Fighting Climate Change Needs More Transit

Climate change and the need to “green” party platforms trigger proposals to spend money on transit, especially at election time. An oft-cited stat is that the transportation sector represents the largest contribution to greenhouse gases. This is the launching pad for transit spending proposals, but they are often misguided if not counterproductive.

The emissions due to the public transit sector are a very small portion of the total within “transportation”, and the real problem lies with the vast numbers of trips taken in private autos. If these are not diverted to modes with lower emissions, changes made to transit will achieve little.

Shifting demand to public transit will require more and better transit, and the magnitude of that shift must be substantial to make any dent in overall emissions. Political promises offer money for various schemes, but a gaping hole is better funding for day-to-day operations.

Far too often, plans focus on capital projects: electrification of bus and rail networks, not to mention rapid transit construction. Electrification by itself does not produce one more bus or rail trip, only a cleaner, quieter one. Rapid transit construction can improve travel options in the affected corridors, but system wide benefits and increased demand requires more than a new subway here and there.

Commuter Rail

Electrification of commuter rail service (GO Transit in Toronto) can bring improvements in travel time and reduced operating costs. Fewer electric trains with better performance can provide the same level of service as more, less sprightly diesel-hauled trains, or conversely more service can be provided at the same cost. This is always a tug of war for transit systems: take the savings from running fewer, faster or larger trains/vehicles, or invest the savings in more service. If all we do is to replace a 15-minute service of 2,000-passenger trains by changing out the locomotive, no additional service is provided and hence no contribution from reduced auto commuting.

A further wrinkle lies in the evolution of railway technology with battery powered trains used for “off wire” service on minor lines where the cost of conventional overhead is prohibitive for the service level, or where the line is not owned by the commuter operator. CN and CP have been quite firm that they will not allow electrification on their trackage and GO, for example, must make do with electrifying tracks that it owns.

Planning for electrification includes power and charging infrastructure as well as fleet plans that can span a few decades given the longevity of railway equipment. Government attention to transit projects can be measured in nanoseconds, especially when a former proponent goes to their electoral rest.

Metrolinx has yet to produce a consolidated roadmap for electrification, and the situation is complicated by a political desire to push rail service beyond its current limits faster than the wire would catch up, if ever. A candidate route for electrification might sprout an extension beyond the trackage Metrolinx owns, and that changes the planning for how the entire corridor will be served.

A further problem lies in Metrolinx’ decision under a former government to leave technology decisions to a future P3 builder/operator of the GO rail network. This is an abdication of the public sector’s role in setting policy, but it suits a political climate where significant decisions can be hidden within the “commercially confidential” P3 arrangements.

Subways, Subways, Subways!

Everybody wants subways, but they do not necessarily produce a change in travel patterns proportionate to their cost and implementation periods. The Spadina extension to Vaughan benefits its riders, but most of them were already using transit for their travel. We have given them a faster trip, but not diverted many cars off of the road.

A fundamental problem with subways is that they tend to be extensions of existing routes and serve demand oriented to downtown areas. Improved connectivity for existing riders is a good thing, but we should take care not to treat a big hole in the ground as automatically producing a huge environmental benefit.

Rapid transit that serves the region cannot depend on subways as a solution. They are too expensive, too long to build and provide too little coverage. What is needed is the will to take road space for a more finely-grained network than a subway plan could achieve, and to focus not just on downtown but on travel across the region. This will be challenging because we have built a car-oriented region with very diverse travel patterns that cannot easily be replaced by transit.

Electrification of bus service will be a nice show of environmental support, but if those buses run infrequently and do not provide a true network of service, they will carry few riders and auto emissions will continue to dominate the roads.

What About eBuses?

Electric buses are starting to make inroads on transit systems as replacements for diesels and diesel-electric hybrids. The TTC’s head-to-head test of three vendors’ products is still underway, but a large purchase is likely within a year. The hope is that new buses will not expose us to the type of reliability issues seen in early hybrid buses (also hailed as a “green” solution in their day, as were the compressed natural gas buses before them).

Electric buses have higher up-front costs, not to mention the charging infrastructure, although they are expected to have lower lifetime operating costs. Schemes to fund electric buses can run aground (and have in the past) if they attempt to achieve too much, too fast.

The nature of provincial and federal programs is that they tend to be short term policies, funding that evaporates if it is not used within a brief period. This was a major problem with some of the pandemic relief for “infrastructure” stimulus because it could not be spent within the allowed time period. A related issue arises if government “A” offers funding that is conditional on governments “B” and “C” chipping in a share. This can trigger a need for a city like Toronto to spend capital it had not planned simply to get the handout from another government within the allowed window. If that funding is tied to a more expensive technology, the net benefit could be zero if old buses are simply replaced one-for-one.

Bus fleets have a lifetime of about 12 years, and the TTC’s fleet, for example, has vehicles of varying ages. Any electrification program that is short term will trigger either premature replacement of buses (some of which themselves may have been bought with previous rounds of “stimulus”), or will limit the program’s take-up to only part of the fleet.

If governments are not willing to make a long-term commitment to funding, then planning for any conversion will be difficult.

Free Transit is Not The Answer

Another supposedly pro-transit scheme is the reduction or elimination of transit fares. This is a populist appeal to lowering user costs, but it would not contribute anything to actual service.

For medium and large sized system, fares cover much of the operating cost ranging roughly from 40 to 70 per cent. On smaller systems where fares now cover a small proportion of total costs, and service has capacity for higher demand, free transit is a simple option, although it contains the seeds of its own failure if ongoing funding does not keep up with operating costs and demand.

There is a parallel with using ride shares as a transit alternative, and one trial system that ran out of allocated funding because demand exceeded projections. If the response to “we need more service” is “we cannot afford it”, then the political commitment to greening transportation is simply not serious.

The shift to free transit, however provided, could produce more demand, but service will always be constrained by how much we, collectively, are willing to spend.

Without question, the cost of riding transit is one of many things those with little income must juggle. If the desire is to make travel cheaper for them, this should not occur for every rider just because of the political simplicity of the message.

On the TTC, fares contributed just under $1.2 billion in 2019, two-thirds of the system’s total cost. Even a reduction to 50 per cent recovery through fares would have required an added $300 million in annual operating subsidy. If we have that kind of money to redirect as transit subsidy, let alone another $900 million it would take to eliminate fares, might it be better spent on programs directed to those who need them?

Free transit benefits all riders, but only those who choose to shift to transit represent a net “green” saving if they were previously auto users.

It’s All About Service

In all of this, the focus has been to convert existing systems, not to expand the level of service. It is not enough to say “we will help you buy electric buses”. What is needed is a commitment to increasing transit fleets (and building the garages needed to house them), and vitally to the ongoing operation of these vehicles to provide more service, more capacity to draw auto trips onto transit.

We are coming out of the pandemic era with a hope to attract riders from only two years ago back to the system, let alone gaining net new demand. Current TTC bus and streetcar service sits well below the level possible with existing fleets, let alone any expansion. The problem is a lack of operating funds, and by extension with staffing levels. You can’t run a bus or streetcar without someone to drive it, and someone else to maintain it.

At no point has the TTC produced an estimate of the operational and financial implications of full utilization of its bus and streetcar fleets. How much service could be on the road if only we would pay to operate it?

What is completely missing from debates on greener transit and its contribution to emission reduction is the importance of service, of transit as a clear, attractive alternative. A bus with a nice green paint job that shows up every 15 minutes, if it’s on time, is no solution.

18 thoughts on “Fighting Climate Change Needs More Transit

  1. Hi Steve, I tried to comment–liked your thoughtful essay on the complexities of expanding transit service–but ran into “signing in” problems. Gave up after 15 minutes. Cheers, Andy

    Steve: You don’t have to sign in to leave a comment.


  2. I know of your longstanding opposition to free fares, but considering that too many politicians in Ontario have clearly said that they will only top up what fares cannot do, it’s clear that more money is not forthcoming anyway. There is no way at the amount of money involved that fares can allow any city or region to effectively run a transit system. Having fares allows too many politicians to simply avoid acknowledging that transit is a social good that must be funded appropriately. It’s simply wrong to think what we could do with 900 million as that is beside the point. You can have fares or funding, but not both.

    Which brings us to privatization (partial or full) which has been discussed many times and with various trade agreements signed by Canada over the last twenty years, it’s clear that having fares will necessarily attract the usual suspects. However once a public service is privatized, it cannot be brought back into the public sphere thanks to various WTO agreements. Having fares has caused no end of grief about various modes of transports (rail vs subway or regional bus), instead of having integrated transport, we end up with duplication of services in some parts. It should not be about having GO or TTC running any particular service, but what is the most efficient way of providing the service. Montreal is going through hell thanks to REM because of the disjointed thinking that somehow mainline rail costs more than building something new (the REM). There are other reasons for the REM, but fares and financing was a significant part of the problem.

    We are at the point that because of various rules and agreements, we cannot afford fares anymore. Too many in the private sector wants their hand in the pot. Fares are clearly an obstacle to proper provision of service at this point. And that’s without going into financial accessibility for the population.

    Fares needs to go, they have long stopped being a point of civic pride.

    And I am surprised of your opposition to free transit as your blog post makes the point that accepting funding from senior levels of government often brings more expenses or worse leaves us worse. Fares are in the same category.

    Steve: My points are simple: (a) It is very unlikely that the revenue from fares will be replaced in kind with subsidy, let alone extra costs more ridership would attract. This would cap or even reduce the amount of transit provided thereby defeating the goal of getting more people onto it. Also, frankly, free transit is likely to be less of an attraction to those who can afford to drive because they are sensitive not to price, but to service. (b) As for the private sector, what they want is a contract which will guarantee them income on a basket of routes, and the municipality still has to subsidize the money losers.

    As for my position on funding from senior governments, that discussion is mainly concerned with capital costs, something the private sector would love to avoid if at all possible in a lease/purchase arrangement, or even simply an operating agreement to run publicly owned assets.

    Free transit is a huge red herring in political discussions. Service is key. Without it, there is no transit system, let alone “greening” of the transportation sector.


  3. Steve over the years has pointed out with his studies of route reliability that service is the key factor in transit growth. As a simple example, look at the King streetcar ridership levels before and after the implementation of the transit mall. Ridership grew beyond expectation due mainly to reliable service.

    As I see it the TTC has two methods at hand to increase ridership. One is to increase the operations budget and put more rubber on the road – more vehicles = better service. However, due to the additional costs involved, this is not going to happen unless some form of government finds an extra pot of gold somewhere.

    The other option is to leverage the TTC’s own systems to provide better route management. I know the have a central control location for the subway system, where they keep an eagle eye on spacing and delays. A similar control setup for the Bus and Streetcar routes is long over due.

    With GPS, this control center know where each vehicle is on the route and with cell phones, the can reach out and control the drivers (Oh Bus Driver, speed up a little bit!) to improve route management.

    Reliable, spaced route service = more ridership. This one shouldn’t cost much to implement, though a new control center might be a “capital” photo op for a political contribution.

    At some point the TTC has to realize they are a service business. After all, the better service you provide, the more people “want” your service.

    Steve: A central control room for surface routes with all of the GPS feeds already exists. The problem lies in the philosophy and corporate culture about what constitutes good service and good management.


  4. Any possibility of a new source of funds for transit (only) if municipalities were allowed to have their own sales tax?

    Raise HST to 15% and give the 2 percent additional to the City/Town where it was collected. This 2% _MUST_ be directed to transit, either public or private.


  5. Unfortunately I don’t think climate change is the best political argument to advance transit. If I was a pro car politician and intent on curbing climate change, I would put all my money into electric cars and the electric grid. It’s probably an easier sell to tell someone they can be good to the environment and still drive their car by accepting a subsidy on an electric car purchase and charger than to tell them they need to start riding the bus which they may not have done since they were a kid.

    The reason why I’m a transit advocate is because it solves a bunch of other problems that cars also create: traffic, injuries and fatalities, noise, seas of asphalt which cause flash flooding, reduced fitness and increased obesity, uglier streets and horrible pedestrian experiences, strained city budgets maintaining sprawling infrastructure. I could go on.

    I’d love for us to make every streetcar route like the King transit priority corridor, and to have dedicated bus lanes on every busy route, but that sounds like political suicide because that’s telling the 68% of people that commute by car that they will have worse traffic unless a substantial number of them switch to transit.

    If we can show people how bad cars are for our society when they are overused as the default mode of transportation, then we might have a chance at getting people to start giving up parts of their roads to buses, streetcars, bikes, and pedestrians. The Netherlands has been remarkably successful at this. I’m a big fan of Not Just Bikes on YouTube and he’s a former London ON and Toronto resident that basically made a channel to tell people how bad cars are and why he moved to the Netherlands.


  6. Just want to put in another quick comment to reply to the pro “free fares” argument. Does any major city in the world have free fares? I don’t think so. There are several cities with transit commute usage above 50% and none of them have free fares. If it was a good system then at least some cities would do it. Even communist countries past and present had fares!

    Let’s focus on transit priority rather than being the first to eliminate fares.

    Steve: There have been attempts, but they don’t work as expected. As I have said before, people who can afford to drive value the comfort, privacy, speed and convenience. Cost has little to do with it and free transit is still transit with all of its problems.


  7. Like most of you, I would be pleased to see GO trains electrified; but it certainly isn’t going to happen in the near future. Meanwhile, both the acceleration and pollution gaps are closing between diesel and electric with the advent of the MP54, Tier4 locomotive.

    With future emissions improvements seemingly a sure thing over the next two decades, will electrification become a dead issue?


  8. The challenge of course is that as infrastructure ages we spend more of our capital dollars and our operating dollars on maintaining and replacing service…and never actually get around to expanding service…

    In some ways it would be interesting to turn the budget process on it’s head…instead of funding safety and state of good repair first…we should fund expansion first (in the form of buses)…and only once we’ve expanded at a rate larger than population expansion for a given area, do we start to fund state of good repair or safety on existing infrastructure…

    This is how roads, and water is built out…imagine they didn’t put a pipe, or road to your new house because the water safety budget grew unexpectedly due to an unexpected e-coli scare, or because a bridge didn’t pass it’s safety inspection….meanwhile lead pipes are left in the ground, because it’s not worth the cost (although it’s a safety issue) and secondary roads don’t get sidewalks despite the lack of safety there…everyone just goes on like it’s no problem.


  9. I don’t understand CN and CP opposition to electrification of thier railroads. Are they not aware they are included in the world wide goal of net zero by 2050? Do they not realize they have the potential to get back a lot of the long haul freight and short haul passenger business they lost since the 1950s?

    Steve: I suspect that if they wanted to do it for their own purposes, it would happen. However they have large networks spanning the continent, and electrification is not just a matter of stringing wires over their tracks.


  10. As I suspected no one here seems to know we are about to sleepwalk into a crisis. Due to intl agreements over the next few years there will be caps on how govts can support operations and that’s linked to fares, more fares = less support. Free transit is no longer about inducing demand as I agree cost is marginal for many. Any type of private agreement requires it be linked to fare revenue as a sort of performance metric.

    In this brave new world cities will have to fund transit themselves even more.

    That’s another reason senior govts will focus even more on capital funding (not that they needed the excuse) instead of operational funding even though that’s where the need is. In a world where most office workers are no longer coming back 5 days a week, some not at all, there’s a financial crisis coming very soon. Perhaps Toronto has enough demand but many cities in Ontario don’t.

    Steve: A big reason that there is a focus on capital is that it is a time-limited expenditure, there are jobs-jobs-jobs associated with construction, and lots of photo ops. Money to maintain the system and provide better day-to-day service is an ongoing call on budgets, and gets very expensive as a province-wide or country-wide pledge.


  11. Thanks for this Steve, and comments. Yes, transport does lead the emissions that we count, and if we added in long-haul international air travel and shipping, and military GHGs, and were also more honest about forest fire emissions, and had continued to fund the ECO, it’d likely still be the same set of Problems, sorry kids.

    But it is likely worse, as we should be counting up the totality of emissions by mode, and thus should be including the GHGs of making vehicles, the infrastruture, the AC, the GHGs of servicings (streetlights), and there’s an older column by Cameron McLeod, I think it was, suggesting that cars/mobility was closer to 50%, which also got the waste heat from the mobile furnaces boosting city AC loads. And there’s ‘caronic’ denial about all of this, sigh, and so bad it all is, that many of us have lost a sense of rigour about blowing billions on a wide multitude of projects, ‘because it’s transit’.

    But we really should be alarmed about the less-wise set of transit proposals that are being given oomph by our benevolent wise Dougtator, and the federal Liberals aren’t helping at all by avoiding real scrutiny of the projects and their rationales, which is far more about election prospects and serving some landlowners and construction interests ahead of any public interest, which would hopefully be more rational, and should be more open, including to new ideas vs. that non-compete order/Forder for options, even though some of those options could squeeze the billions.

    Indeed, for the last few decades (including Liberals with assists from NDP), one has to wonder if it’d be any worse if the oil, gas, car, development and construction interests were in charge. Over-extending brittle spines is Dumb, for instance, as is burying Eglinton LRT W etc. etc. and we need network resiliency with a triage project and a set of reforms to a very polluted planning process, somehow.

    As for costs, there’s a 25-year old stat from Vancouver that found every car had $2700 of avoided costs each year, about 7x more than transit. That’s a very large sum, and if it had inflated like TO housing, would it be $10000 to $20,000 a year? (This likely included some assessment of GHG/climate costs, but we can’t drive to the mall to get a new atmosphere).

    So in some ways, free transit is transport equity, but absolutely Steve is correct in saying there’s not the capacities. Maybe a half-price fare would be the compromise? And – since we like $lo$h, what about making a point of giving every GTA resident a bike, preferrably made in Canada, somehow, even an e-bike? It’s got to be a better deal for taxpayers and most of us than these clunker mega-projects that keep on ‘giving’ in form of operating subsidies, and a set of opportunity costs. (Yes, we need better cyclists and training – some of us are real passholes etc.)

    And not too surprisingly, we aren’t hearing from most media about the latest alarm about the climate emergency from our media yet, as heck, would that mean following the science and the doctors??


  12. This article is super important. As long as GO is reliant on diesel they are on the wrong side. Metrolinx’s predictions on GO Expansion indicate a 4% increase in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions they produce by 2055. Sure they love to talk about “per rider” except of course when trains are running less capacity (now) and GHG emissions per rider are 16x what they normally are.

    Induced demand means that the number of trips isn’t a zero sum game. Introducing transit to “get cars off the road” just increases the number of trips made. The highway stays full because it’s there, convenient and doesn’t require a fare. What is required is reduction in highway capacity while expanding transit – that really ensures that trips move to transit.

    Further, getting cars off the road means nothing when the cars or private vehicles are electric.

    If there is to be a real strategy to address climate change through transit it must include changes land use zoning. Low density means long trips which eliminates cheap green alternatives. The Province’s growth plan needs to stop with the folly of building subdivisions on farmland.


  13. Yes, this is a HUGE issue, and am glad that Chris above has raised the land use/abuse side of the coin. We do need intensification, everywhere, maybe starting with the parking lots and maybe especially the parking lots at schools, and other publicly-owned lots.

    And it’s ‘funny’ how blind we are to how much suburban development costs us all. Dr. Pamela Blais’ Perverse Cities is a good locally-based dive in to the ce$$, and as the suburban car-centric regions dominate the core (either at city or provincial level), yup, it’s very uphill to have the free-ridings stopped ie. tolls or Vehicle Registration Tax.vs. fare hikes, because transit is so ‘subsidized’. Newman and Kenworthy found that the road/car costs were the hardest to dig out because they’re spread through multiple budgets, eg hard surface drainages, which also includes concrete usage, not counted in civic GHG profiles either. Uh, ‘caronic’ denial???


  14. Building more track and station capacity to operate more frequent service carrying more passengers using high-performance diesel-electric motive power or electrification, which adds very little capacity and costs a bundle? Tough call. Not!


  15. Great analysis!

    I’m often slow to read your posts, because that are dense {in a good way!}, but I do appreciate the way you understand how these systems work and how much better they might work.

    Please keep up the good work, and here’s hoping that you actually get to influence things.

    Cheers, Ted

    Steve: Thanks!


  16. [Chris said:] “Induced demand means that the number of trips isn’t a zero sum game. Introducing transit to “get cars off the road” just increases the number of trips made. The highway stays full because it’s there, convenient and doesn’t require a fare. What is required is reduction in highway capacity while expanding transit – that really ensures that trips move to transit.”

    I really have to take issue with this. People do not drive just to take up space on the highway. People drive to get where they want to go.

    Ask anyone who works near Union Station and the vast majority of people who live in the burbs and ‘could’ drive, choose to take transit. They take transit because it is simply a better option to take. In my case, the fastest, most convenient, and cheapest way for me to get downtown is to take transit. I don’t drive downtown even if the highways are clear as long as there is transit.

    There’s a whole bunch of things we need to do.

    • coordinating with business so they are located at big transit nodes
    • building out connecting regional lines (We definitely need more non-union oriented regional rail/transport
    • buildling appropriate networks/transfer points
    • working on fare integration/subsidies
    • working on the last-mile issue

    By all means, take a way a lane of car traffic if it’s to be used as a bus-lane or something. But do that for the sake of expanding transit. But I don’t see how the situation gets any better by just reducing highway capacity. If transit is good enough, the vast majority of people will take it. If it’s not good enough, all you’re doing by removing highway capacity is hurting people and taking up their time.

    If this ‘induced’ highway demand is really a thing, let’s discuss that after we have built great transit throughout the region. When we have done all the thing we need to do to make transit great and this ‘induced’ highway demand still has people taking their car instead of using this great transit… then let’s have this discussion. I personally don’t think that will be the outcome. But let’s first build the great transit.


  17. [hamish says] “And it’s ‘funny’ how blind we are to how much suburban development costs us all. ” This is absolutely true. That said, the vast majority of suburbs have begun changing.

    In a strange way, I think you’ll find some of suburbs will have a way easier time changing than people think. For one thing, they tend to have plenty of room to change things. I know where I am, there is huge intensification going on at major nodes. Roads are being changed to have bus lanes, segregated bike lanes… There’s a certain reality that poor past planning decisions are going to stay with us for a while. Yet, there is plenty that can and is being done to improve the situation dramatically. As mentioned the fact that these are suburbs actually makes change easier. The Mississauga BRT for example was relatively easy to build because they had a lot of room to build it. Now businesses can be located around there with ease. It cost under 250 million and covers 18 km. Yes, the end result will probably be intensification at major nodes, while regular suburban homes fill in the rest, but it’s a definite improvement. We have the city we have and sometimes it’s going to take ‘non-optimal’ investment to get us through things, instead of imagining transformational change. It might be operating BRT routes to build the culture of transit even when the demand is not quite there yet. It might mean putting GO Stations where the demand is not quite there, but it would serve to build a community around transit…

    Probably the biggest issue in suburban transit is consistency. I’m a big GO user, and scheduling my life around GO is not that bad… but it has to be consistent. I’d rather have hourly service but scheduled on the hour all day than more frequent, but spotty service. More local service is just not there even on BRT routes where people have it in their heads that they can plan their life around it.

    Most of all, I’m just more optimistic than pessimistic about the changes I’m seeing in suburbia. With full acknowledgement that things are not ideal and past planning is a huge issue, changes are in the works right now and planned changes in the next 5 years look very promising.


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