Canada’s cities are growing. And that’s a good thing. To play in the worldwide economy, Canada needs mega-cities where millions of people innovate, create, invent, and socialize.
“Frequency, reliability, safety, affordability – these are the unmoving characteristics of a working public transit system that ensures a city’s economic and environmental sustainability.”
But as our cities grow, they need to be able to move people – from home to work, home to leisure, and everywhere in between. Efficient mobility and accessible transportation were already urgent issues before the pandemic. It’s now become a do- or die-issue for the City of Toronto and the rest of Canada’s growing urban centers.
Frequency, reliability, safety, and affordability – these are the unmoving characteristics of a working public transit system that ensures a city’s economic and environmental sustainability in the low-carbon economy.
By leveraging new technologies – including big data in transit – we can find out how people are travelling in their communities, and how they need to travel. With this information in hand, our cities will finally be equipped to leverage utility companies, technology providers, and government funding to properly design a modern multi-modal network that supports our changing urban landscape, our growing population, and our need for zero-carbon solutions.
Two key elements determine if we will be successful.
The first is urban mobility itself and the second is interregional mobility into urban centers.
Modernizing Urban Mobility
Modernizing urban mobility in Canada requires initiating and socializing the tough dialogue about municipal road pricing, toll roads, and parking fees. These measures can significantly impact household decision-making around car use and ownership and ultimately lead to a more sustainable and efficient transportation system.
“By reducing reliance on private vehicles, we can promote a greener, more sustainable future for urban mobility while also improving public health and quality of life.”
Municipal road pricing involves charging drivers for using congested roads during peak hours. It’s done around the world. It’s time to do it here. Road pricing helps reduce traffic congestion and vehicle emissions by encouraging more efficient use of existing infrastructure and it drives people to think about where they should live over the long term to reduce commute costs. Toll roads and parking fees also incentivize commuters to consider alternative modes of transportation such as public transit, walking, or cycling.
By reducing reliance on private vehicles, we can promote a greener, more sustainable future for urban mobility while also improving public health and quality of life.
The first step to success is policy development that pumps road-priced revenues into public transit operations, expansion, and decarbonization along with the basic – and most obviously needed – mobility improvements in sidewalk and scooter and bicycle lane maintenance and expansions.
Investing in these areas is short-term taxpayer pain for long-term economic and environmental gain.
In addition to road pricing revenues, provinces also need to stop hoarding. They need to capture carbon-priced revenues once and for all and funnel them into public transit so it becomes the primary and optimal mode of travel for most Canadians, most of the time.
Anything less and we won’t be able to launch better rider or client-oriented systems that attract the rider as a customer, retain them, and show them value for their dollar.
Technology innovation in zero-emissions battery and hydrogen fuel cell electric buses and autonomous shuttles is hyper-critical, of course. But it’s all useless talk in the transit world if society and the governments we elect do not prioritize transit across all policy discussions – as part of road design, condo design, housing developments, utility upgrades, and all infrastructure discussions the city has along the way.
Improving Interregional Mobility Into Urban Centers
To fix cities, we need to go outside the city. Without interregional mobility into and through urban centers, we are talking to ourselves and making little long-term economic or environmental change.
Lots of Canadians do not live in the core. They live around the core. And they get stuck for hours trying to get into and outside of it. They also struggle to travel across this vast country to see their friends and family, or even to work and earn a paycheck.
Interregional mobility that is frequent, reliable, safe and affordable is equally important for a future economy that is mobile and efficient.
High-frequency rail may cause some folks in the industry to meltdown in a fit of rage over why it’s not all high-speed yesterday. Let’s focus. High-frequency rail is a solution that can merge into the creaky public transit systems we already have to work with. They can support commuter regional rail and kill off the cars that are clogging our highways and forcing drivers to waste precious hours of their day stuck in traffic.
“The movement of goods and services that are carbon-reduced and economically efficient depends on people getting out of cars and into interregional rail as soon as possible.”
Interregional high-frequency rail can enhance connectivity and accessibility between regions sooner rather than later, benefiting not only the beleaguered commuter stuck behind the wheel but also the costly freight truck stuck behind her. The movement of goods and services that are carbon-reduced and economically efficient depends on people getting out of cars and into interregional rail as soon as possible.
Lest we think this is a solution for low to middle-income Canadians only, let’s keep in mind these kinds of rail systems can partner with airlines, like Air Canada and WestJet, to offer wealthy business travellers convenient and cost-reduced modes of mobility, too. This is how we create a seamless and interconnected transportation network.
Also, the current focus on “high frequency” rail does not mean we forget about speed. The long-term future for Canada must have high-speed rail in high-density jurisdictions. It might take decades to get there, but we have shown we’re willing – as a nation – to pump tens of billions of dollars into pipelines across the Rocky Mountains and electric car manufacturing plants that might employ people if they ever get built.
Rail is in this same category of mission-critical investments for a globalized economy of the 21st century. Investments today could start to yield corridors of potential profitability for high-speed rail by mid-century.
Elevating VIA Rail Passenger Services rather than relegating it to 19th-century standards in expected passenger rail quality would be a first step. Integration at crossing points with GO trains and buses, seamless connections with local transit, and partnerships with airlines would further ensure an efficient transportation system that caters to public transit users, congested car drivers, and the business travellers of tomorrow.
Canada Needs a Roadmap for Mobility
A cross-provincial national Public Transportation Sustainability Roadmap is essential to guide both provincial and federal investments in public transit and mobility. This roadmap should set clear targets for sustainable transportation infrastructure and operations and ensure a coordinated effort toward a greener and more efficient future.
“A cross-provincial national Public Transportation Sustainability Roadmap is essential to guide both provincial and federal investments in public transit and mobility.”
It should serve as a framework for provincial governments to channel investments into local public transit and mobility initiatives. By setting targets that align with each province’s unique context and needs, the roadmap can effectively promote region-specific solutions while maintaining a coherent national vision.
And the roadmap should outline continued federal investments in public transit and mobility. The Permanent Transit Fund, which is set to launch in 2026, can act as a tether, providing stable and long-term funding for public transportation projects across the country.
Federal targets should be set for reducing car usage and increasing rail use per capita between cities in Canada, along with concomitant increases in rail and public transit usage. These targets will help steer investment decisions and policy initiatives toward a more sustainable and efficient transportation system.
An end-to-end interregional and municipal/urban mobility strategy will support a more connected and accessible transportation network.
As urban populations continue to grow and the demand for sustainable transportation options increases, it is vital to have a plan – one that unites all levels of government in addressing the needs of our highly distributed and small but growing population across 10 provinces and three territories.
With a national Public Transportation Sustainability Roadmap in hand that leverages the Permanent Transit Fund and targets reduced reliance on cars to increase rail and public transit usage, we can be a nation for others to emulate. Canada can lead and win by delivering frequent, reliable, safe and affordable public mobility and transportation that solidifies our economy and liberates our people.