What should public transit look like post-pandemic? Clean, comfy and electric

Photo by: Joey Coleman

Electrifying bus fleets is essential if Canada is to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century. A new report asked transit agencies what it will take to make it happen?

The COVID-19 era is requiring Canadians to face many new challenges. How we get from point A to point B is high on that list.

Pre-COVID, catching the bus was the go-to way of getting around for millions, but as many riders forgo the local bus stop in favour of more isolated options, or skip the daily commute altogether, transit is taking a hit. Public transit authorities in Canada have seen severe declines in ridership — more than 80 per cent in some areas.

Before the pandemic, transit — and transit buses especially — were in the midst of a transformation. Cities and countries around the world were putting pedal to the metal to electrify their fleets. In 2019, there were over 500,000 electric buses (registration required) on roads around the world, from Chile to China. Electric buses are expected to account for two-thirds of all buses and nearly 80 per cent of new bus sales by 2040, according to projections by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Challenges for transit agencies

In Canada, however, we have comparatively few electric buses on the road, despite being home to four world-leading manufacturers. The wheels are in motion: cities including Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal have plans to electrify their fleets and stop purchasing diesel buses altogether by 2025 or earlier. But the road to electrification still poses multiple challenges for Canada’s transit agencies. 

To help find ways to overcome them, Clean Energy Canada went right to the source — we asked transit agencies across the country what barriers they see ahead and what solutions are needed. The results are presented in our new report: Catching the Bus: How smart policy can accelerate electric buses across Canada.

While feedback was varied and often quite specific, a few key themes stood out: namely, that electric buses have a wide range of considerable benefits, and that integrating them into our cities isn’t quite as simple as swapping one bus out for another.

So what do the transit authorities need to get more on the road? 

Among the challenges flagged were cost, infrastructure needs, and workforce skills and expertise. Electric buses still cost twice the price of a diesel bus, at least upfront, and they require new facilities and charging stations where they can live and plug in. Charging infrastructure, “electric-ready” bus depots, new data and IT systems, and backup power and energy management systems are also part of the package transit agencies require to ensure successful adoption. 

And because bus electrification requires new approaches to route-planning and maintenance, transit agencies will also need to re-train and hire new staff.

Payoff worth the investment

But while the upfront costs of electrification are not insignificant, the payoff is worth the investment.

Electric buses cost less to power and have fewer parts to maintain, saving tens of thousands of dollars in operating costs per year over the course of their lifetimes. As battery costs continue to fall and electric buses are produced on a larger scale, their price tags will become increasingly competitive. Indeed, electric buses are expected to have the same sticker price as diesel buses by 2030.

And let’s not forget the very real cost of climate change. Last year, electric buses displaced an estimated 270,000 barrels of diesel per day globally. The transportation sector accounts for a quarter of Canada’s carbon pollution. B.C.’s TransLink estimates that each electric bus swapped in for a diesel version saves 100 tonnes of carbon pollution per year. Electrifying our bus fleets is a must if Canada wants to reach its goal of net-zero emissions by mid-century. 

Electric buses also mean safer and healthier communities. Recent research by the University of Toronto found that traffic-related air pollution from trucks, cars, SUVs and buses is responsible for 872 deaths in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area every year, and that a shift to electric versions would prevent hundreds of premature deaths annually. 

What’s more, electric buses are quieter, more modern, and more comfortable to ride than the diesel versions. Surveys show that seven out of 10 commuters prefer electric buses to conventional buses, and two thirds would even be willing to pay more at the farebox to ride them.

Big role for Canadian industry

Investments in electric buses are also an investment in Canada’s manufacturing industry. Three of the five major electric transit bus manufacturers in North America — GreenPowerNew Flyer and Nova Bus — are headquartered in Canada (a fourth, Quebec-based Lion Electric, makes electric school buses). And that doesn’t even include the plethora of clean technology companies offering energy storage and hydrogen fuel cell solutions that are also part of the burgeoning electric bus ecosystem. Growing demand for electric buses at home supports local jobs and helps Canadian companies maintain their competitive edge.

While the pandemic has presented immediate challenges for many — including transit agencies — decisions made today have implications for the long term. Buses have lifespans of 10 to 20 years, meaning the investments we make in the wake of the coronavirus will have repercussions for decades. Investing in high-quality public transportation reflects exactly the sort of recovery we need: one that rebuilds our economy, supports Canadian companies, and aligns with our climate efforts.

Canada has made a commitment to put 5,000 electric buses on the road over the next five years. But governments have yet to announce many of the policies, programs and investments that would get us there. Cleaner, smarter urban transit systems will drive the economy of tomorrow. As we embark on our economic recovery, Canada should not miss an opportunity to take the wheel.

This op-ed originally appeared in Electric Autonomy Canada.

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