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Illustration by Kathleen Fu

As Canada battles climate change, nothing is more important than reducing transportation emissions, which are second only to oil-and-gas extraction as a share of the country’s carbon footprint. And with millions of commuters burning gas while sitting in traffic, cities are at the centre of that challenge.

COVID-19′s unknown effect on long-term mobility patterns complicates matters. For instance, it’s difficult to confidently plan new public-transit lines when it’s anyone’s guess how many (and which) people currently working from home will return to commuting, and the number who will feel comfortable returning to crowded subways or buses rather than the safety of their own cars.

But one basic certainty is that, however much success cities have in seizing the current window to improve pedestrian and bicycle options, there will still be lots of motorized vehicles on the roads. So one surefire way to curb the greenhouse gases being spewed is to transition as many cars, buses and trucks as possible to electric models, rather than those that run on fossil fuels.

As federal and provincial governments start to spread around stimulus funds, and municipalities change regulations to adapt to new realities, there are a few key ways that they could help cities electrify transportation, with some economic and lifestyle benefits atop the environmental ones.


One of the bigger obstacles to uptake of electric vehicles is that many urban dwellers who might otherwise be early adopters are “garage orphans.” That means they can’t easily charge EV batteries at home, either because they live in houses without driveways, or because they’re in condominium or apartment buildings that don’t have enough (or any) charging stations in their parking lots.

The good news is that the hurdle is very much surmountable. Jeff Turner, a researcher with Dunsky Energy Consulting who advises various municipalities on this challenge, highlighted a combination of policy tools to help overcome it.

For apartments and condos, an easy start is to follow the lead of cities in British Columbia (including Vancouver and Richmond) by changing building codes to require that new buildings have plug-in capacity in many or all parking spots. Older buildings are more of a challenge, but could be helped along with some of the energy retrofitting funding that governments are expected to roll out to help spur a green economic recovery.

When it comes to houses, discussion sometimes gets bogged down in a debate about whether to change zoning laws to make it easier for homeowners without driveways to build parking pads. But there are other, less contentious ways to address it.

Among those are curbside charging stations, perhaps attached to utility poles, in neighbourhoods where many residents rely on street parking.

Another, possibly more scalable approach is to provide garage orphans with opportunities away from home. Mr. Turner suggests that one of the most promising ones is for governments to build or provide incentives for fast-charging hubs that replicate gas stations. With the technology reaching a point where those charges could be done in under a half hour, the stations can be placed near supermarkets or other places where drivers could get errands done during the charge.

An Uber driver's vehicle is seen after the company launched service in Vancouver on Jan. 24.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press


With health fears causing some passengers to eschew crowded public transit, and the growth of delivery programs such as Uber Eats, ride-hailing companies and their offshoots seem poised to survive and possibly thrive postpandemic.

That could be bad news for the planet, since research has shown that ride-hailing trips generate significantly more emissions than the modes of transportation displaced by them. But for governments seeking to decarbonize transportation in general, there is also potential opportunity in compelling and helping companies such as Uber and Lyft to meet (or perhaps beat) their stated goal of fully shifting to electric vehicles across North America by 2030.

The quicker those companies move on that, the more benefits there will be, beyond directly reducing ride-hailing pollution. Bulk investment in EVs could encourage a scaling-up of production that would make zero-emissions vehicles more accessible and affordable for all drivers, and swifter construction of charging infrastructure.

Federal and provincial governments can encourage the transition by ensuring that commercial fleets have access to EV purchase incentives. But municipalities have plenty of carrots and sticks at their disposal, as highlighted in a report last year by the International Council on Clean Transportation. Among the available levers are putting caps on the number of ride-hailing vehicles licensed and giving EVs a growing share of them; exempting EVs from various ride-hailing fees; and giving their drivers priority access at hotspot pickup and drop-off locations. If cities want to get really ambitious, they could also impose ride-hailing and taxi pricing structures correlated to vehicle emissions.

Along the way, policy-makers need to be mindful of evolving ways that city-dwellers look for flexibility in how they get around. The current surge in popularity of electric bicycles, for instance, offers another way of reducing urban emissions, especially if municipalities work to get large numbers of them into new or existing bike-share programs.

An electric bus is shown at the Nova Bus production plant in St. Eustache, Que., in 2012.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press


One way that governments are already planning to help with urban transportation electrification, including through a promised $1.5-billion investment by the federal Infrastructure Bank, is by purchasing zero-emissions buses and building infrastructure for them. But there is a good case for accelerating and expanding that investment.

Beyond just the direct emissions reductions and air-quality improvements from replacing buses that run on diesel, there are a several potential spin-off benefits.

For starters, this is one form of clean-technology investment where public procurement could strongly benefit domestic industry. Canada is home to four electric-bus manufacturers – New Flyer in Winnipeg, GreenPower in Vancouver, and both Lion Electric and the Volvo-owned Nova Bus in Quebec – that have a strong chance to compete internationally as cities around the world decarbonize their transit systems. They will have a better chance of doing so, and of basing manufacturing operations in this country, the more that domestic contracts enable them to scale up.

The charging stations built for buses could also potentially be used to support the electrification of other forms of heavy transportation, such as commercial trucks.

As for the impact on transit systems themselves, zero-emissions buses provide smoother and quieter rides than diesel ones. And the long-term savings on fuel could help perpetually cash-strapped municipalities with their transit agencies' operating budgets.

That last benefit presumes that the federal government remains willing to help with purchases, and ideally that provincial governments step up as well. The upfront costs are significant, but so is bang for the buck if it’s done right.