Will Vancouver’s transportation referendum be good for the climate?

Want to know the region’s single largest source of greenhouse gases? It’s cars and trucks.

Light vehicles are responsible for 31% of the region’s emissions. Add up the emissions of Metro Vancouver’s cement, industrial, and agricultural sectors, and it’s still only half the carbon pollution hit of cars and trucks in Metro.

Along with all the carbon emitted from the tailpipes of hundreds of thousands of vehicles crawling over the road network comes air pollution in various forms: nitrous and sulphur oxides and particulate matter. These pollutants all have measurable health effects on residents — particularly vulnerable residents such as seniors and children.


Metro Vancouver emissions inventory – Metro Vancouver

Given that autos presently dominate the travel mode share of the region (73% cars and 27% walk/bike/transit), cars will always be a key ingredient of how we get around. But it’s not a sustainable practice — environmentally, economically, or by any other measure — and cannot continue if the region is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and maintain livability. As Metro Vancouver adds one million new residents over the next 25 years, we could see an additional 600,000 cars on the road, leading to even more congestion.

The mayors’ investment plan offers an alternative: more options for you to get around and an opportunity to save resources and lower your carbon footprint.


Here’s why the transportation plan is good for climate change:

With a new LRT for Surrey and the Langleys, Broadway SkyTrain extension, a 25% increase in bus service, and increased SeaBus and HandyDART service, the transit package will get more people out of their cars. Buses and rapid transit will come more often and will be available to more people, as a matter of fact, 70% of Metro Vancouverites will have access to frequent transit.

Transit is an incredibly energy- and space-efficient way of getting around. For example, the greenhouse gas footprint of a diesel bus (40 passengers) is eight times less than that of a single-occupant car on a per-kilometre basis. Moreover, buses require ten times less road space than passenger cars to move the same amount of people.

Let me put this into perspective: It takes around the same amount of resources to transport 50,000-100,000 people by bus as it does to transport 10,000 people by car (GHGs and road space)

While this is a highly contrived example, it illustrates how influential transportation is in shaping energy demand and creating carbon emissions. The point is that cities with high transit ridership have low transportation-related GHG footprints: Berlin, with its excellent cycling and public transportation options, generates only one tonne of carbon emissions per capita to move people around, while car-dependent Houston creates six tonnes of greenhouse gas emission to do the same.

Furthermore, transportation and land use go hand in hand. While it’s important to have a variety of housing types to suit all lifestyles and family structures, transit is conducive to more compact, walkable, and bikeable communities. It allows cities and municipalities to build more affordable and energy-efficient buildings and infrastructure. Using the same Berlin-Houston example: to house its residents, the sprawling Texas city requires three times more land per capita than Berlin.

That’s more concrete, wiring, lighting, and sewage and water infrastructure per person and a larger carbon footprint.

It’s clear that there is a relationship between transportation infrastructure, how we choose to move around, and energy and climate impacts. Yet, while Metro Vancouver’s transit system ranks well (6th best Walk Score transit score in North America), it still has a ways to go.

While it’s not often that we, as individuals, have an opportunity to have an opportunity to take climate action at the ballot box, the transportation referendum offers a tangible alternative to a congested and polluting transportation system.