages of construction), have been any more palatable had this been for buses?
By “for buses” I am not talking about painted lanes but dedicated space comparable to the BRT instalations in York Region. York started with wide roads that had plenty of room to expand, except in old town locations where the BRT infrastructure peters out. Many Toronto arterials do not have room for new lanes, and opposition is already brewing to plans for “RapidTO” red lanes on Jane, Dufferin and elsewhere.
If we are going to make a real difference for transit, we have to take road space away from cars. Conversely, if moving cars and providing parking/loading space is more important, then please do not waste our time talking about transit priority.
Simply replacing diesel or hybrid buses with electrics, but running them in the same traffic conditions will make a statement about out commitment to lower carbon emissions, but it will not say much about a commitment to transit. Indeed, unless capital subsidies for new buses continue indefinitely, this would commit us to future purchases of more expensive vehicles among many competing priorities for transit spending.
Second, the primary attraction to riders is service – as John Lorinc said “high frequencies, reliable service, and therefore far less over-crowding”. These goals are achieved primarily by running more buses, ensuring that they arrive regularly and that they have predictable, tolerable loads with room for all who wish to board.
The problem here is that nobody wants to pay for that, and the TTC goes out of its way to underplay crowding problems. In May 2019, what was supposed to be a quarterly report on crowding appeared in the CEO’s Report. Is has not been seen since. Even the reported information was at a summary level, and I had to request the details to find out which routes and periods of service had problems.
The RapidTO program on Eglinton East had only a small effect on overall travel time, and not much effect on service reliability. A good chunk of the time saving came not from the painted lanes, but from the elimination of stops by the TTC. Any fool can speed up transit service by getting rid of stops, although that may run counter to the basic ideas of customer-focus. Even if these removals could be justified, the point is that the saving was counted as a benefit of the red lanes when this could have been achieved any time by a workman with a van and a collection of “this stop not in service” signs.
When we talk about what service might be, regardless of the type of vehicle, we also have to talk about service quality. People love subways because, as a matter of policy, they run frequently and travel quickly because their stops are further apart than would be the case for a surface route. But if the subway network were subject to the same service standards as our bus routes, trains would run less frequently in off peak periods, and some parts of the network might be threatened with less than full 7-day, 20-hour service.
An important discussion in any debate of transit technology is the capacity it can provide and the future demand it must support. Some LRT proposals in North America face legitimate criticism for using a heavier technology than might be appropriate for a corridor. Some are more streetcars than rapid transit. However, this does not invalidate LRT per se, merely warn against overbuilding. (Yes, subway boosters, that message is for you too!)
Running More Bus Service
There is a double standard when it comes to surface transit. As Lorinc notes, the bus network carried “slightly more passenger-kilometres in 2019 (235 million) than did the subway”. But every attempt to get more bus service is met with push-back due to the capital cost for buses and garages, and the ongoing operating cost to run more service.
Today we are in the ironic state that the TTC has a fleet of over 2,000 buses, but their peak service requirement is only 1,527 vehicles (March 28, 2021 schedules) including 86 buses serving streetcar routes during construction projects. Yes, these are pandemic times with decreased riding, but when the demand returns, will the TTC be able to afford more service? In January 2020, the peak service requirement was 1,625 and even that kept a generous pool of spare buses (about 400), larger than the industry standard.
The TTC should be able to add 200 buses to its current peak service on the bus network, especially if pending purchases will eliminate the last of the old, unreliable fleet, and allowing for reclaiming vehicles from the streetcar network. However, running even the existing bus and streetcar fleets at full utilization will drive up operating costs, and no government stands ready with a cookie jar full of operating subsidies.
Lorinc argues that with the money we would save on expensive rail projects, there is “a generational opportunity to change directions, for the better”. Maybe, but that does not address the question of operating costs for much-expanded service. (To be fair, running an LRT or subway isn’t cheap either, especially when they are underground.)
Looking Elsewhere for Examples
When we talk about BRT in Toronto, we are usually talking about paint, some signs, and a gentle exhortation that motorists should stay out of what they once looked on as “their” lane. Enforcement is almost totally absent. It will be interesting to see how easily some sort of discipline will be reasserted on King Street as traffic and transit demand build up again, or if there will even be an attempt. Hand-wringing, yes; action, no.
The most commonly cited examples of BRTs, moreover, are in Latin America and cities like Bogota, Colombia. But Ottawa’s OC Transpo BRT network served middle-class suburbanites for decades, while GO’s express bus fleet has pumped 905 commuters into GO and TTC stations for just as long.
The BRT systems in Bogata and Ottawa involve dedicated infrastructure sometimes on private roads and sometimes on very wide arterials. That is not what we’re talking about in Toronto. I am trying to imagine a BRT station with multiple bays for buses in each direction occupying the equivalent of four – not two – four road lanes at a major intersection. At that scale, there are issues with station access and pedestrian traffic.
As for GO’s express bus fleet, it is a fraction of the size needed to describe it as “pumping” riders into the TTC, unless one is talking about a very small pump. GO Transit is fed primarily by parking lots, and its greatest fault is the abdication of local service to each municipality, to the degree they wish to fund it.
One thing common to Bogata and Ottawa is that they have (or had in Ottawa’s case) extremely frequent service. Ottawa’s was so successful that it is now an LRT surface/subway, although that project had its own share of problems with construction and operations.
A few BRT success stories are commonly cited without looking at how their infrastructure would or could map onto Toronto, let alone their service levels.
The shift away from fossil fuels is a strong political and social issue of our times. This shift is more easily implemented for major infrastructure investments or renewals, for fleets as opposed to individual vehicles because there are economies of scale. That will catch up in the private, individual vehicle market eventually, but fleets are the low-hanging fruit.
Clean energy is quite another matter, and there is a huge difference in where energy comes from depending on where one lives. Indeed, there is substantial controversy over whether Toronto’s electrical generation mix is “green” because there is relatively little gas and no coal generation, or “dirty” because of the long term problems of nuclear waste. Future technology such as solar and wind are coming along bit by bit, but there is a huge drag from investments in existing infrastructure and the industries that support it.
At its April 14, 2021, meeting, the TTC Board expects to receive a report on its eBus program including an updated fleet plan for the conversion. A project of this scale does not include just the purchase of buses, but the conversion of garages to support vehicle charging and the maintenance of electric rather than diesel buses. Even the three garages that now host eBuses only have enough charging capacity for that small fleet, not for a full cutover to electric operation. McNicoll Garage will open for revenue service on March 28, and it was designed and built for diesel/hybrid buses.
The TTC does not plan to open another bus garage until the early 2030s, in part because of buses that will be released by LRT conversions on Eglinton and Finch in the next few years. Would this be enough to handle an aggressive burst of transit growth on the bus network? A long-standing problem at the TTC is that they only project for growth at barely inflationary levels, and in the process fall behind overall growth across the city.
Council avoids new taxes to support operating, as opposed to capital, budgets. In coming years, opening new rapid transit lines will push up the operating budget further straining the TTC’s ability to support regular bus and streetcar routes. This is the opposite of the direction Toronto should be headed.
It is not enough to simply show up with bags of cash, but also to recognize that change on this scale takes several years and ensure that project funding fits into a reasonable timeline. Moreover, funders must acknowledge that just buying vehicles addresses barely half of the problem.
Job stimulus is a noble goal, but if there is no move to expand service with net purchases of buses beyond what would otherwise happen in normal replacement cycles, then there is no real stimulus. There is also the question of whether a new eBus will have more or less Canadian content than the vehicles we use today depending on where various technology components come from.
With a handful of exceptions, the city has never really tried to offer exceptionally reliable, high-frequency bus service on dedicated rights of way over a broad and inclusive geography.
Well, there was the failed attempt of Transit City that was largely a surface LRT network, and rail was chosen because of the projected demand in most corridors. It was designed as a network, but what we are getting is fragments, and overpriced fragments in some cases at that.
But I agree with John Lorinc that Toronto has never even though of, much less tried to offer exceptional bus service. That would require political advocacy and stamina our political leaders do not have.
There are two issues here: making transit better, and buying new cleaner buses. They should not be entwined. It will be years before Toronto’s bus fleet is even half electric, and yet we can start work on aggressively improving transit today. Capital projects are politically convenient because the payoff is somewhere off in the future. Those responsible for managing and funding our system can continue in set ways. We need real change now.
Yes, buy eBuses, but recognize that better service is something we can do now, and completely taking over road space is not the only solution. We must not hold good service hostage to a road plan that might never be implemented, or to a technology that will will take a decade to fill out Toronto’s bus fleet.