Canada can double public transit ridership by 2035 if federal and provincial governments expand funding for transit operations.

The federal government provides money for cities to buy new buses and trains, but none to actually run any extra service. This is why over 1700 buses currently sit idle.

Implementing the policies recommended in our report would slash emissions by 65 million tons and make transit more convenient, reliable and affordable for everyone.

Canada’s current public transit strategy is like a bus without wheels.  If the federal government intends to reduce emissions with public transit, it must begin funding transit operations.



To confront the climate crisis, Canada must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, which make up a quarter of Canada’s total emissions.

Despite including zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) adoption targets in the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan and Action Plan for Clean On-Road Transportation, the federal government has no targets for increasing public and active transportation use. 

This is a problem because it shows that Canada’s strategy for reducing transportation emissions lacks a focus on shifting travel demand away from private vehicle traffic - something that is present in national and sub-national climate plans from around the world, including British Columbia, Quebec, California, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand. 

To shape post-pandemic mobility in cities, we need to adopt a ‘decide and provide’ framework. How we move can be shaped in a sustainable direction by making different policy choices that emphasize sustainable modes like public transit, walking, cycling and move away from building new highways.

Canada is nearly 40% below the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average for public transit utilization in urban areas with transit service. With the creation of the forthcoming Permanent Public Transit Fund, Canada has a historic opportunity to catch up to our global peers on public transit performance. 

According to our report, if the forthcoming Permanent Public Transit Fund includes policies such as public transit operating funding, federal strings to encourage housing density near public transit, zero-emission bus procurement requirements and incentives for cities to speed up public transit service with dedicated bus lanes, Canada can: 

  • Double public transit ridership by 2035.
  • Achieve more than 30% of all travel in major cities (like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal) being made by public transit and 20% overall across Canada.
  • Reduce Vehicle Kilometres Travelled (VKT) by 35% below 2019 levels by 2035.
  • Cumulatively reduce transport-related carbon emissions by 65 million tonnes by 2035.

Progress so far on improving public transit service has stalled and is now going backwards. Canada’s policy of providing only capital funding, but not operating funding, has led to the rise of the phenomenon of ‘buses without drivers’ with an estimated 1,700 buses across Canada sitting idle.

Many public transit systems across Canada, like the TTC and STM, continue to struggle with pandemic-related reductions in ridership. Canada provided emergency operating funding to transit systems during the pandemic to prevent a ‘downward spiral’. However, this funding was only temporary, and without continued federal leadership on operating funding, Canada could miss its climate goals.

Federal and provincial governments must create long term, reliable operating funding streams for public transit systems that enable both ridership recovery to pre-pandemic levels and long-term climate-aligned growth beyond it. Having the cost burden fall on local governments and passenger fares has created instability for transit systems. It increases the risk of vicious cycles of cutting service, further losses in fare income, and further cuts. Getting off this roller-coaster will require support from all orders of government.

If made available, cities should use this transit operating funding to improve travel options for trips outside of the "commute to work" such as shopping, visiting friends, accessing social services or getting groceries. This will help public transit systems achieve greater financial stability while also benefiting the travel patterns of equity-seeking groups at the same time.

If the Permanent Public Transit Fund implements our policy recommendations, it can:


Cumulatively reduce polluting transport-related carbon emissions by 65,000,000 tons by 2035.


Reduce total vehicle kilometres traveled (VKT) by 35% below 2019 levels by 2035.


More than double public transit ridership in Canada by 2035.


Achieve more than 30% of all travel in major Canadian cities being made by public transit by 2035.


5 Things Canada Can Do to Double Public Transit Ridership & Slash Polluting Emissions:
  1. Fund Public Transit Operations to Get More People Riding on Transit
    • This means making full use of all the extra buses and trains, designing public transit networks to encourage trips beyond "the commute to work" by providing frequent, all-day bus service, and incentivize cities to build dedicated transit right-of-way infrastructure, like bus lanes.
  2. Build More Houses Near Public Transit
    • This would mean implementing zoning policies that require a minimum level of housing density to be built near public transit and eliminate parking minimums.
  3. Use Public Transit as a Tool to Advance Equity Goals
    • This means ensuring that the travel patterns of equity-seeking groups and marginalized people are met through tools like: increased service outside of peak periods, federal operations funding for low-income fare discounts and anti-displacement strategies to ensure those who are most likely to take transit can actually afford to live near it.
  4. Implement Zero-Emission Bus Requirements
    • This would mean shifting one-off electrification funding projects to making zero-emissions public transit a core feature of ongoing, permanent capital funding. The federal government should introduce procurement requirements for zero-emission buses as a condition to receive funding, whilst allowing for flexibility based on city size.
  5. Set Clear Goals to Shift People from Cars to Sustainable Transportation
    • This would mean setting targets to double public transit ridership by 2035 (compared to 2023 levels) and reduce vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT) by 35% by 2035 (compared to 2019 levels). This can be done through funding deals that require municipalities to meet minimum targets based on community size that collectively achieve national goals. That also means getting started now by accelerating the Permanent Public Transit Fund to begin in 2024 rather than 2026.

Let's take action!


Primary Report Writing and Research: Nate Wallace, Clean Transportation Program Manager, Environmental Defence, Anne-Catherine Pilon, Analyst, Sustainable Mobility, Équiterre. For a full list of contributors, please download the report.

© Copyright February 2024 by ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE CANADA. Permission is granted to the public to reproduce or disseminate this report, in part, or in whole, free of charge, in any format or medium without requiring specific permission. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE CANADA.