A real national public transit strategy is key to tackling the climate crisis

Investments have to be decoupled from the profit motive and tied to specific goals to transform our transportation systems
Photo: Amit Patel
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At a hastily convened press conference held outside Montreal’s Beaubien Métro station about a week before the federal election, Liberal candidates Mélanie Joly, Steven Guilbeault, Rachel Bendayan and Geneviève Hinse announced the funding of the Pink Line, a proposed major expansion of Montreal’s primary mass-transit system.

That same week, commuters in Ottawa discovered the new trains of the $2-billion Confederation Line have started breaking down after only a month’s service. Public transit congestion was further aggravated because Ottawa had withdrawn bus service into the city centre, in part to ensure the use of the light-rail system intended to reverse nearly a decade of declining ridership. The Confederation Line, product of a public-private partnership, was delivered two years late and exacerbated the very downtown congestion it was meant to alleviate.

More than cancelling pipeline projects or converting to renewable energy sources, developing mass transit is the most direct route to victory in the war on climate change

Projects like Ottawa’s Confederation Line and Montreal’s Pink Line are indicative of many of the problems facing public transit these days.

Troubles stemming in part from underlying motivations far more political than ecological have hamstrung public transit development in Canada for decades. That use is declining in major Canadian cities at precisely the moment it ought to be growing — and that this in turn is partly related to the method by which new transit projects are built — demands greater public scrutiny.

It’s a point worth repeating: public transit is without question the single most effective way of immediately cutting into greenhouse gas emissions. More than cancelling pipeline projects or converting to renewable energy sources, developing mass transit is the most direct route to victory in the war on climate change, particularly in car-centric Canadian cities. Roughly half the nation’s total population lives in its ten largest cities.

Despite this, some Canadian municipalities have remarkably little say in terms of public transit. Though cities like Toronto and Montreal originally built their respective subway systems by themselves (i.e., without provincial funding), demographic shifts from city centre to suburb ultimately resulted in greater provincial control over funding and planning public transit. Montreal — with an enviably well-developed public transit system — is in fact prohibited from undertaking any major expansion or new transit construction project by itself.

Compounding this problem is the proclivity of federal and provincial governments towards all manner of innovation. While spending public funds on mass transit is self-justifying in the eyes of most urban planners and environmentalists, the politicians who hold the purse-strings demand high-tech solutions to low-tech problems.

Arguably the simplest, most effective and efficient method of rapid public transit development — and the method that could be adapted to the greatest number of Canadian cities — involves little more than a fleet of fuel-efficient buses and enough road paint to delineate an exclusive right of way. Up until the development of the Confederation and Trillium lines, the backbone of Ottawa’s transit network was bus rapid-transit.

That said, no one is getting elected on a platform of more buses and fewer highway lanes. Canada’s appetite for transit mega-projects seems limited to the new, not the tried, tested and true.

While the Liberals are promising $30 billion in dedicated public transit funding to Canadian cities over the next decade, exactly how this might work in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver is anyone’s guess. Remember, Montreal can’t build without Quebec’s express permission. Perhaps the Liberals are unaware of this peculiar caveat, or maybe they just don’t think working out these kinds of details before making an announcement is necessary.

According to Université de Montréal urban planning professor Gérard Beaudet, Canadian cities’ hands are tied in several ways. Beaudet points to Montreal’s situation to illustrate some of the difficulties.

“The STM (Montreal transit commission) cannot extend the Métro without the authorization of the Quebec government. This is largely due to the fact that the provincial government pays most of the costs of construction, something that Montreal couldn’t do on its own given the cost of these projects.”

With that in mind, how are large metropolitan cities to plan for transit if provinces are ultimately responsible? Beaudet refers to the creation of regional transit planning authorities, which “aimed to give an apolitical dimension to planning for future public transit needs and better respond to present and anticipated needs.” Regional transit planning authorities are common in large North American cities and typically serve to coordinate regional needs, acting as a midpoint between the needs of large municipalities and provincial or state governments.

“Of course, the mandate —similar to that which was offered to Canada’s railways in the 19th century — given to the Caisse de Dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) by the Couillard and Legault administrations with respect to the extension of the REM (Réseau Express Métropolitain) trivializes the role of the ARTM (the regional transit planning body, an agency of the Quebec government).”

Three billion dollars a year for the next decade is a paltry amount given just how much mass- transit infrastructure needs to be developed.

Beaudet points out that both federal and provincial politicians and candidates have given tacit support to this arrangement during recent electoral cycles in Canada and Quebec. Indeed, regardless of party affiliation, most politicians — even local politicians in Montreal — seem loathe to criticize the CDPQ’s particular arrangement with regards to the REM for fear of appearing anti-transit.

“The governance of public transit in the Greater Montreal area remains a political affair ... by definition partisan and short-sighted,” concludes Beaudet. “As for the real needs of citizens....”

It would seem these needs take a back seat to political considerations; it’s worthwhile to appear pro-transit, but rather than focusing on the specific needs of the transit-using public, politicians instead seem to favour the proposals of other politicians or for-profit organizations with their own agendas.

Three billion dollars a year for the next decade is a paltry amount given just how much mass- transit infrastructure needs to be developed. In order to drastically and immediately reduce its transportation-related carbon footprint, Canada would need to establish a high-speed rail network between all of its large population centres (to reduce the impact of air travel) and either build or expand mass-transit services in each of its 50 largest cities. And this is just for starters. Going this far would also require the construction of a massive fully renewable electrical power grid and thousands upon thousands of new trains, trams and buses.

This much work, ideally completed on the most expedited timescale imaginable, would conceivably require the temporary nationalization of Canada’s major engineering firms and heavy manufacturing base (i.e., Bombardier and SNC-Lavalin), followed in turn by them exceeding production records set during the Second World War.

It’s more than theoretically possible, but would require leadership coming out of Ottawa we frankly haven’t witnessed since the Pearson administration.

But all of this would be for naught without a precise idea of what this is supposed to produce.

Aside from vague statements about meeting Paris Climate Accord targets, there’s scant evidence to suggest Canada is anywhere close to meeting them, nor much public discussion of why this is important and how it could be achieved. Massive investments in public transit would definitely be a step in the right direction, but it would be far more helpful if these investments were tied to specific goals: Do we halve the number of cars on our roads? The number of planes in our skies? Both? And if yes to all the above, by when?

Simpler still than buying more buses and creating more reserved lanes, abolishing fares outright would be the fastest way to get millions of Canadians to leave their cars at home. If only we could stop ourselves from thinking of transit as an investment, as something where risk was a factor, as something that could be optimized to be profitable if only free market solutions were given a chance to succeed. Public transit is not, and has never been, about profit. Profit is the problem.

Consider for example the REM, the mass transit system Montreal never asked for. Currently being constructed by the infrastructure development arm of Quebec’s institutional investor (the CDPQ), the REM was trumpeted by former premier Philippe Couillard and former mayor Denis Coderre as the largest transit investment in Quebec’s history, a public-public partnership to serve as a model for future infrastructure mega projects.

The fully automated light-rail system will eventually serve far-flung southern, western and northwestern suburbs of Montreal, connecting them to the city centre and its international airport. The REM was proposed as a low-risk public-public partnership and one-size-fits-all solution to several long-promised though never delivered transit development projects.

In a manner somewhat similar to the Confederation Line, the REM is replacing rather than adding to Montreal’s transit mix. In fact, lower-capacity trains are replacing larger-capacity ones, and in so doing are forcing the complete shutdown of the city’s most used commuter rail line for several years. The REM also has a built-in non-compete agreement in place wherein other transit systems will be modified such that they’ll supply it with passengers, rather than aiming for operational redundancy. This is precisely how a delay on Ottawa’s Confederation Line quickly degenerated into total gridlock. Operational redundancy is necessary in public transit, though it’s anathema to a profit-driven business.

The agreement that allowed the REM to move ahead hinged on equal buy-ins from both the federal and provincial governments, and it was one of the first projects to receive a loan from the Infrastructure Bank established early in Justin Trudeau’s first mandate. The CDPQ insisted that two levels of government split about half the $6.3-billion cost to minimize risk, though they were never asked to explain what was risky about adding a 26-station light-rail system in a city with chronically congested streets.

Make no mistake: the climate crisis provides a moral and ethical justification to any transit project, and the ever-increasing cost of automobiles and the gas that powers them will only provide further justification. Electric vehicles are simply too expensive — and will likely remain so — for the foreseeable future.

That said, it's worth noting that the cost of the REM increased by $800 million over the course of 11 months without any actual construction taking place; the risk, it seems, was only ever to the CDPQ.

The feds have to plan and coordinate with provinces and cities, and potentially even nationalize key industries to provide inexpensive mass-produced trains and other rail vehicles.

What was missing from day one was the participation of the city of Montreal, its transit agency or the regional transit planning authority set up decades ago by the Quebec government. In fact, the REM was a solution in search of a problem, proposed by the CDPQ to help it move into what it viewed as a lucrative new market: transit-oriented residential developments (the CDPQ is a major investor in residential real-estate projects, and has an impressive portfolio of high-rises, office towers and shopping malls throughout Canada). Premier Couillard was all too happy to oblige. It should be noted that the REM failed its environmental assessment as it did winning over Montrealers’ hearts and minds in two rounds of public consultations.

All of these projects (and several others elsewhere in Canada) essentially suffer from the same problem: the public is all too often told their concerns are wrong, environmental assessments are claimed to have exceeded their mandates, transit users are generally ignored and regional transit authorities are cut out of the planning stage.

Montreal wasn’t given $6.3 billion to spend on building mass transit. It was always REM or nothing.

The top-down, politically driven approach to mass-transit development is wholly inappropriate for current and expected needs. While providing a pipeline of federal transit funding directly to municipalities certainly seems like a welcome step, the federal government can’t simply spend its way out of Canada’s transit crisis. The feds have to plan and coordinate with provinces and cities, and potentially even nationalize key industries to provide inexpensive mass-produced trains and other rail vehicles. Success will require a delicate balance of centralized coordination, production and planning on the one hand, along with the on-the-ground experience and institutional knowledge of local partners on the other.

It’s essentially beyond anything Canada’s ever tried before, and it doesn’t appear the party leaders have fully grasped the severity of the situation. Conservatives, it seems, believe chiefly in reducing the deficit, and doing so by cutting back on major infrastructure spending.

Transit has been politically motivated for so long the nation’s general approach to development is wholly uncoordinated and without any schedule, program, goals or clearly articulated targets. Moreover, governments at nearly every level continues seeking "free market solutions" to develop transit systems that are by their very nature not intended to produce a profit.

The conversation (if it can be called that) seems stuck between whether or not to spend money on public transit, and not what’s the best plan to use transit as a primary means to achieve meaningful carbon emissions reduction targets.

Neither Canada nor the world can afford to wait any longer.

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