Squandered Money : Funding Mass Transit to Reduce Emissions

Contributed by Robert Lyman 2019. Lyman’s bio can be read here.

Federal, provincial and municipal governments in Canada are spending several billion dollars a year to expand public transit, increasingly focused on light rail systems. The public rationale for this frequently cites the need to promote modal shift from cars to transit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ‘save the planet’.

In fact, while transit use is rising modestly and mainly in very large cities, almost four out of five Canadians continue to commute by personal vehicle.

The costs of light rail transit systems are rising considerably. An increasing number cost over $200 million per kilometre to build, and operating subsidies for all transit systems are rising.

The Canadian Urban Transit Association Vision 2040 calls for transit ridership to increase by 86% from 2012 to 2040. Yet, even doubling transit ridership would only reduce GHG emissions by 2.5 megatonnes per year, reducing transportation-related emissions by 1.5% and total emissions by 0.4%.

Transit subsidies are the most expensive possible way to reduce emissions; the cost likely to exceed several hundred dollars per tonne, much higher than all other options available.

Spending on transit as a climate policy will not “save the planet”. Instead, it is a sad case of squandered money.

Squandered Money


  1. Andrew Roman

    An excellent brief article. I would like to see a comparison of costs, however. If a government is determined to “fight” climate change with current technology rather that to adapt to it as may be necessary there are better and worse ways to spend the money. If the social cost of CO2 is X (say a high of $200/tonne) then spending $1000/tonne is 5 times too high. Is there anything a Canadian government could usefully spend taxpayer money on at $200/ton or less?

  2. Robert Francis Lyman

    Andrew, the last time that the federal and provincial governments made an effort to assess the comparative cost-effectiveness of GHG emission reduction options was during the Climate Change Table Process that took place over an 18-month period in 1998 and 1999. The “tables” were composed of government, industry and NGO representatives according to different sectors of the economy. What resulted was a group of assessments of varying quality that, among other things, attempted to rank the measures according to their potential for emission reduction and their costs per tonne of CO2 equivalent emissions avoided. The transportation sector is one in which the “abatement” costs are especially high due to the absence of non-oil fuel alternatives and other factors. Most of the abatement options in other sectors ranged from $20 to $100 per tonne, but those in the transportation sector ranged up to well over $1,000 per tonne. Transit, and incentives for electric vehicles, were among the most expensive.

  3. Robert Francis Lyman

    Andrew, For some reason, a long reply that I typed was not communicated to you, so I will try to send a short one. The only comprehensive study of the cost-effectiveness of alternative emissions reduction measures in Canada was done during the Climate Change Table process from 1998 to 1999. The results were largely ignored, as the major environmental group succeeded in persuading successive governments that it does not matter what it costs so long as we are “saving the planet”. The general range of costs were from $20 to $100 per tonne, but some transportation measures, like subsidies to transit and EV’s, were many hundreds of dollars per tonne.

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