Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
The COVID-19 pandemic gutted ridership on Canada’s public-transit systems after the abrupt and widespread lockdowns of the first wave a year ago, and there has only been a slight recovery since. Empty buses and trains prompted layoffs and translated to significant cuts to fare revenue.
A combination of business closures, the massive shift to working from home, and public health advice about avoiding crowds have all changed the way many people use public transit. And now local governments are facing the prospect that some of that shift may be permanent – even when the pandemic is over.
That reality will require public-transit agencies and the governments that finance them to adapt to a new reality in which people travel less or at different times of the day. And the post-pandemic recovery could present an opportunity to reimagine those transit systems in a way that may leave them better off.
Last month, Moody’s Investor Services estimated transit ridership will drop permanently by 20 per cent.
The Moody’s report said the structural changes will particularly affect cities such as New York, Paris, London and Vancouver, where transit has been popular enough that fares have covered a big part of operations. Toronto wasn’t mentioned in the report, but it’s in the same class, with 67 per cent of its operating costs paid for by fares.
Canadian transit systems aren’t projecting anything that dire, but they are preparing for long-term changes.
In Vancouver, the regional transit authority, TransLink, has produced its own analysis, projecting things to improve this year as vaccines take hold and postsecondary institutions resume in-person classes in the fall. The agency is projecting ridership to be at 80 to 90 per cent of prepandemic capacity by next year.
Geoff Cross, TransLink’s vice-president of planning and policy, said changing travel patterns could mean the agency no longer needs to stretch to provide service for the peak-hour commuting, which has been the most expensive and demanding part of the system.
If more workers commute throughout the day, the system could improve service everywhere rather than focusing so much on the big two rush hours.
Edmonton and Calgary are also expecting things to rebound this year. Edmonton is currently at no more than 45 per cent of prepandemic capacity right now, while Calgary is at 30 per cent.
Sarah Feldman, Edmonton’s director of planning and scheduling, said the city has several scenarios about potential recovery. Best case, everything is back to where it was by the fall of 2022. Worst case, a year later. And the agency is also preparing for a reality that ridership may not recovery fully – or if it does, public transit may need to look different.
Calgary Transit spokesman Stephen Tauro agreed that the pandemic could spur long-term change. For example, an increase in the number of people working from home might cut commuter traffic, but might also prompt those people to rethink car ownership and use transit in different ways.
“We know, historically, that in any great, vibrant city, the backbone is a good transit system, and we don’t see that going away,” Mr. Tauro said.
London-based transit consultant Michael Schabas said many cities will no doubt experience a reduction in peak-time commuting; that trend has been under way for decades.
“The peak has been flattening for 30 years,” said Mr. Schabas, who has been a consultant for transit systems in Vancouver, Toronto, London and other places.
He said that will likely require transit systems, especially those that rely heavily on fare box revenue, to adjust their funding models. In Vancouver, TransLink was getting 57 per cent of its operating revenue from fares alone before the pandemic. The rest of the money came primarily from taxes on property and fuel.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.