The pathway to doubling public transit use by 2035

Cloe Logan
Inside public transit - Photo by Lisanto 李奕良 via Unsplash

Feb. 27, 2024

Taking the bus in Halifax for Douglas Wetmore often means long wait times, crowded routes and unreliable service.

As part of the transit advocacy group It's More than Buses, Wetmore is pushing for change. A proposed rapid transit bus system, which has been stalled due to a lack of financial support from the province, would help resolve those issues, he explains. Halifax, the second-fastest growing city in the country, relies on municipal buses and ferries for public transport: there are no SkyTrains and no streetcars. At the same time, transit isn’t keeping up with demand: buses are overcrowded and often lag behind schedule.

While Wetmore’s experience is common across Canada, a new report suggests there are measures that could make transit more accessible and reliable and, in turn, significantly reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Released Tuesday by Environmental Defence and Équiterre, the study laid out how Canada can double public transit ridership by 2035, reducing GHGs by 65 million tons between 2024 and 2035: the equivalent of the annual emissions from 20 million cars.

That GHG reduction would be significant, explains Nate Wallace, co-author of the report and clean transportation program manager with Environmental Defence. While the federal government has laid out clear targets for EV adoption — all vehicle sales must be zero-emission by 2035 — there aren’t targets to increase public transit ridership.

Wallace says the EV targets are “a game-changer in terms of emissions reductions over the long term,” but that “all of those happen post-2035 and nearly none of it happens by 2030.” Twinning EV targets with clear goals around public transportation presents “a huge opportunity here to address these emissions problems in the near term and not wait for electric cars,” he said.

The report comes as the federal government continues to work on its Permanent Public Transit Fund, which will divvy out $3 billion each year starting in 2026. Wallace said that funding should start this year, and should be for double the amount proposed. The current funding covers capital costs (which are one-time purchases for an electric bus, for example) but Wallace said the same amount should be allotted for operational funding.

The need for operational funding from provinces and the federal government was one of four key actions outlined in the report that, if taken, would allow Canada to hit unprecedented transit use. The others are: encouraging housing density near public transit, requirements for zero-emission buses, and incentives to build dedicated bus lanes. The policy suggestions were supported by modelling by Dunsky Energy + Climate Advisors.

Canada’s National Observer reached out to Infrastructure Canada for comment on federal support for public transit and, specifically, the Permanent Public Transit Fund, but did not receive a comment in time for deadline.


Released by @envirodefence and @equiterre, a new study lays out how Canada can double public transit ridership by 2035, reducing GHGs by 65 million tons between between 2024 + 2035 = the equivalent of the annual emissions from 20 million car. - Twitter


Operational funding

The need for operational funding is exemplified by the approximately 1,700 buses currently not being used in Canada, said Wallace. While the federal government has provided funds to purchase buses and trains, more needs to be done to ensure they can be staffed and maintained.

Transit needs to be frequent, reliable and affordable for ridership to increase, said Wallace, but when only capital funding is provided to municipalities, all three can suffer. Because municipalities, especially smaller ones, don’t have the money to run the services, they often “choose to pass those operating costs on to riders … as higher fares,” he said.

“And that's working against the goals of what we need to be improving ridership.”


Housing density


According to Statistics Canada, most Canadians use personal vehicles to commute to work. Requiring housing density near public transit routes would help shift that trend, explains Wallace.

At the same time, protections need to be in place for renters. The report notes the phenomenon of transit-oriented displacement, which pushes the people who are most likely to use transit away from major routes.

Wallace said the report highlights the need for “specific anti-displacement strategies,” such as rent control, social and non-market housing requirements and protections for people who already live in areas where transit is being expanded.

“If somebody's existing affordable unit has been redeveloped, they should have their moving expenses covered. They should have a right to return at the same rent where they lived before,” he said.

“Those sorts of things. Because low-income, equity-seeking groups are most likely to take transit and they should be able to afford to live near it.”


Zero-emission buses and bus lanes


The federal government has funded electric buses across the country in recent years. Last year, almost $400 million was put forward in British Columbia for electric buses and chargers and Quebec announced the addition of more than 1,000 electric buses to its fleet at a cost of over $1.8 billion, representing North America’s largest electric bus endeavour. In November, it was announced that Cape Breton in Nova Scotia is set to receive its first electric buses following an investment of over $50 million from the federal, provincial and regional governments.

However, what’s lacking are clear procurement targets, such as what Quebec has in place by requiring a phased approach to fully zero-emission buses starting in 2026.

As more buses get off fossil fuels, federal and provincial governments should also be supporting the creation of bus lanes in cities, which Wallace describes as a “low-hanging fruit.” Bus lanes help with reliability and if transit is going to expand as the report suggests, having dedicated lanes for buses is needed to make service timely, which in turn, will encourage ridership.

Unless the actions in the report are taken, Anne-Catherine Pilon, mobility analyst with Équiterre, said the cycle of sub-par transit causing reduced ridership, which in turn, leads to service cuts and fare increases, will continue.

“We cannot allow a ‘downward spiral’ to erode public transit in Canada just when we need it the most as a clean and affordable climate solution,” said Pilon.

“This report demonstrates that we have an alternative: we can choose to invest in public transit, grow ridership and adapt to new mobility patterns by providing more reliable, convenient and frequent service that works more equitably for everyone.”


Updates and corrections

 | Corrections policy
February 27, 2024, 11:32 am

This article has been updated to correct GHG reduction figures and to note that Halifax has ferries as part of its public transportation network.

[Top photo: Photo by Lisanto 李奕良 via Unsplash]