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.
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.