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How to Change a System: Canadian Transit

What does it take to green transit? Changing culture is the hardest part, says a leading innovator.

“Engineering, science, that’s doable. Even the business case – you can create a demand for anything. But people have strong ideas about what is right and what ought to be” – Josipa Petrunic, Executive Director of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC).

Sustainability problems are systems problems, with many factors shaping an outcome. In this case study, innovator Josipa Petrunic describes lessons learned from changing Canada’s transit system.

Listen to the interview with Josipa

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What’s the system? 

The big system that we’re trying to change in Canada is diesel-based urban transit systems, both buses and rail. We’ve started with diesel buses, because that industry is smaller than rail.

What’s the goal? 

For the environment, we want to reduce diesel and greenhouse gas emissions. For taxpayers, we want to eventually reduce the cost of transit systems. For riders, we want to make it a better service — cleaner, faster, greener — that people want to pay for rather than complain about. Finally, this is an opportunity to attract companies to Canada, a global hub of electrified transportation technology.

What are the obstacles? 

In 2016 I went around the country with a simple question to transit agencies: “Why aren’t you shifting to electric?” We heard back a whole host of reasons. Yes, new electric transit systems cost more than diesel. But money was not the big reason. People said, “Well, we don’t know how this technology works, so we can’t predict the risk.” Also, transit staff are mechanics (for diesel), not electricians (for electric). And, people were wary of electric because of some early electric pilot programs that didn’t go exactly to plan. The transit world is a conservative one. They don’t like change, and they don’t like risk.

What’s your change strategy? 

The organization I run is a not-for-profit technology innovation consortium. We’ve been around for four and half years. We are multisectoral. Our members are bus manufacturers, power train designers, fuel cell stack designers, transit agencies, universities, and governments. Their membership fees pay my team to design projects on behalf of transit agencies.

In the electric bus domain, a challenge was that there’s no standardization – different buses have different charging systems, which locks a transit system down. No city likes to be locked into monopolies, because then the company can drive up the price.

So, we got manufacturers to agree to redesign their systems to be standardized. In return, they required that a certain number of transit systems commit to purchasing the buses and charging systems. Three transit systems bought in and the deal went forward.

It took two and half years of engineering time and working back and forth, but the project is now launching and helping to set the world standard for interoperable standardized buses. And now other cities are coming forward as well, to join phase two.

What advice do you have for others?

First, bring in diverse perspectives. This is a white male industry. And that has a serious effect on the diversity and creativity of thought. One of the first things I did at my organization was get the board to approve a gender parity policy. Diversity to me means having a whole host of different perspectives, economically and culturally — having those visibly at the table.

Lesson number two is work with your champions. You can change the world with one or two champions – you can spearhead change even in something that looks impenetrable. It takes that one bureaucrat who actually wants to change something within their department or build their career on something great and good. You can’t do it alone, but you don’t have to convince the whole world.

Culture is the hardest part. Engineering, science, that’s doable. Even the business case – you can create a demand for anything. But people have strong ideas about what is right and what ought to be, and ego and pride connected to that. Disruptive technological change means you’re running against somebody or some set of institutions. It’s not just that you’re running against the petroleum industry, you’re running against a paycheck. So it becomes very personal, very quickly, and that’s why I think culture does dictate so many of our technological choices.

About Josipa Petrunic

Josipa Petrunic is the Executive Director & CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC). She is leading the formulation of several national transportation technology trials related to zero-emissions transportation and “smart vehicles” innovation, including the Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration & Integration Trial, the Pan-Canadian Hydrogen Fuel Cell Demonstration & Integration Trial, and the National Smart Vehicle Demonstration Project. Dr. Petrunic has built up CUTRIC’s consortium to include more than 100 private and public sector companies and organizations across Canada. Previously, she served as the lead researcher in electric vehicle policy studies at McMaster University, and as a senior research fellow in the history and philosophy of mathematics at University College London (UCL) in the United Kingdom in Science and Technology Studies. Dr. Petrunic continues to lecture in Globalization Studies at McMaster University. She currently sits on the Board of the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) Foundation and InnovÉÉ, an electrical vehicle R&D funding body in Quebec. In 2018, she was named as one of Canada’s a Top 40 Under 40 by Bloomberg News.

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  • Josipa Petrunic
    President and CEO
    Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium
    PhD in Science and Technology Studies, The University of Edinburgh

    View all posts
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