An island in Eastern Canada is set to receive its first-ever electric buses following an investment of over $50 million from the federal, provincial and regional governments.

Cape Breton, an island connected to mainland Nova Scotia by a causeway, will also upgrade its existing bus facility with the funds. The upgrade will allow the region to maintain its current bus fleet but also provide charging capability as the fleet transitions to fully electric: the region’s long-term goal. The money will allow the purchase of six electric buses and chargers and pave the way for Cape Breton’s aim to have 44 electric buses.

“This is taking a monumental step towards a greener and more sustainable future,” said Amanda McDougall-Merrill, mayor of Cape Breton Regional Municipality, who noted “none of this can happen without true collaboration between all levels of government.”

The funding announcement is part of a larger wave of transit electrification across Canada. In June, almost $400 million was put forward in British Columbia for electric buses and chargers. In May, Quebec announced the addition of more than 1,000 electric buses to its fleet at a cost of over $1.8 billion, representing North America’s largest electric bus endeavour.

Shifting the transportation sector off fossil fuels is an important part of the energy transition: the transportation sector accounts for 22 per cent of Canada’s total emissions, and the sector’s emissions increased in 2023.

Buses represent only a fraction of those emissions, which come from the combustion of fossil fuels to run cars, trucks, ships, trains and planes. By making public transportation more convenient and reliable, people will be encouraged to make fewer trips in personal vehicles, said Ben Hammer, transportation officer for the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre.

Hammer calls the funding in Cape Breton a “good start” for an area that has seen an increased appetite for public transportation. The largest city in Cape Breton is Sydney, which has a population of about 30,000.

“They've had over 1.2 million passenger boardings in the past year. And that's with 14 routes, most of which run less frequently than once an hour. So clearly, there's demand for more transit,” explained Hammer.

“I don't think [Cape Breton] is in a place to rapidly scale up logistically, but if Transit Cape Breton can get a ridership of 1.2 million boardings in a year on 14 routes running hourly, imagine the ridership they'd see [if] even just half those routes had a bus every 10 to 15 minutes.”

An island in Eastern Canada is set to receive its first-ever electric buses following an investment of over $50 million from the federal, provincial and regional governments.

Regional connectivity

In addition to frequency, buses in general need to be able to go further distances or at least connect to other buses in the province, so people can make longer trips without a personal vehicle.

As of now, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to travel the province using public transportation, said Hammer. A private coach operator, Maritime Bus, runs infrequent bus service between cities and communities. Communities shouldn’t need to rely on private companies, which rarely turn a profit, Hammer said. Instead, residents should be able to use local transit networks and connect to a provincial bus network that effectively knits together regions across the province.

In 2018, Greyhound pulled its Canada bus routes, which connected communities in several provinces. The move was especially isolating for Indigenous people, people with low income and residents of rural Ontario and Quebec. On Vancouver Island in January, following Greyhound’s departure, a bus that connected communities and First Nations across the island announced it would only run seasonally moving forward, prompting similar calls for provinces and the feds to step in.

Expansion of investments needed

The bulk of transportation funding doled out by the federal government only covers the cost of the buses and the construction of charging infrastructure — like the funding announcement for Cape Breton. It doesn't provide money for ongoing expenses, like staff or maintenance.

Approximately 2,000 buses in the country aren’t being used because of a lack of funding for drivers and other workers needed, notes Nate Wallace, program manager of clean transportation at Environmental Defence.

“Great to see capital investment. Like we need more buses, we need more accessible stations and such. But we need more support for communities to be able to pay the operators that actually run the service day to day,” said Hammer.