corner profile of OCtranspo electric bus stationed at bus stop
Photo: OCTranspo

Municipal transit agencies in Toronto, Ottawa, Regina and Saint John are the latest jurisdictions to make significant advances in their efforts to switch to fully electric bus fleets

Canadian municipalities are leading the way in fleet electrification with dozens of transit authorities coast-to-coast actively adopting zero-emission buses. The latest benchmark of the sector’s progress to lowering its emissions comes from four cities in three provinces with some taking further, and others completely new, steps toward electrification.

Toronto, Ottawa, Regina and Saint John are all reporting recent changes made in advancing the electrification of their fleets, ranging from new municipal zero-emission vehicle commitments to high-volume procurement.

The highlight reel of recent announcements paints a clear picture of the direction municipal fleets are headed and the level of commitment with which they are doing it:

  • Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), in April, ordered 270 new hybrid-electric buses to include in its fleet;
  • Ottawa’s OC Transpo says it’s adding 26 new battery-electric buses by the end of 2023;
  • the City of Regina approved in May the adoption of the city’s first Transit Master Plan that will add electric buses to its transit fleet; and
  • Saint John Transit presented to local city council in April plans for electrifying its buses.
Marco D’Angelo, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association. Photo: LinkedIn

“I think there’s an agreement across Canada that public transit fights climate change and so more electric buses will reduce emissions by more,” says Marco D’Angelo, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada. “Many cities have net-zero targets that are encouraging transit systems to act; there are mayors and councils across Canada who have made it their priority to reduce the carbon footprint from transportation.”

While the climate crisis is spurring an urgency to this transition, another factor D’Angelo mentions is the growing costs of owning diesel buses.

“What’s helping to facilitate that change [to electric] is the increasing expense for diesel for fleets across the country. Just like motorists that are seeing $2 per litre of gas, transit systems…are quite susceptible to these increased costs [as well]. So that’s been another operating challenge which makes the transition more necessary and maybe speedier than otherwise would have been.”

The federal government is also pushing for the greater adoption of zero-emission buses. As part of the Zero Emission Transit Fund, the government committed $2.75 billion over five years to assist in buying at least 5,000 zero-emission buses by 2025. In 2021, the Liberal government also announced it was committing $14.9 billion over the eight years to public transit, with $3 billion per year in permanent funding to be used to support transit solutions, starting in 2026-27.

“That’s an ambitious target,” says D’Angelo. “It’s one where partnerships have been very necessary between transit systems and the manufacturers to make sure that we’re able to deliver on the government’s goal and could make a positive contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Pilot to procurement at OC Transpo

The transition to fully electric fleets takes extensive planning and investment to get right. Many Canadian transit authorities are participating in zero-emission bus procurement programs in order to test technology and identify best operating practices.

OC Transpo obtained four New Flyer e-buses for a pilot project that started in January of this year, with the plan to phase into service 450 e-buses by 2027 and completely transition its fleet to 100 per cent electric by 2036.

“Pilots have been a way of introducing new technology and giving transit systems across Canada an opportunity to find out what works best in their system,” explains D’Angelo. “[They’ve] been essential in giving cities the time that they need to figure out what sort of zero-emission bus solution is best for them.”

The transit company originally planned to add 74 battery-electric buses to its transit fleet by 2023, but — per recent recommendations from the city’s auditor general — has decided to slow down the adoption curve. The auditor general cautioned the city to gather more data from its pilot project, specifically to do with range and cold-weather performance, before procuring a mass order of e-buses.

The city’s Office of the Auditor General (OAG) was asked to conduct an audit on implemented zero-emission buses in the city’s transit fleet “given some of the fundamental risks related to the introduction of new technology, securing of funding, and implementation challenges faced by other cities,” reads the audit highlight report.

“We had an audit done of our pilot for the four buses and what the auditor general said was to reduce the number of 74 buses,” explained Renée Amilcar, the agency’s general manager, during a transit commission meeting at the city council. “So today, I can tell you that we are taking action on this [and] that is why we’ll buy the first lot of 26 buses and then gradually go ahead with [buying] the rest of the buses.”

Amilcar said the transit agency plans to stick with its original timeline to have a fully electric fleet by 2036.

“In the long run, that would help them to reduce operating costs, lowering [air] pollution and noise pollution [and eliminating] greenhouse gas emissions from new buses,” says D’Angelo. “So it’s an exciting change and we’re, of course, working hand-in-hand with our colleagues at OC Transpo to help them to facilitate the transition to a zero-emission bus fleet.”

OC Transpo is also working with the federal government and the Canadian Infrastructure Bank to provide a loan to fund the purchase of the buses. Amilcar said the transit agency is currently waiting on the Canadian Infrastructure Bank to authorize the funding for the purchase of the 26 buses.

Hybrids: a stepping stone to fully electric

“As you can imagine, it’s a big shift to change from a diesel fleet to electric,” says D’Angelo. As a result, many transit systems are looking to adopt hybrid vehicles first.

“A hybrid program is a little bit easier to adopt [because] you are able to continue having a diesel engine to assist with recharging the electric battery so that has been a good solution for some systems to begin the transition to zero emission.”

One example is the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), which, despite having the largest electric bus fleet in North America with 60 buses already purchased, inked a new deal with Winnipeg-based bus manufacturer New Flyer Industries Canada ULC (NFI) to purchase 270 hybrid-electric buses, with an option to buy over 360 more in the next four years.

side view of concept image of hybrid bus
Rendering of New Flyer’s Xcelsior hybrid-electric bus. Image: New Flyer Industries

The TTC will be getting 134 Xcelsior 40-foot hybrid-electric, heavy-duty transit buses and 68 Xcelsior 60-foot hybrid-electric buses.

Fully electric versions of New Flyer’s Xcelsior 40-foot buses have already been in use by the TTC since 2019.

Jaye Robinson, City Councillor for Toronto’s Ward 15 and TTC Chair. Photo: City of Toronto

In an email statement to Electric Autonomy, Jaye Robinson, a Toronto city councillor and TTC Chair explained the transit agency chose to purchase hybrid-electric buses in order to “provide an opportunity for maintainers and operators to familiarize themselves with electric technology without impacting service.”

“We have a responsibility to our riders to continue providing reliable service while also investing in innovative, more environmentally friendly technology. eBus technology is still new and hybrid buses are a transition technology that we are using in addition to eBuses on the path towards a greener, more sustainable future,” explains Robinson. 

D’Angelo echoed Robinson’s reasoning behind utilizing hybrid vehicles, adding that different jurisdictions go at different speeds when it comes to electrifying, but it’s vital that “what needs to happen next is the wholesale green shift from diesel and hybrid to full zero-emission buses.”

As part of its Green Bus Technology Plan, the TTC has a long-term goal to have a zero-emission fleet by 2040, with the procurement of only zero-emission buses slated to begin in 2024. A fully electrified fleet will result in emissions reductions of roughly 250,000 tonnes of CO2 annually, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of 54,000 passenger vehicles. 

The Green Bus Technology Plan is divided into five subprograms: clean diesel bus procurement; HEV bus procurement; e-bus procurement; electrification infrastructure; and associated business transportation program. The first phase of the e-bus procurement program focused on head-to-head evaluations of different products.

“Hybrid buses and eBuses both help us work towards our goal of a completely zero-emissions fleet by 2040 or earlier. In fact, hybrid buses operate in EV-only mode in garages and in stations, which is just one way we’re working to improve air quality and maximize our positive impact on the environment,” says Robinson.

So far the TTC has purchased just over ZEV buses. Between 2020 and 2021 the transit authority procured 300 hybrid-electric buses and 300 buses.

“Electric vehicles require new approaches to maintenance, new technology, and significant investment in new infrastructure,” explains Robinson. “The TTC Board is fully committed to our fleet electrification plan and will continue to explore all options to accelerate our transition to 100 per cent zero-emissions vehicles.”

Regina’s transit plan proposal

Elsewhere in the country, some transit authorities are just starting to plan for electrifying their fleets. In Regina, there are currently no electric city buses on the roads, but there are some on their way. Regina city council recently approved the adoption of its first Transit Master Plan (TMP), which city staff were asked to create in July 2020.

The plan includes 45 actions, with a goal to move all of Regina Transit’s fleet over to electric by 2039.

“Switching the fleet to battery-electric buses [will] begin in 2024,” reads the report. “This is not only a sustainable goal, but electric buses are much quieter lending to a pleasant commute for both passengers and neighbourhood residents.”

The plan to purchase only electric buses aligns with Regina’s overall goal of becoming a 100 per cent renewable city by 2050.

“To successfully reach the City’s renewable energy targets, the transit fleet must be upgraded to use alternative fuel sources,” says the report. “Beyond achieving Regina’s renewable energy goals, battery-electric buses will produce no tailpipe emissions, improving air quality and health outcomes across the city.”

In an email statement to Electric Autonomy, a spokesperson for the city of Regina confirms seven electric buses will be added to the public transit in 2024. The city will continue to gradually transition its fleet by adding each year around seven to 10 e-buses, up until 2027. The city is currently under contract with Nova Bus to be the provider until 2025.

Regina Transit’s current fleet size is 123 buses. By 2040, the city anticipates having a fleet of 177 fully electric buses. Once replaced by electric versions, the diesel buses will be decommissioned and sold at the Regina Salvage Centre, said the spokesperson.

Saint John 2040 target

In Saint John, N.B., city staff are at the preliminary stages of looking into ways to replace the municipality’s vehicles with either battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

In April, the city council was presented with a report entitled Public Transit and Fleet Low-Carbon Migration Strategy, which identified ways the city could reduce its emissions, with the goal of switching its entire transit fleet to zero emissions by 2040.

The report proposes that the city begin electrifying Saint John Transit’s fleet by adding four to five zero-emission buses starting in 2023.

“Given the high operational requirements of the public transit fleet and high energy requirements, transitioning this fleet to zero-emission variants provides the greatest benefit in terms of emission reduction,” reads the report.

During the council meeting, the report received unanimous support from the council.

“This [strategy] is incredibly exciting. You know, in my rough math, by the time the public gives us the boot in the next election, half of our transit fleet is going to be electric and something like 40 per cent of our regular fleet is going to be electric. That’s huge,” said councillor David Hickey.

Great things ahead

With the transit authorities of Ottawa, Toronto, Regina and Saint John all at different stages in adopting a fully electrified public bus fleet and meeting municipal climate targets, many other cities across Canada are in the process of doing the same, says D’Angelo, including Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Mississauga, Guelph, York Region and Quebec City.

Edmonton Transit Service currently has 40 zero-emission transit vehicles, with 20 more electric buses to be put into service by the end of 2022. The transit system is also testing out two hybrid electric vehicles, powered by hydrogen, as part of the Alberta Zero-Emission Hydrogen Transit initiative.

Vancouver’s TransLink is aiming to replace over 400 of its old diesel buses with battery-electric ones by 2030. It currently has four electric buses in service, with 15 more on their way. Winnipeg Transit is looking to have 110 battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in its fleet by 2027. Meanwhile, Calgary Transit is launching a pilot with 14 battery-electric shuttle buses by end of 2022.

Montreal’s transit authority, the Société de transport de Montréal has a total of 30 long-range electric buses from New Flyer that were put into service earlier this winter.

The Quebec government is also providing funding to nine of the province’s transit agencies — Montreal, Laval, Longueuil, Trois-Rivières, Sherbrooke, Saguenay, Lévis, Quebec City and the Outaouais — to purchase a total of 1,200 electric buses, to be delivered between 2024 and 2026. This follows a $5-billion announcement made by the provincial government in November. About $2.4 million of the $5 billion funding will be used to purchase around 2,150 electric buses by 2030.

“Looking at the work that transit systems locally have put in into having to move towards a zero-emission bus fleet, I think there’s a lot of great things ahead and transit agencies will help to lead the way on that front,” says D’Angelo.