Province's push for electric buses to help cut greenhouse gases ignores the area of greatest need

Province's push for electric buses to help cut greenhouse gases ignores the area of greatest need

In the middle of July, it’s tempting to blame a summer heat wave on global climate change. But weather and climate are two completely different concepts, as any Grade 5 student who pays attention in science class knows very well.

Weather is ephemeral. It changes by the day, by the hour and by the minute. Climate, on the other hand, is a set of weather conditions for a given area over the course of years or decades.

Ergo, using a single July heat wave to demonstrate the effects of global warming has no more scientific validity than using a single January cold snap to argue climate change is bogus.

If elementary school students are clear on the distinction between weather and climate, it stands to reason adults are capable of drawing the distinction as well.

But some adults do not share the enthusiasm for science that many elementary students display so readily. This is especially certain for climate science, which politicians of every conceivable stripe occasionally treat more like the fractal fuzziness of a Rorschach inkblot than a collection of hard and very definitive data sets.

A green plan with fuzzy edges

In Manitoba, Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government has stated a commitment to combat climate change. Unlike some conservative governments in North America, the Manitoba Tories are bringing in a carbon tax, albeit one where a few of the details have yet to be determined.

The province expects its carbon tax to rake in $143 million during its first year, with the kitty eventually growing to $248 million a year.

Some of the money will be used to create a $102-million conservation trust that would protect natural areas, while $40 million will flow into a “green fund” intended to mitigate climate change.

How exactly this revenue will be spent remains unclear. Adding to the murkiness is a provincial promise to return all the proceeds of the carbon tax to Manitobans within four years through income tax relief, small-business tax reductions and shaving a percentage point off the PST.

This lack of a clarity, however, is more of a fiscal policy issue than it is a question of science, as unclear as the benefits of this green plan are for actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier this year, sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said she’s talking with Ottawa about making electric buses an integral part of Winnipeg Transit. However, Winnipeg Transit operations are not a major contributor to the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. (Wendy Beulow/CBC)

Where the province truly stumbles in terms of basic science is evident in its plans for Winnipeg Transit.

As Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman often points out, the province has frozen its operating funding for the Manitoba capital’s transit system for two years.

This led the city to hike bus fares 25 cents this year just to maintain transit service at its existing, somewhat unsatisfactory level. Commuter complaints about rush-hour pass-ups abound, while transit ridership has declined.

It’s something of a paradox: the people who rely on Winnipeg Transit the most aren’t always getting what they need from it, while commuters with other options β€” primarily, personal motor vehicles β€” appear to be abandoning the service.

Buying buses vs. spending to keep them running

From a policy level, you would expect the provincial government to size up this situation and attempt to improve transit service.

But that’s not what the province is doing. Rather than improve transit service, it’s proposing to spend money on equipment.

The province wants to help the city buy more electric buses, albeit not with provincial dollars.

Earlier this year, provincial Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said she’s talking with Ottawa about making electric buses an integral part of Winnipeg Transit, possibly using some of the $67 million available to Manitoba through the federal Low-Carbon Economy Fund.

From a climate science perspective, this appears to be highly suspect, if not counterproductive, because Winnipeg Transit operations are not a major contributor to the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Transit is already relatively green

According to a city planning document prepared this spring for council’s executive policy committee, only 0.8 per cent of all the greenhouse gas emissions generated in Winnipeg come from Winnipeg transit.

Personal motor vehicles, meanwhile, generate 32.1 per cent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, while another 17.6 per cent come from commercial vehicles.

Some transit critics point to the construction of the Southwest Transitway as a culprit in drawing buses away from regular streets. But mass transit corridors are intended to reduce the cost of city services over the long term by increasing density, rather than improve transit service in the short term. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

In other words, even if all 535 buses in Winnipeg Transit’s fleet were converted from diesel to electric vehicles, the city wouldn’t even be able to shave a percentage point off its greenhouse-gas emissions.

The easiest way for the city to achieve that aim would be to get more people out of their cars and on to public transit. But few Winnipeggers will choose to do this as long as Winnipeg Transit fails to meet their needs.

The Southwest Transit scapegoat

Some transit critics point to the construction of the Southwest Transitway, the city’s first dedicated bus corridor, as a culprit in drawing buses away from regular streets.

Mass transit corridors, however, do not exist to improve transit service in short term, as bizarre as that might sound.

Rather, bus corridors primarily serve as a means of reducing the cost of city services over the long term. They’re supposed to spark higher-density housing developments that place more people closer together and thus reduce the kilometres of roads and sewers and water mains the city has to fix every year.

To date, however, the returns from bus rapid transit have yet to be meaningful in terms of either new housing developments or improved transit service. On the latter front, Winnipeg Transit continues to struggle to maintain existing service levels, never mind improve its service.

By promising more buses, rather than funds to pay for the people and fuel to operate those buses, the province has made a deliberate choice not to improve service. 

​It’s also a deliberate choice to spend federal money earmarked to combat climate change on the one aspect of the city’s transportation market that does not generate a significant portion of the city’s greenhouse gases.

Published at Sun, 15 Jul 2018 07:00:00 -0400