Emissions test: OC Transpo policies, lack of heated garages mean buses left running overnight
People & Places

Emissions test: OC Transpo policies, lack of heated garages mean buses left running overnight

Maybe it’s been a while since you commuted to work or used public transit at all. The pandemic has certainly changed the entire concept of a workday. But that doesn’t mean we should forgive and forget the failings of OC Transpo. Here, Judy Trinh explores at the environmental toll of OC Transpo’s idling policies.

On a frigid morning this past February, Ottawa Magazine sent photographer Nicolai Gregory to confirm a tip: that hundreds of OC Transpo buses were idling for hours in the east end before they were put in service for the morning rush. It was -8 C when Gregory arrived at OC Transpo’s St. Laurent Garage at 3 a.m. that day. In a narrow lot parallel to the Via Rail train tracks, on the north side of the garage, he captured these images of dozens of buses idling. Around the same time, in a massive lot nicknamed Jurassic Park, on the west side, a garage attendant was starting up another block of buses. And at the nearby Industrial Avenue garage, more than 200 buses were being warmed up. 

This photo was taken at 3 a.m. on February 26, 2020. Photo by Nicolai Gregory

Using Google Maps and publicly available fleet information, one can estimate that about 400 buses are parked outside in the elements year-round. Most of these buses will leave the garage before 6 a.m. 

In an email, Jim Greer, OC Transpo’s director of transit operations, says not all buses can be accommodated indoors because of space limitations. Greer explained that buses require warming up to “avoid premature engine wear, additional maintenance, and fuel.” The city’s entire fleet of 1,040 buses runs on diesel fuel, which turns gelatinous and clogs engines in cold weather. 

Greer says the transit agency is always looking for ways to green its fleet further. In a small pilot project, an order has been put in for two new electric buses, which should be on the road by the end of this year. Greer says the typical warm-up time in Ottawa’s cold climate is between five and 20 minutes and that the city now has plug-ins for most of the buses parked outside in order to avoid start-up problems, which means they never have to idle more than 20 minutes. But Greer’s comments appear to differ from what we’ve witnessed, as well as from internal policies. 

Later the same day. Even with a large portion of the fleet on the roads for morning rush hour, a number of buses remain idling outside. Photo by Nicolai Gregory

Ottawa Magazine obtained a copy of OC Transpo’s Standard Emissions Test Operating Procedures, last revised in April 2012. According to the seven-page document, when temperatures dip below 0 to -10 C, a bus should be warmedup for at least 15 minutes, even if it’s plugged in. When the thermometer reads -10 to -25 C, the warm-up time is 25 minutes. When temperatures plunge to -25 C, the policy states the bus should be started 40 minutes before the driver arrives. 

Then there are the very cold days. According to OC Transpo drivers, during a recent winter storm, garage attendants gave instructions to leave their engines running, with the heat on; they assumed they were left running overnight. Apparently this practice allows the warmth of the bus to melt away any snow or ice. 

In a city where it’s illegal for a vehicle to idle more than two minutes, OC Transpo’s practice is hard to swallow. And it calls into question the environmental impact of public transit. Is taking the bus actually better for the environment than commuting by car? 

Related: The human impact of OC Transpo failings

Ottawa-based infrastructure firm CPCS Transcom crunched the numbers. CPCS analysts told us that an idling transit bus uses 3.67 litres of fuel each hour and emits approximately 10 kilograms of carbon dioxide. That means 400 OC Transpo buses idling for two hours will generate an additional 8,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide each day. But yes, even taking that into account, it’s still greener to take the bus. In Ottawa, a bus needs at least nine passengers on board to have a “lower per-person emissions impact than a single-occupancy car,” according to CPCS experts. 

While the practice of leaving buses running overnight could not be verified, it certainly calls for closer scrutiny of OC Transpo idling policies — and new facilities that will protect the buses from the elements.