Special Report: Climate Change

Glaring Shortcomings in Anti-LRT Op-Ed Recommending E-Bus Fleet

A dense city, served by a first-rate transit system, is an essential part of any attempt to tackle GHG emissions. The LRT was meant to move the city in that direction.

By John Loukidelis
Published February 02, 2020

It's encouraging that some opponents of Hamilton's light rail transit (LRT) system want to evaluate it from a climate change perspective. In Lee Fairbanks and Jim Sweetman's opinion piece, "LRT cancellation a golden opportunity for Hamilton", The Hamilton Spectator, January 25, 2020, they consider the emissions consequences of the construction of the LRT and an alternative.

Their analysis is welcome inasmuch as a climate lens is an essential perspective in a city that has declared a climate emergency and a world that is in a climate crisis.

Fairbanks and Sweetman assess the climate impacts of the LRT and find it wanting. They propose that Hamilton should instead use the $1 billion on offer from the province to purchase electric buses (e-buses). Buying e-buses, they claim, will avoid the emissions of large quantities of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from LRT construction. They also claim that an e-bus fleet would reduce the City of Hamilton's emissions by 33 percent.

Fairbanks and Sweetman also claim many other benefits for an e-bus fleet. The fleet will reduce pollution, generate transit benefits and operating savings and unite the city. They envisage e-buses that can drive right into hospital lobbies and shopping centres and thus keep their riders out of the cold. E-buses, we are told, will attract innovative companies and encourage industrial and commercial development and new jobs.

Most of the claims that don't relate to climate are rather hand-wavy and can be safely ignored. The climate arguments are more specific. Their specificity does not make them more convincing, however. The climate arguments are unhelpful because they do not take climate change seriously enough.

Emissions from construction

Fairbanks and Sweetman argue that a "glaring shortcoming" of the LRT project was its "massive climate impact [from] years of heavy construction, releasing megatons of greenhouse gases taking decades to offset". A recent University of Toronto study, they say, "suggests it would take between 10 and 30 years of increased ridership to offset the carbon footprint of construction. This is exactly the type of carbon-heavy project that we have to avoid in our future."

Fairbanks and Sweetman do not cite the study they are relying on for these propositions. The study seems to be Saxe et al, "The net greenhouse gas impact of the Sheppard Subway Line" Transportation Research Part D 51 (2017) 216-275. If that's right, then Fairbanks and Sweetman have misrepresented the research.

The article in question was a study of the lifecycle emissions of the Sheppard subway line, which limits its relevance to the LRT's GHG impact. The article specifically states (at page 273) that at-grade rail lines (like the LRT) "require capital GHG investment an order of magnitude smaller than that required for tunnels and underground stations."

Secondly, the article did not argue that the lifecycle emissions of a subway meant that it was "the type of carbon-heavy project that we have to avoid in our future." The article found that, in a best-case scenario, the Sheppard subway required about 11 years before it became carbon negative compared to a scenario where it hadn't been built. In the worst-case scenario in the study, it would take 33 years for the subway to become negative.

The study pointed to two important factors potentially contributing to the longer climate payback period. One was additional car travel induced by increased subway ridership that reduces (presumably temporarily) traffic on local roads.

The other was that climate gains from increased density around the Sheppard line appeared to be relatively small, likely because of the peculiarities of the urban geography around the line and because of the relevant zoning. As a result of these factors, the climate payback from the line might be slower to materialize. The payback was still there, however.

The article did argue that climate-conscious transportation planners must find ways to reduce the GHG costs of heavy construction. The planners must also ensure that the climate benefits of increased transit ridership aren't undermined by more car travel or suboptimal land use around the rail line. In particular, the authors posited significant climate benefits from rail lines where the surrounding land can be used as intensely as possible.

Reducing the City's Emissions

Fairbanks and Sweetman appear to have misrepresented the Saxe study's findings, but they are undoubtedly correct that LRT construction will emit significant amounts of GHGs. Perhaps, then, the city would do better by the climate if it did not build the LRT and it bought e-buses instead.

Perhaps replacing the current HSR fleet with an e-bus fleet would be a big climate win compared to LRT. Fairbanks and Sweetman seem to think so because, they claim, an e-bus fleet would reduce the City of Hamilton's GHG emissions by 33 percent.

The change in focus here is a bit dizzying. They use a finding from an article on the total climate impact of a large underground transit project to attack the climate benefits of surface-level LRT, but then they seem to want to claim a climate victory for e-buses by focusing on the GHG emissions of the City of Hamilton.

Focusing on just those emissions, however, is of dubious value. The "33 percent reduction" claim considers only a very narrow range of emissions - those that come from the tailpipe. But tailpipe emissions are only part of the GHG story with electric vehicles (EVs), as I showed in another article I wrote for Raise the Hammer.1

EVs are not "zero emissions" miracles. You need steel to make them, you need to generate the electricity they use for 'fuel', you need batteries to store that fuel and you need roads on which to drive them. Given our current technology, all of these things have emissions consequences. No doubt an all e-bus fleet would reduce City emissions, but it would not eliminate them.

Saxe's article assessed the climate impact of the Sheppard subway by assessing not just its climate operating costs (its "tailpipe" emissions) but by taking into account as well the construction costs and the costs and benefits associated with land use and transportation around the line generally.

Fairbanks and Sweetman should do the same when touting the climate benefits of e-buses. It's fair enough to be concerned about LRT construction emissions; it's equally fair to be concerned about all of the emissions consequences of e-buses.

There's another critical piece of context missing from the 33 percent reduction claim. The percentage, Fairbanks and Sweetman say, comes from "the City's recent City Leading By Example presentation of climate issues (Dec. 4, 2019)".

The document I was able to find online with that date is entitled "Corporate Climate Change Goals and Areas of Focus". It shows the "Corporate" (ie City of Hamilton) vehicle fleet emitting 44 percenet of all Corporate emissions in 2017, which is the single largest source of the City's emissions.

Another slide appears to show that 75 percent of City emissions derive from "buses", which likely refers to the HSR fleet and which would appear to be the source of the 33 percent figure in the Fairbanks and Sweetman article (75 percent of 44 percent is 33 percent).2

In any case, transit probably is the single largest source of the City's emissions. From a proper climate perspective, however, the significance of the 33 percent figure is strictly limited. The same presentation to which Fairbanks and Sweetman refer also noted that transit's share of the community's transportation GHG emissions was only 1 percent of the total, while cars alone (never mind trucks) accounted for 40 percent!

Fairbanks and Sweetman are right to be concerned about the GHG emissions that will come from LRT construction. They are right to pay attention to the lifecycle emissions of the LRT line (its construction and operation, the effect it will have on traffic and the effect it will have on land use). That approach, which considers the emissions holistically and by reference to the emissions of the city, and not just the City, is the right one because it is the city's total emissions that matter.

A 33 percent reduction in the City's tailpipe emissions won't matter if an e-bus fleet does little or nothing to reduce the city's overall transportation emissions, which are much, much larger. As I will argue below, an e-bus fleet, while it will get rid of part of that pesky 1 percent of the city's tailpipe emissions, will almost certainly do nothing about the 40 percent of emissions coming from cars or the additional emissions coming from sprawl. But it is all of those emissions that we must reduce dramatically if we hope to address the climate crisis successfully.

As if Climate Really Mattered

If you keep in mind the target at which we are, or should be, aiming, then the inadequacy of the Fairbanks and Sweetman proposal from a climate perspective is "a glaring shortcoming". The science tells us that the city of Hamilton, like the rest of the world, must achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 if we wish to avoid the worst effects of climate change.3

What will reductions like these require? They will require an increase in the city's population density, an end to sprawl ("Ontario's oil sands", in Dianne Saxe's memorable phrase), an end to road construction and road widening, a decrease in private vehicle usage and an increase in transit usage.

In short, hitting the climate target will require an end to the status quo in Hamilton (and the rest of the world for that matter). The status quo in the last 25 years has meant increasing sprawl, decreasing fuel efficiency for our passenger vehicle fleet, longer commutes in those vehicles, road construction and road widening, all while the climate crisis deepened.

In Hamilton over the period from 2014 to 2017, transit ridership, far from increasing (as it must in a time of climate crisis), actually decreased before recovering slightly in 2018.4

An e-bus fleet for Hamilton of the kind proposed by Fairbanks and Sweetman is essentially a shinier status quo when it comes to transit. It would do almost nothing to halt or reverse any of these trends, least of all encourage people to use transit.

Getting people to use transit is not complicated. People will use transit when it is quick, cheap, reliable and frequent. Simply substituting electric for diesel or natural gas would not improve any of these metrics in a material way. The schedules wouldn't change.

E-buses, because they are likely to be more reliable, might make the schedules somewhat more reliable. It seems doubtful, however, that any savings associated with using e-buses would be passed along to riders, and their commutes would be just as long. The e-buses would be trying to serve the same sprawl using the same roads, without dedicated lanes or signals, that the fossil buses do now.

The transit status quo has also shown itself to be all-too compatible with our current land use patterns. Our transit system has done nothing to rein in sprawl. But if net zero emissions are the goal, then sprawl must be reined in.

Network Sustainability

The e-bus proposal fails from a climate perspective because it does not take climate change nearly seriously enough. The proposal does not begin to address the complexity and enormity of the climate challenge. To be fair, the LRT by itself wouldn't either, and there's nothing wrong with e-buses as such. The City should move rapidly to an all-e-bus fleet. But the City and the city also need LRT. They need more of both.

What Fairbanks and Sweetman miss is that LRT was meant to be part of a larger solution to the climate challenge. The LRT was meant to be the backbone of a greatly expanded transit system that was to include a north-south light rail line and expanded bus service. The LRT was meant to facilitate infill development and a denser city. A dense city, served by a first-rate transit system, is an essential part of any attempt to tackle GHG emissions. The LRT was meant to move the city in that direction. The Fairbanks and Sweetman e-bus proposal would do almost nothing of the kind.

David Owen, in his book Green Metropolis (2009), showed how the inhabitants of Manhattan were much greener than their compatriots in the countryside. When Owen wrote his book, Manhattanites consumed gas at a rate like the US average in the late 1920s. 82 percent of them travelled to work by foot, bicycle or transit, which was ten times the US rate and eight times the rate in Los Angeles. In the five boroughs of New York City, the average individual emitted 7.1 tons of CO2e annually, while the national average was 24.5 tons per person.

Owen scorned hybrid cars, green homes and argon-filled windows, not because they necessarily fail to reduce emissions, but because they can become the object of a green fetish that distracts from what is truly sustainable. Owen called civilization a "network", and it is the network that must be sustainable.

If you commute to work from a rural area each day, and you buy an electric vehicle, then, eventually, will have reduced your personal emissions. But if that's all you change, then you are likely still living in a large home, in an area where you must drive everywhere, in a vehicle made of emissions-intensive materials, along roads to parking lots that require the emission of GHGs to build and maintain.

If you cared about climate change and your emissions, Owen suggested, you would move to a smaller home in a neighbourhood that allowed you to walk or take transit to live your life. Owen's figures suggest that simply living and working in a very dense urban area could cut your personal emissions by more than two-thirds.

The LRT was supposed to facilitate the latter vision. The LRT was supposed to be part of what would make the network sustainable in the climate change era. One can only hope that enough people will wake up to this reality and get the LRT project back on track.


1 "Electric Vehicles are Not the Climate Solution" July 30, 2019.

2 An older and more detailed report on City emissions seemed to give a different percentage. "Hamilton Air Pollutants and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory (PED09287 dated October 13, 2009) found that the City's total emissions in 2005 were about 135,000 t CO2e (table 3.1), of which the vehicle fleet was about 36,000 t CO2e (table 2.1). Of that latter figure, total transit emissions were about 21,500 t CO2e (table 2.6), which is only 16 percent of total City emissions. The City's emissions appear to have fallen since 2005, and it might be that improvements in other areas of the City's operations have increased transit's share. Meanwhile, the community's total emissions from transportation in 2005 were 965,000 t CO2e (table 3.1).

3 See IPCC SR1.5, ch 2 here.

4 Matthew Van Dongen, "HSR ridership inches up - after four years of decline" The Hamilton Spectator January 25, 2019. See the City's data on ridership here.

John Loukidelis is a Hamilton lawyer who resides in Ward 1. He cycles to work every day and takes the bus when it's too cold or wet outside.

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted February 04, 2020 at 21:08:09

Until E-Buses produce actual cost savings, especially in winter weather were the efficiency of their electric batteries drop dramatically, considering these vehicles for standard transit operations are a financial disaster waiting to happen. The technology has big potential but it still needs a lot more development time and effort. These buses where they have been tested look good but are faltering badly with excessive maintenance loads and mediocre performance standards. Snow by the way still humbles these E- buses on a regular basis, due to their lack of power and torque.

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