Source: Transport Canada (2012) Transportation in Canada 2011.

According to NDP MP Olivia Chow, understanding Stephen Harper’s climate policy is easy: just look at federal funding for public transit over the last four years. Transport Canada figures show that federal transit funding has plunged from a modest $1.1 billion in 2008 to about $300 million in 2011 (see graph).

If the trend continues, federal transit funding could drop to zero within the next few years.

In contrast, federal support to road building and airports has increased significantly since 2008 under the Conservatives. Road spending averaged over $1.5 billion per year and has never dropped below the 1.04 billion spent in 2008/09. Similarly, support to carbon-intensive air travel has increased from $800 to $900 million.

Olivia Chow: Conservatives lack commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 

 In an email interview with, Chow, NDP Critic for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, said the Conservative government’s transportation spending record and other actions shows a lack of commitment to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming.

“It is obvious that the Conservatives are not interested in lowering Canada’s carbon emissions. From the unbridled development of the tar sands to the cutting of programs like ecoEnergy (for making homes more energy-efficient) to the trashing of the Kyoto Protocol. Realistically, we need a change in government to make the reduction of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions a priority again,” Chow wrote.

More importantly, Chow states her cautious support for greening the blacktop budget — shifting federal spending from high-carbon modes such as urban freeways and airports to low-carbon modes such as electric passenger rail, public transit and cycling: “Where feasible, federal transit dollars should favour green technology and low-carbon modes of transportation.”

This is a significant step towards an NDP transportation strategy that really addresses the challenge of slashing carbon emissions from the transportation sector. Chow should be applauded for this courageous move; it puts her and the NDP out in front of most Canadian environmental groups. But, strange as it may seem to Canadians still used to being the good guys, many U.S. environmental groups and unions are far ahead of their Canadian colleagues.

U.S. environmental groups campaign for low-carbon transportation

In the U.S. major environmental groups including the Sierra Club USA have well established campaigns opposing spending on roadway expansion and supporting increased spending on transit and other low-carbon transportation.

In the U.S. there are also multiple coalitions that call for funding re-allocation to low-carbon modes, including Transportation for America which includes the Amalgamated Transit Union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the Transport Workers Union of America, among a diverse list of over 500 groups. Many U.S. groups have adopted the slogan ‘fix it first’ to campaign for an end to wasteful spending on wider roads while existing roads and other infrastructure crumble from lack of maintenance and repair.

The supposedly hopeless car lovers in the U.S. are seeing the writing on the wall thanks to groups like the Sierra Club USA, unions and businesses working together. In 2008 Seattle area voters approved a transit-only initiative called Sound Transit, after earlier rejecting a scheme with a ‘balance’ of freeway and transit spending. Sound Transit’s advantages were explained to voters as follows: “The plan rapidly increases express bus and commuter rail service and creates a 53-mile regional light rail system – all with a lower price tag, faster delivery dates and more public accountability than last year’s roads-and-transit package.” Even sprawling suburban counties backed the initiative.

In contrast, Canadian groups like the David Suzuki Foundation and the Sierra Club of Canada support transit and cycling but mainly avoid mentioning spending on roadway expansion. One key exception is the Wilderness Committee which has been actively campaigning for re-allocating funds from roads to transit for years; their latest effort is the Transit Not Tankers petition calling on governments to “shift from spending our money on new highways to investing it in public transit and passenger rail.” 

In Canada transportation accounts for about 50 per cent of energy-related carbon emissions when full lifecycle emissions are included — sources such as extracting and refining oil from the tar sands, road and bridge construction and maintenance, and vehicle manufacturing. Tailpipe emissions alone make up about a third of greenhouse gas emissions. The percentage of oil consumed for transportation is even larger, making transportation the dominant consumer of oil in Canada.

A growing proportion of our gasoline, diesel and jet fuel is refined from tar sands bitumen, oil from fracking operations, and extreme deep-sea wells which are even more carbon intensive and polluting that conventional oil.

Shifting to transit can mean green jobs and social justice 

So far, most Canadian environmental groups have approached global warming as if it was a minor problem that could be solved with timid half measures, like adding a bit of public transit while expanding roadways. This is like applying the brakes with one foot while keeping your other firmly on the gas. It is not at all surprising that the National Transit Strategy Chow and the federal NDP have been promoting until recently follows this same half-measures approach.

In the U.S., environmental groups along with unions in alliances such as Transportation for America have been touting the green jobs and social justice benefits that would be created by shifting investment to transit, making it easier for politicians to actually implement these changes. 

The U.S.-based Transportation Equity Network report More Transit = More Jobs analyzed 20 U.S. metropolitan areas and concluded that shifting half of highway funds to transit would result in a net gain of 180,000 jobs — with no additional spending required.

The report also proposes focusing more on immediate improvements to transit service rather than resource intensive capital investments (such as subway construction) as a way of boosting job creation. “Transit operations generate more jobs per dollar spent than transit capital spending because transit operations are more labor-intensive and do not involve significant non-labor inputs, such as land acquisition or materials.”

Taking on Big Oil 

In Canada, progressive politicians such as Chow are going up against Big Oil and the blacktop lobby with few visible allies. But the evidence that shifting public resources to transit is a good way of creating more jobs is just as strong in Canada as in the U.S.

The Canadian Urban Transit Association says that “a $1 million transit expenditure creates an average of 21.4 new jobs, compared to 7.5 jobs for the same automotive expense, or just 4.5 jobs in the petroleum industry.” A Sustainable Prosperity Canada report ranks investments in public transit as the #1 green employment option for Canada, whereas freeway and bridge expansions were ranked #21 — third from last. Building cycling and pedestrian infrastructure has also been shown to produce more jobs per dollar than road expansion. 

The best thing about greening the federal blacktop budget is that it would make our cities less polluted and more affordable. It would mean that families would not be forced to strain their budgets having to own and operate multiple cars and pay for increasingly expensive gas. It would means healthier communities with less pollution where more people get adequate exercise by walking and cycling. 

Greening the blacktop budget is not just a nice little idea – it is one of the essential changes that we must make. Now that Olivia Chow and the NDP have taken the first cautious step, it is time for Canadian environmental groups and other progressive organizations to catch up. Quickly.


Eric Doherty is a Vancouver-based transportation planner and writer. He is a co-author of the CCPA/Wilderness Committee report Transportation Transformation. Find him on Twitter: Eric_Doherty