Sustainable development and electrification of transit

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About the project

This project aims to contribute to Canada’s capacity for investment, implementation and assessment of zero-emission buses (ZEB). A sustainable transportation system is one that is safe, affordable, accessible, efficient and resilient, and that contributes minimal emissions of carbon and other pollutants. The adoption of ZEB fits squarely within a sustainable transit electrification strategy (STES). ZEB transit is identified by all levels of government in Canada and transit authorities as a critical step in meeting clean growth goals and zero-emissions targets. We partnered with the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC) to undertake this research.

ZEB includes transit infrastructure, battery and hydrogen plus hybrid diesel buses. The research team analyzed Canadian and international literature, as well as governmental, academic and industry data sources; and sought and characterized analytics tools that could support analysis and implementation of ZEB. These sources were stored in searchable databases and analyzed according to sub-themes relevant to transportation systems and environmental, economic, social (including equity and health), ZEB and analytic technology categories. Data collection methods and types as well as equity issues (GBA+) were considered. Stakeholder interviews and a workshop supplemented secondary source analysis. Researchers deployed a thematic analytics tool to derive key themes.

If achieved, impacts include reduction of emissions and particulates, improved quality of urban life through less pollution and noise, improved health of residents, more equitable and affordable reach and choice of transit, industry growth and green job creation. Secondary benefits include densification and cost reduction of pollution-induced disease for the health care system.

Key findings

  • ZEB adoption, whether battery electric buses (BEB) or hydrogen fuel cell electric buses (FCEB), ends fossil fuel dependency with long-term cost savings, possible fare reductions, improved transit services and healthier communities.
  • ZEB adoption is most successful when integrated into plans to modernize transit systems and ensure equal and preferably better access for intense users of transit and those excluded from transit. Expanded transit use remains an overarching goal as it removes personal vehicles from the road, reduces congestion, has a positive impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and finances transit. A clean transit system supports population growth and densification along urban corridors.
  • The most significant barrier to ZEB adoption is the cost of ZEB: buses, infrastructure, energy sources, IT, new procedures and job skills.
  • It is difficult for agencies to choose technologies. There is a lack of standardization of equipment. Trials, pilots and well-planned staging play an important role in effective implementation.
  • Implementation reduces emissions in the vicinity of transit corridors with large concentrations of residents. This means a better quality of life and the reduction of cancer, lung and cardiovascular illnesses.
  • Neighbourhoods are more receptive to expanding transit services into underserved residential neighbourhoods as ZEB buses are quiet and without fumes.
  • Canada can become a key player in the ZEB supply chain as a vehicle and components manufacturer, mining minerals needed for battery production, and supplying green or blue hydrogen and IT systems.
  • ZEB adoption would gain from open-source transit data on localized GHG emissions; particulates and noise pollution; provincial and territorial energy consumption; costs and health relevant to pollutants; and ZEB trials and adoption.
  • Additional ZEB tools should simulate and analyze the impact of transit design and electrification at a city and neighbourhood level, undertake financial costing of ZEB, support change management, and evaluate and respond to current and future passenger experiences and needs.
  • Future research needs to include assessments of neighbourhood and traveller type ZEB requirements in relation to transit access and equity; longitudinal health research to monitor impacts of emission reduction; and the correlated reduction of health care costs.
  • Research with Indigenous communities could develop electrification strategies that coincide with infrastructure investment and Indigenous ownership of resources and data.
  • Researchers can develop a sustainable transit index to correlate ZEB infrastructure impacts on Canada’s economy, environment, health and social well-being.

Policy implications

  • Approach the electrification of transit within a systems analysis of transit needs and transformation. Treat transit as a public good and a pillar of democracy with economic benefits to society. Use this approach in assessing life cycle costs and return on investment in electrification, with a long, committed cycle of investment. Expand economic cost-benefit analysis to include indirect savings from cleaner air and fewer emissions, and equity and social benefits of expanding ridership.
  • Operational cost savings result from ZEB adoption; capital expenditure is the barrier. The $2.75 billion Zero-Emission Transit Fund is a significant investment in infrastructure. Future investment is required to sustain this transition. Create long-term stable funding with collaboration between all three levels of government that supports ZEB adoption and minimizes the risk to transit agencies. Funding tools should include direct subsidy as well as loans. Align investments in grid upgrades and clean electricity with ZEB adoption, and support clean hydrogen investment.
  • Measure particulate and noise reduction, correlated with health improvement and disease reduction goals and outcomes, and include cost-benefit analysis to public health in future policy initiatives.
  • Make Canada a leader in ZEB development. Stimulate a circular economy approach, working with Indigenous, industry and community stakeholders.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Dr. Sara Diamond, president emerita, director, Visual Analytics Lab, OCAD University:

Aimee Burnett, graduate research assistant, OCAD University:

Jeremy Bowes, professor, Environmental Design and Strategic Foresight and Innovation, OCAD University:

Dr. Mona Ghafouri-Azar, postdoctoral fellow, Visual Analytics Lab, OCAD University:

Dr. Michelle Wyndham-West, graduate program director, Inclusive Design and Design for Health, OCAD University:

Preeti Mahajan, graduate research assistant, OCAD University:

Grace Yuan, graduate intern, OCAD University:

Shuting Zhou, graduate research assistant, OCAD University:

Maya Mahgoub Desai, program chair, Environmental Design, OCAD University:

Sara Wagner, doctoral student, University of Toronto:

Dr. Anand Pariyarath, zero-emission bus (ZEB) simulation modeller and data scientist, CUTRIC:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, Infrastructure Canada or the Government of Canada.

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