Lack of government transit investment misaligned with green policies, promotes wrong type of housing, new report argues
The Pointer Files

Lack of government transit investment misaligned with green policies, promotes wrong type of housing, new report argues

Every year, Toronto hosts the International Auto Show, where thousands of industry experts, car enthusiasts and members of the public gather to view the latest advancements in the sector.

This year’s event, which was hosted over 10 days from February 16 to the 25, had a record-shattering attendance of over 370,000 people touring through the Metro Toronto Convention Centre observing everything from race cars, to exotics like the famous Bugatti, to electric vehicles and even Barbie and Hot Wheels cars to engage young attendees looking for their ‘dream car’.

Featuring 45 automotive brands, with sponsorship and test tracks, the event showcased something for everyone. 

The focus this year was on Canada’s electric vehicle transition, with an entire section dedicated to the newest EV technologies, charging infrastructure and government rebates. But while EVs are a big step in the right direction, some green advocates fear events like the International Auto Show continue to promote Canada’s undying love of the car. The sustainable way forward, they urge, is a stronger investment in public transit which is what will create the communities of tomorrow.


The 2024 International Auto Show was the most successful one yet, smashing attendance records.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)


The 2022 Car Ownership Index concluded that 83 percent of Canadians own a car. In Canada, the car is a right of passage. The moment one turns 16 — the legal age in most provinces — teenagers flock to take their beginner’s license test, itching for that first taste of freedom. 

But the same study found that Canadians are using their cars infrequently. On average, Canadians are behind the wheel for just over 400 hours per year, meaning their vehicles are sitting idle 95 percent of the time. Despite these inconsistencies, 81 percent of car owners said they feel it would be impossible not to own a car.

"Our findings shed light on a paradox when it comes to car ownership," Cedric Mathieu, Vice President and Head of Turo — the world's largest peer-to-peer car sharing marketplace — in Canada, said in a press release following the release of the Index. "It's clear that car ownership is still a central part of Canadian life, but these cars largely go unused while costing owners thousands of dollars a year. Car ownership is an inefficient model, but the alternatives are limited for Canadians who still need access to a vehicle."

A new report produced jointly by Environmental Defence and Equiterre, two prominent Canadian non-profits, identifies the root of the problem as the government’s misaligned funding when it comes to transportation systems.

Canada is far behind when it comes to public transit. According to the 2021 census, 17 percent of commuting workers living inside metropolitan areas use public transit compared to just two percent of those living outside of them. Younger Canadians use public transit most often but still only 20 percent of 15 to 24-year-olds use public transit. This is a stark contrast to a 2021 survey which found 60 percent of people living in France used public transit regularly, a trend that is much more common around Europe.

In Canada, public transit is also divided on a class basis. The car in North America is a status symbol, with Mercedes, Teslas and other high end cars purchased to show one has reached the mountaintop. In the same vein, a common stereotype is that public transit is only for those who can not afford a car, with vehicle ownership one of the big aspirational goals. The 2021 census showed the lower the income, the greater the chance one relied on public transit, with 23 percent of workers in the lowest income bracket using it to commute compared to 10 percent of those in the highest income bracket.


Waterloo’s LRT began operation in June 2019, providing residents with accessible, rapid transit.

(Crawford Passy/Unsplash)


Nate Wallace, Clean Transportation Program Manager with Environmental Defence and co-author of the report, told The Pointer this stigma is one of the angering reasons the government is reluctant to provide operational funding for municipal fleets. 

“This focus on the shiny new train and rail service which is really capital intensive, versus the bus, which requires a lot more operating funding, and quite frankly a classist attitude towards buses because buses are where poor people ride and not thinking it's a viable mode to be investing in,” he explained. 

Up until 2016, the federal government did not have consistent involvement in public transit infrastructure across the country. Eight years ago, the Liberal Government instituted the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) with a stream of funding dedicated solely to public transit valued at $11.8 billion. The public transit stream of the ICIP is a joint governmental financial agreement that will “build new urban transit networks and service extensions that will transform the way that Canadians live, move and work”. 

Eligible projects receive maximum cost share funding of 40 percent from the federal government, 33.33 percent from the provincial government and 26.67 percent from the municipal government. In March 2022, the City of Mississauga received $500 million from this funding stream for the purchase of 314 hybrid electric buses and to replace 44 dirty diesel buses. But Wallace stressed that this only provides capital funding to purchase and build infrastructure, it is not eligible to support operational costs. 

“Politicians like to cut ribbons rather than fund day-to-day service,” he told The Pointer.

This misaligned funding, the report found, has resulted in nearly 1,700 busses across the country sitting unused because there is no funding to pay new transit drivers and actually fund operations.

“This report is really about highlighting this dichotomy and highlighting that if we really want to meet our climate goals, we need to significantly increase service so transit is more frequent, reliable, so more people can use it, and significantly reduce carbon emissions,” Wallace said.

Two studies cited in the report, one which looks at transit systems across Canada and another that looks at 25 transit systems in the United States, as well as various international studies, show that one of the biggest barriers to public transit use is when it is not available and accessible. 

“It's providing more frequent, reliable service that people can depend on and rely on and it comes on time,” he said. “And for that to happen, you need funding to put towards that service, you need operating funding.”


Many European cities, such as Amsterdam (above), are working to make their streets more pedestrian and bike friendly, discouraging car use.

(car_free_toronto / Instagram)


When we look across the ocean to countries in Europe, Asia and Oceana, Wallace said his core argument is that there are no cultural differences that make people rely on public transit, rather it is a series of historical policy choices that have led them to build more sustainable cities. 

“It's not because there's something in their water,” he said. “They have had different policies when it comes to what they fund for infrastructure. And one of the arguments I'd like to make here is that if we adopted some of those policies, we would, most likely and with this modeling proving out, we would actually achieve much higher levels of transit use that we do see in these other countries.”

A common belief in North America is that we have a love affair with our cars, allowing us to live in an individualistic society where we can get from one place to another without interacting with anyone. While Wallace said this is definitely true for some, an argument that he sees much more often is that people hate commuting and they hate traffic.

“I think deep down a lot of people do resent the fact that they're forced to drive, that there's no other real alternative or any other option that they could take if they wanted to,” he said.

While the federal government has acknowledged that we need to transition away from gas powered vehicles, it continues to promote this idealistic notion that each household needs to own its own vehicle. 

“We have targets for zero emission vehicle adoption, but we don't have any targets for increasing transit use for increasing cycling use, and reducing overall vehicle kilometers traveled,” Wallace said.

Canada released its Electric Vehicle Availability Standard at the end of 2030 which provides a roadmap for achieving 60 percent of vehicle sales being hybrid-electric by 2030 and 100 percent by 2035

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the transportation sector makes up approximately 25 percent of Canada’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. About half of this comes from light-duty vehicles, which includes passenger cars, SUVs and light trucks. To achieve the federal emissions reductions targets, for which we are currently falling behind, Canada must work rapidly to adapt the transportation sector.

According to a government analysis from 2022, when a draft of the standards was released, the implementation of the new requirements would prevent the release of approximately 430 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of about 65 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emission in 2021. 

While standards for purchasing new EVs are coming into place, it will take years before this transforms the makeup of the cars dominating our roads.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)


But Wallace emphasized that even the federal government’s own modelling shows that most of these reductions will manifest after 2035 and nearly none before 2030, leaving a gap between the timeline we have to reduce emissions and when EVs will play a role. 

“It's inherently limited by how slow the vehicle fleet turns over. So converting new car sales into what's actually dominating the on road fleet,” he said. “So if you look at a country like Norway, they have about 80 percent of new cars sold being electric, but only 20 percent of the cars that are on the road are electric.”

He said this provides a huge opportunity to evolve public transit to help reduce emissions in the near term by getting people out of cars.

Coupled with the electrification of bus fleets, the report recommends doubling public transit ridership and reducing single occupancy vehicle kilometres travelled by 35 percent. The report found that to achieve these targets, transit service levels must be increased by 109 percent. All of these measures combined, the report found, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65 million tonnes by 2035, the equivalent of taking 20 million passenger cars off the road for one year. 

“[It] is a lot, but it's not out of step with other jurisdictions because they have these targets,” Wallace said.

British Columbia is an example of a jurisdiction that is moving further ahead, setting a standard for the rest of Canada. As part of its climate Change Action Plan, CleanBC, the province is working to decrease kilometres travelled by car while promoting public transportation and active transportation, including walking and cycling.

While the master plan does set the target of achieving 26 percent of vehicle sales being zero emission vehicles by 2030, it also aims to double the number of trips taken by active transportation by the same year, touting a $60 million investment over three years which has helped communities build over 400 active transportation projects including paths, bike lanes and crosswalks. The roadmap also targets a 25 percent reduction in kilometres travelled by personal vehicles compared to 2020, with 30 percent of trips taken by walking, cycling or public transit. 

TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s transit system, has a ten-year plan that envisions doubling overall bus service levels and adding nine new Bus Rapid Transit lines. While the plan is yet to be fly funded — TransLink estimates that its ten-year plan will require a 50 percent increase in annual operating spending once fully implemented — these targets have been legislated meaning TransLink has to meet them.

“What we're doing here is setting a new northstar for Canada of where we need to be as a country, but also exporting that logic and saying, ‘Metro Vancouver, they need this massive surface expansion, what would that look like for the rest of the country if we also got our heads in the game and actually took transit seriously as a tool to reduce carbon emissions’,” Wallace said. 

The other context Wallace said is important when examining Canada’s transit systems is the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. During its peak, public transit ridership decreased by approximately half across the country, with some cities like Toronto being hit even harder. 

“As we build back better, it is time to ambitiously invest in modern and sustainable public transit across our country, to reduce congestion, to help create a million jobs, and to support cleaner and more inclusive communities,” former environment minister who was also minister of infrastructure and communities, Catherine McKenna, said in a press release following a 2021 announcement for further public transit funding. “Permanent, long-term funding for public transit will mean new subway lines, light-rail transit and streetcars, electric buses, cycling paths and improved rural transit. It will mean that Canadians can get around in faster, cleaner, and more affordable ways. And it will help drive us to net-zero emissions and ensure a more sustainable future for our kids.”

Currently, ridership has recovered to approximately 80 percent of pre-pandemic ridership on average across the country. Wallace said this slow return to normal cannot be used as an excuse to ignore public transit, but rather an opportunity to advance it, to create an even better ‘normal’.

“After a certain point, the folks who are working from home aren't coming back. And if we want to get to actually move the dial in terms of recovery, and growth, rather than falling back into this vicious cycle of cuts and fare hikes and chasing away more riders and then continuing to spiral we need to be investing in such a way that provides better service for people who are going to work and drawing in those additional riders to replace the people who aren't going to come back,” he said.


In places like Brampton, busses are not convenient because they are stuck in traffic on car-dominated roadways.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)


While getting people out of single passenger vehicles and onto busses and trains will reduce the direct carbon emissions from internal combustion engines, the greatest environmental, social and economic benefits come from the changes in land use policy that public transit systems promote emphasizing the importance of housing density near public transit routes.

At the end of 2022, Doug Ford implemented his highly contentious Bill 23, which set ambitious housing targets for each of Ontario’s major municipalities. But without funding for associated infrastructure, and changing legislations surrounding development charges, conservation authorities and urban boundaries, it is evident that the PC government is not interested in building the “missing middle” housing that is desperately needed. Independent analysis, as well as data from the province’s own Housing Affordability Task Force has repeatedly shown that there is enough land within existing urban boundaries to build two million homes across the province — 500,000 more than the province’s 2031 target.

But instead, Ford and his developer buddies would rather build single-dwelling mansions, with white picket fences, acre lots and swimming pools, the kind of housing that will make developers big bucks further driving the affordability crisis. This is the opposite of the direction that Wallace said we need to be moving.

“When someone ditches their car to become a transit rider, they're much more likely to walk to their local grocery store rather than drive to Costco, a disproportionately car dependent grocery store. You reduce the amount of space you need in cities for parking, and people make shorter trips because they live closer to work, to housing, to amenities, that sort of thing. So there's a huge potential to reduce emissions there. But that's really tied into how we structure the built form of our cities,” he said.

Ford’s ideology is not new. In fact, it is a prominent ideology amongst the “baby boomer” generation who grew up in a time when money was scarce, so their life savings allowed them to purchase a nice single-occupied home. But the same assets are not attainable to the current and up and coming generations, thus a report from registered professional planner Kevin Eby for the Alliance for A Livable Ontario highlighted an error in using historical-based propensities to determine the amount of each type of housing required for the future. The propensities, which are often based on decades old home buying decisions, “fail to incorporate many of the changing factors affecting recent and future housing choice,” Eby writes.

“Considerations underlying housing choice in the Greater Golden Horseshoe today are significantly different than they were 20 years ago, and every indication is that such change will continue to occur well into the future.”


Repeated studies have shown that sprawling, single dwelling homes are not the desired, or affordable, way to live for up and coming generations.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)


“Following World War Two the car took over, and suddenly transit systems that used to be privately run at that point, lost their monopoly over where real estate development was occurring — in cities. And you have the severing of the link between housing and transit where suddenly you could build housing far in the middle of nowhere, because people could drive to it,” Wallace added. “And then but the problem is when you do that, you can only drive to it and it makes other transportation modes a lot less viable because things are way more spread out and a lot less cost effective to get there.”

“And now we're kind of having a wake up call where it's caused the housing crisis … and we have a real opportunity now to start shifting cities towards a more compact built form that is more transit supportive.”

These investments in transit operations will also have rebound impacts on broader social and economic systems. According to the 2021 census, approximately 25 percent of Canada’s workforce is racialized, yet over half of those who use public transit to commute to work are racialized. Many of Canada’s transit systems function on a peak model, but research shows these peak times are not generally the times equity groups are travelling. 

“If we started moving to what a lot of these other countries are providing, a lot better service consistently throughout the day, that not only builds ridership but also really helps the travel patterns of those equity-seeking groups,” Wallace said.

While the joint Environmental Defence and Equiterre report did not examine the economics of public transportation, Wallace pointed out a 2017 government-funded study through Infrastructure Ontario which found that out of infrastructure sectors including highways, roads and bridges; transit; education; health; waste, water and wastewater; and government administration, transit had the highest return of investment in terms of GDP and job creation. 

“And they even found that highway investment actually was a negative number,” he said. “It actually reduced jobs and it reduced GDP growth because it was resources that were taken away from more productive parts of the economy.”

Wallace said the irony of the situation is that while the government’s own study stated that public transit is the more sustainable alternative economically, the Ontario PC government has continued to promote disastrous projects like Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass. While the federal government has the opportunity to step in on the 413 through the Impact Assessment Act, its flip flop on stepping in on areas of environmental importance is not promising. Rather, Wallace states, if we invest in public transit operations, we can get people out of cars, once again disproving the necessity of new roads and highways. 



Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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