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TransLink reaches gold in sustainability

In June, I told you about CMBC’s (Coast Mountain Bus Company) Idle Free campaign. CMBC was recognized by CUTA (Canadian Urban Transit Association) for reducing CO2 emissions for the entire fleet.

Trish Webb, Director of Corporate Sustainability

Trish Webb, Director of Corporate Sustainability

That initiative was one of many elements that have contributed to an enterprise-wide initiative to be more sustainable as a transit authority. Recently, these efforts have been acknowledged by APTA (American Public Transportation Association) resulting in TransLink becoming the first ever member to reach the gold level of the APTA Sustainability Commitment!

What this means is that among 77 transit authorities and affiliated organizations, including the transit organizations in New York, Montréal, Toronto, Seattle, Los Angeles and Portland, TransLink ranks the highest in sustainability.

Three key markers of sustainability helped TransLink reach gold level status:

  • Cutting diesel fuel use by 1.28 million litres; in large part due to the Idle Free campaign
  • Curbing energy use in facilities by 16 per cent per passenger kilometre through energy retrofits and other changes to improve energy efficiency
  • Reducing CO2e (Equivalent Carbon Dioxide) emissions per passenger kilometre by 18 per cent as a result of ridership increases, the addition of 180 hybrid buses to the fleet and commuters choosing less carbon-dependent transit options such as the new Canada Line

The total energy savings in 2010 were equal to 4000 fewer tones of greenhouse gases (CO2e) and 58 fewer tonnes of Criteria Air Contaminants emitted over 2009 levels, at a time when ridership increased 10 per cent.

To better understand the APTA Sustainability Commitment and TransLink’s approach to sustainability, I spoke with Trish Webb, TransLink’s Director of Corporate Sustainability.

How many people at TransLink work in sustainability?

I’m the only person whose job is specifically related to sustainability. We do have other people working in operations who look at environmental issues or energy issues, but I’m looking at sustainability across the whole enterprise. It’s my job to implement our sustainability policy, which I’ve been doing over the past two years.

Tell me about the APTA Sustainability Commitment

It was created in 2008, and TransLink signed on as one of the founding signatories. There are now 77 members on the committee. Some of the members are transit agencies, and some of them are transportation industry suppliers. They all work within transportation. The commitment lays out targets and degrees of compliance for each of its levels, which are bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Depending on which level you want to apply for, you have to have more improvements and metrics at a higher percentage. Right now, there are three agencies at the bronze level (Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, IMPulse NC, Inc. and San Mateo County Transit District, SAMTRANS bus service) and two at the silver level (Foothill Transit [San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, California] and Sound Transit [Central Puget Sound, Washington]).

Did we go through the bronze and silver levels to get to gold?

No, we skipped right over those and went straight for gold. Since the commitment was put in place in 2008, we’ve done a lot of work on sustainability in those two years.

When I started my job, we had to figure out what the requirements were for these levels, and we had to get a lot of things in place. When you only have one person doing the work, you have to be very targeted about what you do. So I really focused on getting our first sustainability report put together, and that required quite a bit of work. I waited until that job was done and a few other things in place before we applied for any kind of recognition. We had to map out what we had done ourselves before we mapped out our road forward.

Are these levels based on any other sustainability benchmarks?

This spring, the APTA Transit Sustainability Guidelines document were released. It a detailed document that looks at how you deploy your system: Is it accessible to various people? What does the network look like? Of what quality is the infrastructure? Corporately, I’m responsible for the things that we control, which are emissions, water use, how we deal with our customers and employees, our safety record and those kinds of things. APTA hasn’t come out with a lot directions on these areas, but what they do provide is metrics on emissions, energy, water, cost recovery, etc. And we’ve received our gold status for these metrics.

What determines a good sustainability goal?

Our sustainability policy commits us to be a recognized world leader in transportation excellence. So what I’ve done is to report to two international standards.

One is the Global Reporting Initiative, which covers all kinds of industries. It’s really geared to reporting and making a standard that measures the accuracy and completeness of your reports. However, we don’t compare our performance against other industries. There’s a reason for that. Our service offering is a sustainability tool. So we offer public transit, access to bike lanes, and access to information about transit, etc. This is so people can behave in a way that is more sustainable. That’s different than manufacturing carpets or blue jeans and trying to make your manufacturing process more sustainable. We have a sustainable offering. What we do is a sustainability function. What I look at is how we create this sustainable tool in a way that reduces our environmental footprint.

The other international standard that we adhere to is the UITP (International Association of Public Transport). They don’t have the detailed sustainability guidelines that APTA has just put out, but they do have a reporting framework. So when we did our sustainability report in 2010, it met the UITP standards for sustainability.

We’re also members of the CUTA (Canadian Urban Transportation Association). The difference with them is that there are few organizations that are the same size as TransLink in Canada. There are really only the Montréal and Toronto area transit authorities that we would look at and compare ourselves against.

So it makes sense that we would be part of APTA because of the large transit agencies who are members. Also, the relationship between American transit agencies and their federal government requires them to do a lot more reporting than the Canadian agencies are required to do. So we learn a lot from being members of APTA.

I wanted to note that one of the things that help us score high in sustainability is our use of hydroelectricity. We get better numbers because our electricity is relatively clean. If you’re in New York, you’re running on coal-based electricity. I’ve seen numbers that show that a trolley bus in San Francisco will get worse environmental scores compared to a diesel bus. That’s because of the technology they’re using, but it’s also about where they are getting the electricity.

What about our trolley system?

Our trolley system is very new, and we’re running on an energy source that’s 94% to 96% clean. We score along side the STM (Montréal) when it comes to CO2e per passenger kilometre. They are a good agency to compare ourselves to because Quebec also has a lot of hydroelectricity.

Is much of the challenge in reducing our carbon footprint related to using buses?

Yes, most of our passengers are carried on buses. Most of our buses today are still diesel. We have roughly 1600 buses. Roughly 240 of those are trolley buses. About 200 are hybrid-electric diesels. So the remaining roughly 1160 buses in the fleet are diesels. There’s no question that outstrips the emission of our rail, police or corporate divisions. We’re buying about 50 million litres of fuel a year, of which 42 million litres goes to our bus company.

Is the solution to reducing our carbon footprint promoting initiatives like Idle Free CMBC, or is it changing technology?

It’s both. We’re continuing Idle Free CMBC. There’s still some savings to be had there. We are also continuing to replace our fleet. When we do that, we look at cleaner technologies. Hybrid-electric diesels are a big one. We’re also looking at bringing in the new generation of compressed natural gas buses. Those have zero particulate matter, so they’re a very clean option.

Where do we go from here sustainability wise?

We’re looking to go to the platinum level next. It’s a steep hill to climb. The degree to which you have to reduce your emission and water use makes it difficult. It might take us two years.

And after platinum?

Well, we might have to reset the bar! What I have heard from APTA is that it’s very important that TransLink has reached gold status because it shows other agencies that it is possible. The Sustainability Commitment has been around for three years and this is the first time gold has been attained.

This award helps us to explain what our sustainability goals are all about and that we’re really getting somewhere. It saves a lot of money on fuel and helps give an incentive to make some big differences without spending too much money.

Thanks for the time, Trish, and congratulations! To learn more about APTA and transit sustainability, you can reference the sustainability section of the APTA website. You can also check out the sustainability page on the TransLink website.