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Public transport essential to building green and inclusive economy

transit.green_.doug_.jpgEditor's note: In advance of the National Forum on Clean Energy and Industry taking place on October 3rd in Ottawa, the Broadbent Institute will be featuring a series of blog posts focused on policy options for transitioning to a green economy. 

If Canada is to move more rapidly towards a green economy, a massive change is needed in the transport sector.

This applies both to the types of transit we use and to the energy sources we use to power us. Managing this transition effectively requires that planners also address equity concerns, to ensure that new transport technologies and modes are affordable for all segments of society.

To transition to a more sustainable economy, a shift away from fossil-based transport fuels to renewables and electricity, and from private vehicles to public transit as the main carrier for urban transport, is essential. That’s because carbon emissions from transport currently represent nearly a quarter of total global emissions. In Canada, the figure is 27%, and has been growing steadily in the past two decades — representing a 36% increase from 1990 to 2011.

While Canada’s high transport emissions are partly a function of its sparse population and the large distances between major population centres, it is our dependence on fossil fuels for motorized transport that tips the balance. As the Canadian Labour Congress has pointed out, over half of our transport emissions burden is derived from simply moving people, not just goods, around the country.

That’s what makes major investments in things like public transit and intercity rail capacity so important — they have the potential to substantially reduce emissions. And mass use of private cars is at the root of a spectrum of other ecological problems that mass transit helps reduce.

The debate around public transit options is a pressing issue in many Canadian cities. In Toronto, Metrolinx’s “Big Move” plan has been the subject of vigorous debate. Responding to rapid growth in use of private vehicles for urban transport and major gridlock and congestion, Metrolinx tried to shift the revenue burden from public to private transport users, arguing that transportation methods generating the highest negative environmental externalities like driving should help subsidise those generating the least: public transport.

Unfortunately, Metrolinx eventually conceded that most of the recommended revenue tools intended to fund public transit expansion (like road tolls  or congestion charges) were not politically viable: politicians were reluctant to introduce disincentives to private transport because they feared a voter backlash.

There is now a clear need for national leadership on these public transportation challenges. Canadians need politicians willing to develop policies that incentivise green transport options but at the same time provide strong disincentives for the use of fossil fuels in transport.

Examples of policies that favour fossil-fuel dependent transport modes include:  

  • The lack of tolls on major roads and bridges, a peculiarly Canadian omission compared to Europe and even the U.S.
  • The use of federal and provincial subsidies to expand high-density road networks in major urban centres, favouring road expansion over public transit options and obscuring the real life-cycle costs of road transport.
  • Insufficient or non-existent road taxes for emissions-intensive transport, e.g. for commercial trucks using city centres, despite strong evidence that the costs in terms of road maintenance and environmental impacts are excessive.
  • Lack of any controls over inner-city access during high-traffic periods.
  • Relatively low taxes on fossil fuels, which make Canada (along with the US and Mexico) one of the cheapest places to operate a motor vehicle in the developed world.

Globally, numerous major urban centres — London, Stockholm, Singapore — have introduced “congestion charges” which have successfully reduced inner-city congestion, in the case of Stockholm by as much as 20%. The Stockholm initiative has also reduced vehicle carbon emissions between 10-14 percent in the inner city and 2-3 percent in the country.

In Canada, the technology required to implement congestion charges — by tracking vehicle entry and exit from urban cores — already exists, and is in fact used on Ontario’s Highway 407.

Reducing urban traffic congestion, which can also reduce road maintenance costs (costs borne primarily by the provinces and municipalities) is an important first step, but it must be matched by improvements in alternative transport modes, such as public transit, pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.

One example of such a balanced approach: a national rail transport policy that would include both incentives for the introduction of high-speed passenger service on the Windsor-Toronto-Quebec corridor, and user-pay tolls along the same corridor in order to shift consumer choice towards rail transport. 

It has been estimated that high-speed rail on this corridor would cost around $20 billion to build, but this could be at least partly recovered from road tolls over a 20-25 year period, and from savings in road construction and maintenance costs due to lower vehicle flows. The reductions in GHG emissions resulting from such a project would have the additional benefit of saving Canadians millions in related respiratory health costs, and billions in traffic collision costs and household vehicle operating costs. 

Importantly, new transport modes must also be affordable and accessible to lower income people. This means governments must adopt “equity measures” to ensure that low-income populations benefit from large projects such as high-speed rail, ensuring there are new jobs and other economic development measures that result from public transit expansion. 

With equity in mind, we can invest in sustainable transport systems that drive a green and inclusive economy.

Geoff Stiles is founder of Carbon Impact Consulting.

Photo: caribb. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-2.0 license.