Cities, Climate, Inequalities

Sustainable housing and electric mobility programs in Quebec: Toward a trajectory of urban sprawl and growing socioeconomic inequalities

November 2022

By Guillaume Lessard, researcher, University of Waterloo


North American states and provinces face significant challenges and complex issues when it comes to channeling urban development toward a more sustainable trajectory. More specifically, the decades-long accumulation of numerous structural and cultural lock-in effects have made it difficult to stop the momentum of urban sprawl (Birch, 2016; Bueno-Suárez and Coq-Huelva, 2020; Filion, 2010, 2018; Grant et al., 2019). We need only think of the many public policies and programs that are adopted in the name of sustainability yet that, having been designed according to the modalities of the system that created urban sprawl, nevertheless perpetuate that very system. This article synthesizes a thesis, published articles (Lessard, 2020, 2021) and a paper (Lessard and Filion, 2022) to examine the case of sustainable housing and electric mobility programs in Quebec. It is important to interrogate public interventions in these sectors, as the way we inhabit the territory and the options available to us for transportation have a decisive impact on our society’s environmental footprint. I argue that, under the guise of sustainability, current interventions in these two sectors frequently lead to the reinforcement of structural and cultural lock-ins specific to urban sprawl as well as the exacerbation of pre-existing inequalities related to housing and mobility. To illustrate this position, I have developed a critical analysis framework and conducted a case study of the public programs and policies for housing and sustainable mobility available to citizen households and the private sector in Quebec.

The urban social-ecological transition as a framework for critical analysis of interventions in sustainable housing and electric mobility

To create a framework for critically analyzing public interventions around sustainability in an urban context, this research draws on social-ecological transition theory (Bailey and Wilson, 2009; Geels and Schot, 2007) and the urban social-ecological transition perspective (Ernst et al., 2016; Fuenfschilling et al., 2019; McCormick et al., 2013; Naess and Vogel, 2012; Torrens et al., 2021). This conceptual framework is relevant for analyzing our object of study as it recognizes the complexity of the urban sustainability issue and allows us to take a critical look at sectoral transition processes (e.g., transportation electrification or energy efficiency of the built environment) in terms of their role in achieving urban sustainability (Ernst et al., 2016). For the purposes of this research, we pay attention to the effects of the programs studied on the interrelationships between mobility, housing, land use and wealth redistribution systems (Figure 1). Drawing on the analytical framework proposed by Bailey and Wilson (2009), we take a critical look at programs launched in the name of sustainability, situating them on a spectrum ranging from ecological modernization (an incremental optimization of the sustainability of existing systems through technological development, without undermining the neoliberal system) to a holistic, systemic approach (a profound shift in societal development trajectories that prioritizes social justice and the environment) (Bailey and Wilson, 2009).


Figure 1. Four systems that favour the perpetuation of urban sprawl and social inequalities

Guillaume Lessard, 2022

For the purposes of this research, I situate sustainable housing and electric mobility interventions on this spectrum, with a focus on their role in reproducing or transforming the environmentally damaging developmental trajectory of urban sprawl (Dupras and Alam, 2015; Jones and Kammen, 2014) as well as in relation to social equity (Henderson, 2020; Lima, 2021; Rice et al., 2020).

I established the main types of these interventions through a critical review of the scientific literature. In housing, the social construction of sustainability is a well-studied topic in a number of European countries (Conte and Monno, 2012; Jensen, 2012; Lemprière, 2016; Lovell, 2004; Reid and Houston, 2013). However, since energy consumption generally leads to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the lack of sustainable housing is often seen as an issue of technology and energy efficiency. This has engendered a building-centric, technical approach that advocates higher construction and energy efficiency standards alongside the integration of green technologies into buildings (Gou and Xie, 2017; Horne and Hayles, 2008). However, this approach does not achieve greater sustainability from a social or urban perspective (Baba et al., 2012; Moore and Engstrom, 2004; Reid and Houston, 2013; Winston and Pareja-Eastaway, 2008). As an alternative, researchers are proposing a more holistic definition that emphasizes equitable access to housing, social mix and the structuring role of urban form, as well as households’ mobility practices (Berardi, 2013; Conte and Monno, 2012, 2016; Rice et al., 2020; Winston, 2010).

As far as electric mobility is concerned, several countries offer subsidies for the acquisition of electric vehicles (EV) (Azarafshar and Vermeulen, 2020; Breetz and Salon, 2018; Irvine, 2017). Although these help reduce direct GHG emissions from automobility, this incentive-based approach raises two main criticisms. First, these subsidies leave out a large part of the population who cannot afford, or do not need or want to acquire an automobile (Abotalebi et al., 2019; Dimatulac and Maoh, 2017; Henderson, 2020). Second, in terms of development, EVs take up as much space in the city (road and parking) as an internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV), they contribute to the lock-in effect toward highway infrastructure and tend to be adopted by suburban households who already have one or more ICEV automobiles (Kester et al., 2020; Newman et al., 2014; Orsi, 2021). As an alternative, research suggests that electric mobility programs that support equitable access and multimodal mobility services (services combining several modes of transport) would have more positive impacts from a social and urban perspective (Naess and Vogel, 2012; Smith and Hensher, 2020).


We analyzed federal (Canada), provincial (Quebec) and municipal (Victoriaville and Laval) sustainable housing and electric mobility programs in Quebec from 1982, when the first Canadian residential energy efficiency program was launched, to August 2022, when this synthesis was written. To be included in the analysis, programs had to meet the following criteria: 1) they had to be run by a public institution; 2) they had to have been adopted with a view to sustainability or climate change; 3) they had to be accessible to the general public or the private sector. The programs that met these criteria are listed in Table 1. The documents analyzed include normative frameworks, technical documents, official reports and master plans into which programs are inserted, as well as promotional material and official announcements (leaflets, videos, program web pages, press releases).

Based on a review of the literature, we selected various types of interventions typical of the two sectors under study, and classified these into two broad categories: technocentric consumerist interventions typical of ecological modernization, and more holistic interventions with social and urban aims. From these lists of interventions, we developed analysis grids, which served to determine which fields of intervention were covered in full or in part by the programs studied. Once this analysis was carried out, we were able to determine whether these programs aligned more with an ecological modernization or an urban social-ecological transition approach.

Table 1.
Sustainable housing and electric mobility programs studied

Guillaume Lessard, 2022

Programs that perpetuate dispersed urbanization and automobility

My analysis of sustainable housing measures showed that federal and provincial programs largely focus on energy efficiency and the integration of green technologies into buildings, which constitutes an approach referred to as ecological modernization. The only program adopting a more holistic vision is that launched by the municipality of Victoriaville. However, the programs studied do not link sustainable housing with urban planning and land use. Similarly, social justice considerations are absent or insufficient to have a structuring impact. For example, the measures offered to tenants by the Éconologis program, such as weather stripping on doors and installation of electronic thermostats, are negligible compared to what is offered to landlords, and the additional subsidies offered to social housing in the Novoclimat program are insufficient considering the systemic lack of investment in social housing in Canada since the late 1970s (Walks and Clifford, 2015).

In terms of electric mobility, with the exception of the City of Laval program, which for a limited period of time offered a $750 subsidy for the acquisition of an electric bicycle, the programs analyzed aim for ecological modernization through the electrification of automobility. Moreover, they do not include any element of social justice, apart from the exclusion from subsidies for vehicles whose manufacturer’s suggested retail price exceeds a certain threshold (between $55,000 and $70,000, depending on the program and vehicle type).
While the programs intervening in these two sectors—sustainable housing and electric mobility—do reduce energy consumption in a portion of the residential sector and cut direct GHG emissions from automobility, they lack a sustainable land-use planning strategy (Conte and Monno, 2012; Orsi, 2021). Indeed, from an urban social-ecological transition and social justice perspective, this ecological modernization approach raises two major criticisms. First, these programs have a consumerist approach focused on supporting the purchase of certain products and technologies deemed sustainable. As a result, a large proportion of the population is excluded, since eligibility for subsidies depends on households’ ability to access capital. In housing, since tenants rather than property owners bear the costs of heating and cooling, only owner-occupied households have an economic incentive to invest in energy efficiency measures (Lang et al., 2021). Considering the lack of access to home ownership for a large proportion of households and the scale of the rental housing crisis in Canada, this is a major shortcoming (Walks and Soederberg, 2021).

Moreover, these programs are shaped by decades of neoliberal transformation. Since the late 1970s, the various levels of government have gradually abandoned mechanisms for regulating the housing sector, as well as their historical role in social housing, in favour of an approach based on supporting access to individual ownership and mortgage loan guarantees (Bélanger and Roudil, 2021; Forrest, 2011; Hoekstra et al., 2020; Walks and Clifford, 2015). By offering additional subsidies to owner-occupied households and neglecting renter households and social housing, these programs contribute directly to the neoliberal agenda. Similarly, by offering amounts of up to $12,000 for a new EV and $4,000 for a used EV, electric mobility programs primarily subsidize the mobility of an already privileged segment of the population, and thus contribute to the exacerbation of inequalities in access to mobility (Henderson, 2020; Orsi, 2021). Moreover, according to studies on EV adoption, households that have more than two ICEV cars and live in single-family suburban homes with private parking are the most likely to acquire an EV (Kumar and Alok, 2020; Orsi, 2021). Together, these programs implicitly support a very specific socio-demographic segment: relatively well-off households with private property, private parking and several cars. By excluding disadvantaged households and giving more support to those who are already well off, these programs exacerbate pre-existing inequalities in housing and mobility.

Figure 2. Impact of Quebec’s sustainable housing and electric mobility programs on four systems involved in perpetuating urban sprawl and social inequalities

Guillaume Lessard, 2022

Second, these programs essentially support a technology (EV) and a technocentric approach (energy efficiency and the integration of green technologies into the built environment). From a structural point of view, while this approach may reduce energy consumption and GHG emissions, it in no way weakens the multi-system, socio-spatial arrangement of urban sprawl. In fact, these programs are structured to be perfectly compatible with a dispersed urban typology and a lifestyle built around access to isolated single-family private property and motorization. In this, they are in line with decades of direct and indirect public support for the suburban lifestyle (Forrest, 2011; Forrest and Hirayama, 2015; Henderson, 2020; Laviolette et al., 2020; Manville et al., 2019). Despite the short-term energy and environmental benefits of this ecological modernization approach, in the long term these programs reinforce the structural, cultural and institutional locks that are specific to urban sprawl (Filion, 2010, 2015, 2018). In so doing, they reproduce a pattern of urbanization that is inefficient, polluting, energy-consuming and damaging to ecosystems (Dupras and Alam, 2015; Jones and Kammen, 2014). By propagating a discourse that suburban living can be sustainable if the right technologies are adopted by individuals residing there, these programs divert the debate from structural issues. From both a structural and discursive point of view, these programs therefore present a risk to the urban socio-ecological transition. These results are represented visually in Figure 2.

With regard to housing, we consider that sustainability cannot be achieved without placing the right to housing at the heart of the approach, namely by controlling real estate speculation and abusive rent increases (Lima, 2021; Rice et al., 2020). In line with this principle, our main recommendation would be to mandate and support the upgrading of public and private rental stock through various mechanisms (Heffernan et al., 2020; Lang et al., 2021). It would also be desirable to broaden the mandate of sustainable housing programs and to align them more pointedly with sustainable urban planning principles; for example, by adopting comprehensive regulations to constrain the densification of urbanized areas and infill development (i.e., inserting buildings into underutilized spaces such as parking lots and backyards) (McConnell and Wiley, 2011). When it comes to electric motoring programs, subsidies should obviously not be a substitute for the provision of public and active transport (Henderson, 2020; Lanzini and Stocchetti, 2021; Naess and Vogel, 2012). For example, without abandoning EV support entirely (Kanger et al., 2019), subsidies could be abolished above a certain household income threshold. The provincial program should set a limit on the frequency of subsidy use per individual, and the federal program should set a stricter limit (which is currently at one subsidy per year per person). Public intervention should also support other forms of electric mobility that have the potential to take motorists off the roads for their daily commutes. For example, the federal and provincial governments could follow Laval’s lead by supporting the purchase of electric bicycles and cargo bikes. Electrification programs could also support the development of supply and uptake of multi-modal mobility services (cycling, electric bikes, public transit, electric cabs and EV rentals), an approach that is potentially more equitable, more economical and more beneficial from an urban perspective (Smith and Hensher, 2020).


This research focused on housing and electric mobility programs available to households and the private sector in Quebec. I critically analyzed these programs from the perspective of the urban social-ecological transition and reviewed the literature in these two fields. My analysis showed that in housing, the programs essentially encourage energy efficiency, whereas in electric mobility, they support the acquisition of electric vehicles and charging stations. Because of their terms and conditions, these programs are mainly aimed at owners of single-family homes and are above all compatible with a car-based lifestyle. They make no link with the principles and objectives of sustainable urbanization, and take no significant measures to achieve greater equity in access to housing and mobility. This technocentric, consumerist approach is characteristic of ecological modernization. I present two main objections to this approach. First, it risks exacerbating pre-existing inequalities by unduly favouring an already privileged socio-demographic segment. Second, as it is mainly compatible with a dispersed urban typology and a lifestyle based on motorization, it risks exacerbating structural and cultural lock-in effects specific to urban sprawl. Depending on data availability, future research could test these hypotheses by analyzing the use of these subsidies by postal code. By cross-referencing these data with census data, researchers could then assess the fairness of these programs.

To cite this article

Lessard, G. (2022).
Sustainable housing and electric mobility programs in Quebec: Toward a trajectory of urban sprawl and growing socioeconomic inequalities.
In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

Reference Text

Lessard, Guillaume. (2020). « Habitation durable, mini-maison et transition socioécologique urbaine au Québec : une relation pour le moins ambiguë ». Thèse de doctorat, Montréal (Québec) : Institut national de la recherche scientifique. 

———. (2021). « Le discours de la modernisation écologique en habitation durable au Québec ». The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe canadien 65(2) : p. 233-246. 

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