New report finds more rail transit means less air pollution for Torontonians

Blog - Jan. 19, 2011 - By Cherise Burda

It may seem like stating the obvious — commuters who take the train (whether subway, Go transit or proposed light-rail) to and from work produce less air pollution than those who drive. The same goes for shipping. Moving freight out of trucks and onto trains and providing commuters with rapid, affordable transit options in and around Toronto will reduce smog, clear up traffic congestion, fight climate change, improve people's health and save Ontario taxpayers billions of dollars every year.

Unfortunately, the benefits of replacing road transportation with rapid transit have often been obscured in the highly charged debate over transportation planning in the Toronto region. Those benefits are the focus of a new report released today by the Pembina Institute and Sustainable Prosperity.

Putting Transportation on Track in the GTHA finds that road-based passenger travel produces two to four times more pollution per kilometre than rail-based travel — whether on subway or rapid light-rail trains. In the greater Toronto and Hamilton region, where 70 to 90 per cent of transportation takes place on roads, changing how people commute and ship goods from one area to another can lead to significant health benefits and cost savings, which are outlined in the report.

As the province and Metrolinx (the transportation planning authority the GTHA) continue to discuss the largest transportation strategy and transit investment in the region's history, evidence that points to the health and environmental benefits of rail travel should inform decision-making.

The solution to pollution

Road transportation produces the majority of air pollutants that cause smog. According to Toronto Public Health, traffic pollution contributes directly to illness and death, costing on average 440 lives and $2.2 billion in related health-care costs in the region each year.

Every commuter who chooses to ride the rails rather than driving a single-occupancy vehicle (such as a four-door sedan) reduces the amount of smog-causing air contaminants by 90 per cent. However, the 'ride more rail' solution to the air pollution problem is not about forcing current drivers out of their cars. It's about making rail-based transit a convenient and accessible option for the future commuters of the region, since 3 million more people and 1.5 million more cars are expected to populate the GTHA over the next 10 to 20 years.

Given the rate of growth expected and the region's issues with traffic congestion and air quality today, transportation planning for the GTHA should prioritize rail-based transit, like Metrolinx's the Big Move, and the province and regional governments should move forward to build the necessary infrastructure without delays or funding cuts. A report last year by the Pembina Institute identified five top provincial policies to reduce fuel consumption and emissions from personal transportation — and number one was to implement the Big Move.

A table in today's report showing current modes of transportation in the Toronto and Hamilton areas illustrates the opportunity facing decision-makers in the region. If even a quarter of the drivers in the region switched to a cleaner form of transportation, air pollution and traffic congestion would be significantly reduced.

How we get around

GTHA

GTA

Automobile

81.2%

78%

Transit

10.3%

15%

Walking & cycling

5.9%

7%

Other

2.6%

-

TOTAL

100%

100%

 

Implications for Toronto's transit plans

Earlier this month, Pembina released Making Tracks to Torontonians, a report which compares two transit options for Canada's largest city: a plan to build between 52 and 75 kilometres of light-rail rapid transit, or 18 kilometres of new subway line.

While the comparison found the light rail transit (LRT) plan would deliver more benefits for every dollar invested, the report also compared GHGs for both options and found that GHG emissions are slightly lower for subways in general, while light-rail came out as the cleaner option per dollar invested.

For this new report, we crunched some more numbers on the two main pollutants that create smog — nitrogen oxide (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — to see how much pollution would be created by the City of Toronto's transit options.

On a per-kilometre basis, subways are more effective than LRT at reducing smog-causing pollution. However, if we include the cost factor, LRT gets more people riding rail per dollar invested, resulting in greater overall reductions in air pollution.

To break it down in detail:

  • Phase One of the four LRT priority projects costs 40% more than the subway extension but results in three times more kilometres of service and 80% more reductions in VOCs and NOx.
  • The completed four LRT priority projects would cost 69% more than the subway plan but result in 4.2 times more kilometers of service and 170% more reductions in NOx and VOCs.

The table below presents a detailed comparison of Toronto's transit options, considering: kilometers of service, access, number of trips, traffic relief and air pollution reductions.

 

Subway Extension

Four LRT Priority Projects Phase One

Four LRT Priority Projects Completed

Transit City

Length of transit (km)

18

52

75

148

Cost of plan
(2010 dollars)

$6.2 B

$8.7 B

$10.5 B

$17.2 B

Cost per km

$344 million

$167 million

$140 million

$116 million

Torontonians with access to rapid transit

122,000

400,000

580,000

1,260,000

Transit trips per year

65,000,000

86,000,000

126,000,000

224,000,000

Cars off road (minimum)

60,000

80,000

120,000

220,000

GHG reductions (TCO2e)

75,000

130,000

201,000

327,000

NOx reductions (Tonnes)

174

307

475

772

VOC reductions (Tonnes)

222

401

620

1,008

NOx reductions (T/km)

9.7

5.9

6.3

5.2

VOC reductions (T/km)

12.3

7.7

8.3

6.8

Subways definitely have their benefits — in addition to producing less pollution per kilometre travelled, they also offer commuter benefits such as fast service, and a dry and sheltered place to wait. However, in this case, LRT is the better choice: the four LRT projects would bring rapid transit to the doorsteps of many more Torontonians — including four to six times more low-income people than served through the subway plan — and leave us with better health and cleaner air to breathe.


Cherise Burda

Cherise Burda was Ontario director at the Pembina Institute until 2015.


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