Cove: It’s time to support and re-define Ottawa's electric bus pilot project

On April 24, Ottawa Council declared a climate emergency. Even a few months ago, few people would have expected this move. The objection to the word “emergency” by some councillors took on a dark irony the next day, when a state of emergency was declared due to almost unprecedented flooding in the region.

For some councillors, the main priority was making sure the motion was not merely symbolic. If the city was going to declare a climate emergency, there would have to be action associated with it. Coun. Catherine McKenney had already submitted a request to city staff to study the environmental and financial impacts of an electric bus pilot project for OC Transpo in February, giving people concerned about the environment, public health and public transit hope that an electric bus project could be a first step following the declaration.

Last week, OC Transpo replied to McKenney’s request saying it does not recommend an electric bus pilot project for Ottawa, arguing that it would be more cost-effective to focus on the LRT system and monitor electric bus pilots in other cities, such as Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary. The cost of purchasing buses, retrofitting infrastructure to allow charging and training the workforce to support new technologies were all listed as reasons not to move forward with a pilot project. It would be better, Transpo said, to wait until the mid-2020s when a large portion of the existing fleet needs to be replaced anyway.

The cost of purchasing buses, retrofitting infrastructure to allow charging and training the workforce to support new technologies were all listed as reasons not to move forward.

The position omits one very important element of the pilot project: capacity building. A pilot project does not function solely to determine which electric bus model is best suited to Ottawa’s size and temperature range. It is also an opportunity to build the capacity for electric buses that will be needed in the long term. Infrastructure retrofitting and retraining programs would be expensive aspects of a pilot program: but they are necessary, and they will still be necessary in 2025 regardless of which buses are recommended by other cities.

Looking to the future, the transition to electric buses is going to become an even more pressing issue. As we get closer to the ecological tipping point where the disastrous effects of climate change become irreversible – which the United Nations says is only 11 years away – we will be forced to make large-scale changes to the systems we use every day. Delaying the pilot project is not a way of saving the city money, it simply reduces the timeline for an inevitable project.

When it comes to climate change, some politicians and decision-makers question whether we can afford to implement the programs necessary to create a green economy. It is far past the time to start asking if we can afford not to. This is one of the great rhetorical questions of the climate crisis. But I don’t mean it in a rhetorical sense; I am asking, quite literally, if our city can afford to delay the expenses required to mitigate climate change into the future.

Putting off this pilot project is like saying the housing market is too expensive, so instead of buying a fixer-upper now you’ll wait five years and buy a mansion. Rather than shutting down any hopes of an electric bus pilot project, why not change the scope of what a pilot project could mean? The route planning, infrastructure building and worker training will all have to be done at a community level – Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary can’t do it for us – so why not start it now?

Vicki Lynn Cove is a writer and activist based in Ottawa. She is a member of the Youth Climate Ambassadors and is working with the Healthy Transportation Coalition on the electric bus campaign.

This piece was originally posted as an Op-Ed in the Ottawa Citizen. To read the original article, click here. 

Photo of an electric bus is courtesy of Graham Hughes, via The Canadian Press 

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