3362How our transit lost its way
- Jun 4, 2001From http://www.ottawacitizen.com/national/010602/5097399.html Dawson
Saturday 2nd June, 2001
How our transit lost its way
Nothing busts city smog and congestion better than a bus. So why are transit
agencies starved for funds to buy and run them? Paul McKay reports.
The Ottawa Citizen
Pity the public transit planner.
Across Canada, 89 transit services share a rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma.
The rock is riders. The hard place is municipal politicians. Both want more
buses, streetcars, subway cars or commuter rail systems running more often,
on more routes.
The benefits are obvious: Cleaner air and less congestion.
So is one remedy. A single full commuter bus can replace 40 solo-driven
cars. An articulated bus, like those used on Ottawa's Queensway, or
Vancouver's Broadway B-line, can double that.
At current fleet levels, Ottawa's roads would be choked with about 40,000
more cars each rush hour if not for OC Transpo. Vancouver would have 60,000
more rush hour vehicles. Toronto would have an estimated 100,000; Edmonton
Last year, Ottawans took 80 million trips by bus. In greater Vancouver, 129
million trips were made by bus, trolley, two light rail lines and ferries
operated by Translink.
Yet both cities are facing car-growth trends that could soon add more cars
to their roads than their peak bus fleets now displace.
In the area served by B.C.'s Translink, an extra 23,000 vehicles per year
are projected. By 2005, that will mean an extra 500,000 to 600,000 car trips
In Ottawa, the human population has tripled since 1961 while the car
population has increased more than five times -- from 100,000 to 560,000
About 70 per cent of trips in Ottawa are now made by car; 76 per cent are
made by car in greater Vancouver. Car, truck and bus emissions account for
almost half the air pollution in the two cities.
Toronto, Montreal, Windsor, Hamilton, London, Quebec City, Calgary, Saint
John and Halifax face even worse smog problems because of industrial
sources, coal power plant pollutants and cross-border emissions from the
But even with an air quality and congestion crisis looming where 20 million
Canadians reside, nobody is stepping up to pay the public transit freight:
- Unlike every other OECD country, including the United States, our federal
government has put virtually no capital or operating dollars into public
transit in the past decade.
- Most provincial governments have downloaded all or most of transit funding
onto cash-strapped municipal governments.
- A proposed $75 levy on private vehicles to finance improved public transit
in greater Vancouver was derailed by intense political opposition.
- Fare-box revolts are rising as more and more of the annual costs of
running public transit systems are passed on to riders.
As if that were not trouble enough, Canada's 14,000 public transit buses use
about 355 million litres of diesel fuel each year and the price has spiked
sharply. Subways, trolleys and streetcars use ever more expensive
Each new city bus typically costs $500,000. Maintenance costs are climbing
as average fleet ages increase. And, across Canada, 38,000 public transit
employees, from bus drivers to mechanics, are pressing for wage increases.
The result is a fiscal and mobility tailspin: As service slides, ridership
stalls. That leads to increased fare-box prices, then more riders resorting
to car commutes paid out of the private pocket. That literally brings both
buses and cars to a halt.
The 1990s proved that case in spades for Ottawans. A surge
in provincial funds for new buses and the crosstown Transitway system put OC
Transpo ridership at 21 per cent of commuter traffic in 1991, when transit's
market share in U.S. cities like Boston, Detroit and Houston was about eight
Later, the Harris government reduced, then cut entirely funding for public
transit (excluding services for the disabled). That left the entire
financial load on property taxes and fare boxes.
"What we got into in the 1990s was a downward spiral. There was a recession.
We lost ridership," says engineer Helen Gault, now OC Transpo's chief
"Then the province started cutting funding, with at first no replacement at
the local level. We were trying to keep old buses on the road. Reliability
suffered. Schedules got tighter and tighter. Then the roads became more
congested, and the buses we did have took longer to carry commuters
"All finances now are from the city. Everything comes from property taxes
(40 per cent) and fare boxes (60 per cent)."
If there was any fat to cut in OC Transpo operations, there is likely little
In 1999, OC Transpo buses drove the same annual kilometres and burned the
same amount of diesel with fewer employees than in 1990. Meanwhile, the
population increased by 120,000. During that decade, its operating cost
increased a mere 13 cents per passenger.
Since 1999, the city government has approved successive three-per-cent
annual budget increases. Most of the funds were used to buy new buses, which
helped underpin a 15-per-cent ridership recovery -- 4.5 million extra rides
last year alone. Yet OC Transpo still only accounts for one in every six
commuter trips, far less than the share public transit held in the 1960s.
"We used to be able to plan a transit system for up to 12 years ahead, with
assured funding," says Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli.
"In 1995, that was cut -- cold turkey. No more transit subsidies from the
province. It all fell on property taxes. So the province reduced taxes, and
reduced transit, on the backs of the municipalities.
"Both the federal and provincial governments take the fuel taxes out of our
community, and virtually nothing is put back in. Neither has re-invested any
money in transit. Their total (tax) take from this city now is about $5
billion per year. Now we have the responsibility for the infrastructure, yet
we don't have the (fiscal) resources."
"It's incredible," says Jack Layton, the president of the Federation of
Canadian Municipalities. "Buses and streetcar systems don't pay property
taxes, but we are left to finance our transit systems entirely from property
"We are being asked to run transit systems in cities across the country
without being able to use any of the federal tax revenues that are
The federal government also collects tax on the diesel fuel burned in
transit buses, and a GST tax on that tax. Last year, OC Transpo paid $1.7
million in federal fuel-related taxes and $4.4 million in provincial taxes
for diesel its buses burned.
The federation and dozens of major city mayors have called on the federal
government to commit three cents of the current fuel tax (10 cents per
litre) to cities for transit and infrastructure investments, and to scrap
entirely its fuel tax on public transit vehicles.
In Vancouver, the number of cars increased by 150,000 in the 1990s while
funding for public transit failed to keep pace. That left the region with
the highest rate of car ownership of eight major Canadian cities, the lowest
supply of transit per capita and the second lowest (11 per cent) transit use
While public transit use in Vancouver's core ranks among the best in North
America, its sprawling, low-density suburbs account for only five per cent
of peak traffic. There, more than half the households own two cars and both
are often driven to other suburban workplaces -- not downtown. Most of the
suburban routes in Richmond, Surrey and Coquitlam are perennial money
"We've got a scattering of land uses that make it increasingly difficult to
serve with transit. With office parks all over, people are traveling every
which way," says Clive Rock, the chief planner for Translink. "Mass transit
can't service that, it's like trying to unscramble an egg. That's why land
use planning is so critical."
"Those routes could be covered by private or non-profit operators -- taxis
or vanpools. Certainly, they may be able to be very competitive for those
services as feeders to our main routes. It could actually end up generating
more work for the regular service -- not taking it away. But it's a
sensitive (labour relations) issue."
Few mayors, politicians, traffic planners and commuters doubt that smog and
congestion are worsening at alarming rates. Transit advocates want more
buses, subway, or light-rail extensions. Car converts want wider, faster
Nobody has found a painless way to finance either option, or a ready source
of funds. But that stalemate underpins a worse prospect: The public paying
billions for both while ending up with even less mobility, and increased
medical costs due to polluted air.
The Ontario Medical Association has calculated that smog costs Ontario
taxpayers $1 billion annually in hospital admissions, medical treatments and
lost productivity due to illness. The OMA estimates that 1,900 Ontarians die
prematurely each year from air pollution. Nationally, Health Canada links
5,000 deaths annually to smog.
Many U.S., European and Asian cities have already gone further down that
dirty road. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Houston. London, Paris,
Stockholm. Singapore. Tokyo. Beijing. All have been choked with congestion,
and plagued by increasingly dangerous air quality.
There, desperation has focused the municipal mind. Individually, these
cities have come up with an astonishing array of technological innovations,
taxes, urban planning tactics and regulations:
- In Denmark, transit buses literally get the green light at key
intersections, thanks to on-board computer-satellite signal-changing
- In Beijing, passengers use a state-of-the-art subway system that features
"smart cards" that store pre-paid transit fees and phone credits.
- In California, new bus express lanes are partially funded by electronic
tolling of commuter cars using the same lane to avert congestion.
- In Denver, a fraction of the municipal sales tax helps finance cheap
- In sprawl-plagued Austin, Texas, the city government rewards developers
with cash and fast planning approvals when they build in the city core to
reduce costly transit, sewer and water line extensions.
- In Los Angeles, federal and state funds have helped build a dedicated
commercial traffic corridor to avert congestion and link the port to major
road and rail lines.
Some fast-growing cities, like Portland, Oregon, have combined many of these
measures with impressive success. But decades of delay has caused others to
adopt Draconian tactics.
On heavy smog days, half of the diesel vehicles in Paris are simply
forbidden to operate. Cars coming into Copenhagen at rush hours pay a
premium. Some cities use parking fees to buy transit passes for downtown
employees, freeing the spaces up for shoppers. Dozens of cities have adopted
punitive parking fees just to keep cars out. (Parking in downtown London,
England can cost $50 per hour).
The striking lesson that emerges from all these cities is that paying more
for public transit is often the cheapest way to reduce smog and congestion,
and make urban commerce more efficient. When health and lost productivity
costs are included, it is the least costly solution for taxpayers.
And when new freeways are built or expanded, increasingly they are no longer
free: The dominant international trend leaves motorists being tapped for
pay-as-you-drive tolls and taxes.
In Canada, there is now a surprising consensus that it is far more
efficient, cost-effective and environmentally sound to move 40 people on
four publicly-funded wheels than to fund new roads to move 40 sets of
private wheels that often carry one person.
Among those supporting increased public transit funding are the Ontario
Medical Association, the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, the Canadian
Automobile Association, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian
Trucking Alliance and dozens of environmental and civic activist groups
"We are very strongly supportive of public transit," says Dr. Ted Broadway
of the Ontario Medical Association. "It is clear that cities in the world
that have neglected their public transit systems have more smog."
"The answer is more land-use planning, mass transit, and designing our
cities differently," says Brian Hunt, president of the Canadian Automobile
Association. "That is going to take a period of time to do, but that is the
"It would make me happier if we took all of the (fuel taxes) and put them
into the transportation infrastructure," Mr. Hunt says. "But we don't have a
"If we are just going to put some hardtop down, that doesn't solve the
problem. The problem is complex in terms of land use, mass transit,
congestion, all of those things. We need a strategy."
OC Transpo: Ottawa
Passenger trips: 80 million
Average weekday riders: 302,000
Average trip length: 10 km
Active buses: 878
Average annual km/bus: 57,000
Total expenditures: $228.5 million
Translink: Greater Vancouver
Passenger trips: 129 million
Average weekday riders: 431,567
Average trip length: 11 km
Active buses: 1,176 (plus Skytrain, Westcoast Express, Seabus)
Average annual km/bus: 72,500
Total expenditures: $390 million
Paul McKay is a Citizen reporter. His e-mail address is: