Electric vehicles are getting all the buzz these days, and for good reason — they are poised to shake up the automotive industry in a big way. But electrifying cars can’t solve our climate and congestion issues on its own. The electrification of public transit is equally important ­— and it presents an equally exciting opportunity, too. 

In southern Ontario, almost three out of four people commute to work by passenger vehicle — often solo.  As nice as it may be to have some alone time for a morning singalong, all those cars are the reason the transportation sector has become the single largest slice of Ontario’s polluting emissions pie.

As part of the global effort to fight climate change, Ontario has committed to shrinking that pie, dramatically. Accomplishing that will mean shrinking that transportation pie slice to zero or near zero by mid-century.

Returning our carbon output to a time before social media, smartphones, or Netflix will be no easy feat. Electric cars and ride-sharing apps will be a part of the solution. But they can only go so far. There’s no room for new roads in urban centres, where most of us live. To deal with congestion, and reduce carbon emissions and air pollution, we also need to get more people moving by mass transit.

The province is embarking on an unprecedented build out of public transit — and most of that will be electrically powered. The streetcars are electric; light-rail transit (LRT) and subways are too. But most trains and buses in southern Ontario still run today on diesel — a dirty fossil fuel that is classified as carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization and that contributes to climate change.

The truth is that the existing GO rail network is the backbone of today’s system. And electrifying that backbone will bring big benefits by cutting both pollution and congestion.

Electric trains are cleaner and more efficient. The electrification of the rail lines is key to delivering on the province’s plan to expand public transit routes, get more riders on board, and reduce emissions. Environmental benefits aside, electric trains can start and stop more quickly, meaning they can actually move more people, more rapidly.

Electric busses are part of the strategy too. And they are coming soon, to a bus shelter near you. Brampton is the first community in Ontario to trial zero-emissions battery-electric buses, and Newmarket is set to follow. Expect to see more of these clean busses on the roads in the coming years.

And we’re starting to realize how an electrified transit system can complement our clean electricity grid and clean technology sector. Metrolinx, the regional transportation authority, recently cancelled plans to build a gas-powered backup power plant on the Eglinton Crosstown LTR, and will go with a massive battery backup system instead. That means that instead of polluting the residents of Mount Dennis, the province has shown that it’s listening to the wishes of communities who want cleaner options. 

We’re headed in the right direction, but there’s still farther to go. 100% of Dutch electric trains were powered by wind energy this January, and a hundred thousand electric buses were sold in China in 2016 alone. But rest assured, clean public transit is coming to Ontario.  It’ll get more people moving, cut polluting emissions, and provide more transit options within and between communities.  In a word, it’s electrifying.

Environmental Defence is Canada’s most effective environmental action organization. We challenge, and inspire change in government, business, and people to ensure a greener, healthier, and prosperous life for all.