Electric Buses: Battleground for the Just Transition (Part 1)

Canadian public transit is entering a new era of propulsion, transitioning from diesel-fueled buses to smooth-running, practically silent, low-emission battery electric buses (BEBs). Some transit history buffs will be quick to point out that many forms of transit, including the trolley buses of Toronto, were once fueled by electricity, so this is merely a return to simpler days. However, the scale of this transition is going to be truly unique in Canadian public transit history.

              While BEB pilot projects have been popping up in cities across Canada (including ATU workplaces in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Brampton, York Region, Hamilton, Windsor, London and Ottawa) the transition to fully electrified fleets is already underway in our country’s largest metropolises. Montreal recently announced that STM will soon have the first fully electric public bus route in Canada, as part of their strategy to have a 100% zero-emission fleet by 2040. In June 2019, Toronto launched the first fully operational BEB in the city’s north end (with 60 more to come by the end of the year), and like Montreal, has set the deadline of 2042 to achieve a complete fleet transition.

Electric Bus announcement Guelph

Federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna announced the electric bus program in Guelph (photo from Global News)

This transition is being encouraged by academics, policy makers, industry, and all levels of government.  In Prime Minister Trudeau’s 2019 mandate letter to Catherine McKenna, Canadian Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, the Liberal Government announced that beginning in 2023, new bus procurement that is federally financed must be zero-emission. They further committed to invest in 5000 new zero-emission buses for transit and school boards. This pledge was put into practice last month, when an announcement was made by the City of Guelph, the Province of Ontario and the federal government to purchase 65 electric transit buses and build a storage facility. And just this week, Mayors of Canada’s largest cities were in Ottawa to push the Federal Government to follow through on their election commitment to fund electric transit infrastructure.


              So, why are all levels of government encouraging the transition to BEBs? First and foremost, electric buses are a significantly cleaner option than diesel-fueled buses.  With ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets to reach in the coming decades, governments are looking at transportation as one area to cut back emissions significantly. Indeed, 25% of Canada’s emission comes from transportation, which is the second largest source of GHGs in Canada.

Relatedly, there are immediate and positive consequences to reducing emissions on the health and wellbeing of cities. In Chicago, for example, the city’s transit agency estimates that their two BEBs save $110,000 USD a year in resident’s health case expenses due to less air pollution from diesel buses.  Combined, the environmental and social benefits of BEBs have clearly captured the attention of public transit agencies and governments. This trend toward electrification in transit is not unique to Canada; many cities globally are working through the early challenges of electrification, propelled by the promise of health and climate benefits ahead.


Electric buses are one tool to reduce GHGs, although electrification of public transit alone is not going to save us from climate change. To be clear, the impact of electrifying transit fleets is significant, but it is not nearly enough if those buses are not picking up more riders along the way. As a society, we need to dramatically reduce car dependency. The most immediate transportation priority in urban areas is not electric vehicle policy but maximizing the share of trips taken by public transit.

In theory, the best transit infrastructure is one that promotes a modal shift (ie. getting people out of their private vehicles and onto public transit) and also an energy shift (ie. the transition from diesel-fueled to BEBs). Herein lies a contentious argument: is it better to increase fleet size or electrify transit?

Supporters of the transition to BEBs criticize any delay on the transition, citing the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to act immediately; the David Suzuki Foundation publicly criticized the federal position on funding electric transit starting in 2023:

“This means the feds could pay for diesel-burning buses for another three years. In a climate crisis, that doesn't make sense.” (David Suzuki Foundation)

Suzuki goes so far as to say that the political will necessary to electrify transit fleets from coast to coast could even have “benefits for national unity.”

But those in favour of a more gradual transition will point to the eagerness with which governments support BEBs as a flashy solution, without addressing the considerable cost increase of these buses. On average, BEBs have a higher upfront cost than conventional buses, and because of lower range and higher caring time, more BEBs are needed to replace conventional buses (more than a one-to-one ratio). These advocates prioritize increasing the size of the fleet (even if it means purchasing cheaper diesel-fueled buses) in order to improve the frequency, reliability, and accessibility of the transit system, with the intention to drive up ridership.

"Electrification is a distraction, as governments prefer one-time capital upgrades and fear the financial commitment of ongoing service improvements.” (Bartley Kives on Twitter)

So, unless governments are willing to rethink transportation networks generally, and invest massively in low-carbon public transit, the transportation sector will not experience the transformation that electric buses promise. This new era of propulsion is rife with political considerations. In part two of this post, we’ll address the potential costs of BEBs on Canadian manufacturers and transit workers!