Public transport: an investment that justifies the expense

Reshaping the way we move around the country is one of the great challenges of our time. The climatic reality and the growing urbanization of our economies are forcing us to rethink mobility.

The problem arises in Quebec, where almost half of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – 43% – come from transportation. But the issue goes well beyond climate protection: public transport is an essential service and a fundamental element of economic development.

There is a recurring lack of resources, which encourages transport agencies to reduce services. Result: users return to their cars, which further reduces the revenue of transport companies.

How to get out of this negative spiral?

One of the major obstacles to modernizing mobility in Quebec is that public transportation is still seen as an expense rather than an investment.

The Minister of Transport and Sustainable Mobility, Geneviève Guilbault, tabled a bill to create the new Mobilité Infra Québec agency. She says she wants to bring together real expertise in order to have an overall vision of the challenge to be taken up. We cannot blame him for harboring this wish. Because for decades, we have always sought to understand what is the long-term vision of political decision-makers on the issue of public transport.

Will the minister’s bill make it possible to develop this vision which will not be subject to the vagaries of the surrounding political climate? Nothing is less certain, since it is clearly specified that this new agency will have the mission of carrying out the projects that the government will entrust to it.

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The Minister of Transport and Sustainable Mobility, Geneviève Guilbault, has been working for months on her bill intended to create Mobilité Infra Québec.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Sylvain Roy Roussel

If we want to put in place the right projects – those which do not necessarily respond to electoral deadlines and which do not only respond to short-term accounting logic, but to real needs – we should probably instill the opposite dynamic: whether first the experts who analyze the needs and possibilities, with a long-term horizon, and then make proposals to elected officials. Otherwise, the risk of politicization of projects and the risk of seeing a treasurer’s vision of public transport perpetuated will always be present.

However, it is a real conceptual revolution that political leaders must carry out. Consider public transport in the same way as they consider roads: as a development tool.

An investment or an expense?

Mobility expert from Polytechnique Montréal Catherine Morency summed up the problem as follows on the show All Terrain on April 28: Figures from all over the world clearly show that it brings us more as a society when we invest in public transportation than when we put money into roads.

According to this engineer, who is also a member of the Quebec government’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change, the authorities must stop seeing public transportation as an expense, but rather consider it as a real investment from which we reap the benefits, at the same time. title as the roads.

She is saddened by the negative discourse surrounding public transport, too focused, according to her, on expenses and deficits, and rarely on large-scale benefits: [Qu’en est-il] road network debts? she asks herself. There is not one road that brings in money. Why do we never raise this question?

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Catherine Morency, mobility expert at Polytechnique Montréal

Photo: Radio-Canada / Courtesy of Professor Morency

According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, every dollar invested in public transportation generates $3 in economic growth, in addition to an increase in productivity linked to reduced road congestion. Other studies in the United States even put this ratio at 1 to 5.

This is without taking into account the benefits for the environment and for physical and mental health, particularly among the elderly, for whom efficient and comfortable public transport is an open door to a richer social life.

Ms. Morency deplores the fact that we rarely include in the calculations the real costs of the presence of cars, such as atmospheric pollution or carbon emissions. GHG higher, the loss of productivity linked to road congestion, safety on residential streets, less space for walking or cycling, household debt to finance cars, etc.

According to a study published in December 2023 by Laval University, each kilometer traveled by car costs $0.95 for the user and $5.46 for society, compared to a social cost of $1.21 for each kilometer traveled by transport. collective. Five times less.

Priority to solo car

The public transport project is complex, because Quebecers are very attached to their solo cars. The vehicle fleet continues to grow – both electric and gasoline vehicles – and its scale reached record levels last year.

Growth that the government has encouraged, in particular by financing the acquisition of electric vehicles, or by giving a discount on driving licenses.

François Legault had promised to balance spending between road infrastructure and public transportation, but he never did it, and will not do it over the next decade, if the Quebec Plan is to be believed. infrastructure 2024-2034. Quebec plans more than double the amounts for bitumen, i.e. investments of $39.7 billion in the road network, compared to $14.5 billion for public transportation. 65% of investments go to roads.

>>Trucks and cars drive on a highway.>>

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A congested highway in Montreal.

Photo: Getty Images

In Ontario, to which Mr. Legault likes to compare himself, it is the opposite: from 2022 to 2032, the province of Doug Ford has planned to allocate almost three-quarters of its investments in transport infrastructure – 71% – to public transport.

Could it be that Toronto sees transportation spending more as a profitable investment for society?

With what money?

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Quebec, to reduce road congestion and to improve the state of mobility in general, the solution is known: we must convince as many motorists as possible to abandon solo carpooling.

How to trigger this big movement? There is no secret: citizens will change their behavior if the other forms of mobility offered are efficient, comfortable, frequent, safe and economical. If the only solution offered is a bus that passes during rush hours from Monday to Friday, the car will remain king.

But if we want to do things well, we will have to invest a lot of money.

This is why it is crucial for politicians to change their angle of attack; that they see the sums necessary for the modernization of public transport more as an investment that will be profitable in the relatively near future, and less as an expense.

This change in perception will have a significant positive effect: it will make them less hesitant to invest in projects that are not linked to the elections, and more creative and daring to find the necessary sums.

Where to find the money? There is no shortage of good ideas from experts.

  • Mobilize revenues from the carbon market for public transport. Quebec is sitting on a surplus of $1.7 billion in its Electrification and Climate Change Fund. Considering the lion’s share of transport in the GHG base, we could devote this sum specifically to transport.

  • Slow down on the electrification of the bus fleet. Not that there is any doubt that these urban buses will almost all be electric in the long term. It goes without saying. But by making it a priority, we are putting the cart before the horse: a bus may well be electric, if it only passes once an hour, citizens will not take it more. The amounts would be more effectively invested if they were first used to improve the quality of services, so that there is a real transfer from the car to public transportation.

  • Increase the financial contribution of motorists for the development of public transport. Little known fact, the “motorist contribution to public transit” was frozen province-wide more than 30 years ago, in 1992, at $30 per year. It has never been indexed since, which amounts to an annual decline since that time. An exception: Montreal, which however indexed it in 2011, and the tax was extended to the North Shore and the South Shore of the metropolis last January. Quebec and Sherbrooke announced this week that they also wanted to index the tax on registration in their city in order to finance public transport.

  • Do not neglect parallel policies that favor transportation. For example, financially helping young families to buy a house in the city, to prevent them from moving to the suburbs, is not in itself a transport measure, but it makes less polluting mobility more accessible.

That said, all measures put in place to discourage solo car use and to encourage citizens to use other forms of mobility must be done in parallel with an improvement in services.

The alternative, whether it is public transportation, cycling, walking, self-service modes of transportation or shared taxis, must be accessible, simple, effective, pleasant and well-priced.

Without this parallel improvement, the transfer to more modern mobility will simply not happen.

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