OPINION | The Case for Investing in Public Transportation as a Climate Solution

In 2015, 196 countries including Canada signed the non-binding Paris Agreement. Under this agreement, each country pledged to do what they could to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to a level that would prohibit global temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius. Despite the efforts undertaken by all 196 countries, a report released by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this past summer in essence sounded “a code red for humanity.” When predictions as dire as this get proclaimed, the first question usually asked is: what can be done now?

Currently, Canada has pledged to be “net zero” by 2050. As a result, one path of action that can significantly decrease GHG emissions – that requires more attention and investment – is the reduction of the number of cars on the road by investing in sustainable public transportation to reconfigure urban and rural mobility across Canada.  With that said, it is crucial to remember that there is no one size fits all solution to addressing climate change, and this article presents just one idea. 

Each year public transportation has the ability to “reduce harmful CO2 emissions by 37 million metric tons.” However, Canada continues to fall short of serious investments in public transit, which would not only decrease road congestion and car accidents, but also produce important environmental benefits – even if these modes of transportation do not transition to cleaner energy sources immediately. Yet, the successes that have been made in Canada are often offset by the continuous extraction of oil and gas, and the steady rise of larger vehicles such as SUV’s which produce a large amount of GHG emissions and now consist of 39 percent of car sales globally

Consequently, there is currently a large priority being put on making electric cars more affordable for the general population. But what this concept overlooks is how this continues Canada’s dependence on cars, a stark contrast to the better conceptualization of public transportation in Europe, for example.

How does Canada compare globally?

In comparison to Americans, Canadian, European, and Asian transit systems are said to function better because the conceptualization of public transportation in these three regions is seen as a “vital public utility.” In contrast, Americans, and here I will include North Americans writ large, tend to view public transportation as a service that serves the lower class, ignoring the accessibility this service can provide for mobility and its resulting environmental benefits.

While Canada may compare better to our Southern counterparts, the infrastructure for our transit systems is not up to par, with the brief exception in major Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto. For instance, in a global comparison of the sustainability of their urban transit systems, Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto were ranked at numbers 28, 36, and 54, respectively. According to the President of Arcadis Canada, Thomas Franz, the causal factor for such low rankings stems from a strong reliance on cars in Canadian cities

For example, Ontario’s creation of the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes were designed for the purpose of encouraging people to carpool, specifically for those who had to commute daily to Toronto within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). Yet, the Ontario government is currently issuing, and has announced that effective January 1, 2022 they are expanding the program which issues High Occupancy Toll (HOT) permits to allow people to drive in the HOV lanes at any time of day, despite the fact that they are in a single-person car. This permit therefore perpetuates dependence on cars, juxtaposing the original intent of the HOV initiative. 

In 2019, Canada produced 730 megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. In contrast, Germany produced 739 million megatonnes in 2020 and approximately 830 million megatonnes in 2019 despite having a population almost triple the size of Canada’s. This large decline was a result of the coronavirus pandemic which saw a sharp drop in emissions in the energy and transport sector due to fewer people commuting to work. However, though there were less cars on the roads, public transit remained active. These statistics show the impact that reducing driving can have: both through the decline of emissions when cars were mostly removed, and through Germany’s investment in public transit which had their emissions close to Canada’s in 2019 despite a much smaller population here in the North. 

Further demonstrating Germany’s commitment to addressing climate change, if a climate target is missed, Germany’s climate law dictates that “the difference will be spread out evenly over the remaining annual emissions budgets of the sector until 2030 and beyond.”   Canada has not gone this far in legal action yet, most likely because we’re not on track to meet our climate targets.

For example, Canada’s 2019 emissions were projected to be 764 million megatonnes, with the achieved 730 million megatonnes a result of implementing the Pan-Canadian Framework. While a step in the right direction, Canada has a target to reduce emissions to around 502 million megatonnes by 2030, a 40-45 percent decline from 2005 levels. Yet, Canada’s emissions in 2005 were 739 million megatonnes, which means that emissions have declined by 9 million megatonnes in 16 years – making it increasingly unlikely that this goal will be met. 

The Need for Transit-Oriented Development

Cities need to be reconfigured and built around transit oriented development (TOD), which is the idea of planning cities around transit hubs, such as train and bus stations. In pushing for TOD, this increased public transit must be implemented in conjunction with cleaner energy sources. While the transition to “green” public transport systems has yet to come to full fruition, the percentage of greenhouse gas emitted from trains and buses is remarkably lower than individual car commutes. For instance, a BBC article reported that “travelling on light rail or the London Underground emits around a sixth of the equivalent car journey.” The decline of GHG if everyone were to immediately switch to public transportation (which is near impossible as this would require an enormous societal shift overnight) would be extraordinary. 

An example can be found in Toronto where the city has created a plan that seeks to establish a low-carbon Toronto by 2050.  In the Transform TO Goal,  public transportation and personal vehicles will all use “low or zero-carbon energy sources.” Currently in Toronto, the emissions produced by streetcars and subways are low due to their connection to the electric grid; however, passenger vehicles continue to make  “80 per cent of all GHG emissions from transportation.” 

Though an impressive task, in comparison to the 2015 Paris Agreement, Toronto falls short by not committing to carbon neutrality by 2050, which would follow the example of  Oslo, Melbourne, Paris. But one might ask, who bears the responsibility of this: municipalities or the federal government?

To analyze federally, the Conservative Party of Canada platform argues that “for many people the idea of giving up a car and taking transit is simply impossible.” While an immediate transition may be difficult, there does not seem to be any quantifiable reason for why taking public transit is not viable, the technology and means are available. Regardless of their reasoning, the Conservative platform supports electric cars as the solution. To achieve this, they set out a number of goals such as investments in battery production, clean energy infrastructure, and collaboration with the United States. 

Without a doubt electric cars are much more sustainable than current cars and their dependence on fossil fuels, but solely focusing on electric cars is a lazy response to a bigger societal and environmental issue.  

Alternatively, the New Democratic Party of Canada has recognized the steps taken by Municipalities such as Toronto. They also recognize that such actions cannot be taken alone, with their platform outlining a goal to “modernize and expand public transit within and between communities across Canada.” Alongside this expansion they would also invest further in ensuring all transit is connected to an electrical grid by 2030.

Similar to the latter proposition is US President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill which allocates funding “for climate-related projects, such as upgrading the electrical grid and improving public transportation.” With billions of dollars allocated to public transportation as a climate solution, hopefully more nations, specifically Canada, follow suit and use this as an opportunity to address issues with mobility and climate change. 

Enacting Social Change

A smart climate solution is to invest in public transportation that uses clean energy and is affordable. The difficulty for this solution emerges from the potential inability of people willing to shift their behavioral patterns. Yet, the heat wave that swept over Western Canada or the ice storm that literally froze Texas are consequences from the anthropogenic factors of climate change: i.e., our current lifestyle. 

In seeking to address climate change, some politicians strive to find solutions that will have little to no impact on Canadians. But with an issue this large that spans the globe, we must ask ourselves, what makes humans so special that we should be free from changing our lifestyle despite destroying whole environmental ecosystems. More importantly, what will it take for this shift in mindset to occur?

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine
Sophia Stavropoulos
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Sophia Stavropoulos graduated from the University of Ottawa with a Bachelor of Social Sciences, Joint Honours in Political Science and History. She is currently attending the University of Toronto for a Master of Public Policy with a Collaborative Specialization in Environmental Studies. Her research interests include politics, environmental policy, Indigenous issues, and American cultural & political history.

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