Riding It Out: Investing in Reliable and Resilient Public Transit

By Zissis Hadjis and Jessica Bou Nassar, Science & Policy Exchange

After we realized in April that lockdown measures were here to stay for the foreseeable future, we looked into buying bicycles and took up running in order to stay fit, try something new, and avoid taking public transit for short distances. It seems that we were not the only ones!

While the global bicycle shortage is slowly waning, it’s less clear as to when and how the major hit to public transit ridership and revenues will end. This post will focus on how the pandemic affected public transit in Canada broadly, what governments have done to help transit agencies thus far, and highlight some potential ways we can continue to support initiatives that will help create equitable and sustainable mobility infrastructure in Canada.

By the Numbers: Public Transit Decline in Canada

By April 2020, the number of passenger trips on Canada’s buses, trains, and subways fell 85% compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to Statistics Canada. While ridership resumed somewhat during the summer, a survey conducted by Statistics Canada in mid-June reported that the proportion of people commuting using public transit was only 3%.

Since more than about five times as many people worked from home in June 2020 than before COVID-19, it makes sense that transit agencies took a huge loss to their revenues. Practically, this means that the total operating revenues of urban transit agencies were down 77% (about C$75.6 million) in June compared to 2019, which is still an improvement from their low in May.

However, the impact of reduced schedules and services doesn’t impact people equally. In a 2020 study by Deng et al., the authors found that “financially vulnerable workers, such as younger workers or those with lower levels of education, were less likely to have jobs for which telework was an option” in Canada. As mentioned in a recent article in the Toronto Star, data from the first and second waves have shown that people in lower-income and racialized neighbourhoods (of which many are essential front-line workers) have been impacted disproportionately by COVID-19 partly due to limited public transportation and dense living conditions. Therefore, those who cannot telework and rely on public transport for employment deserve to have options that are safe and reliable.

While it’s crucial that public transit agencies and users be supported during this time, it is also important to note that many of these changes are likely temporary. However, since we don’t know how long the effects of the pandemic will last, we must address permanent and temporary changes alike if we wish to maintain and improve our public transit infrastructure — especially for those whose jobs rely on it.

Government Responses

As per the Safe Restart Agreement, the federal government is earmarking $19 billion in order to help the provinces and territories get their economies back up and running — a portion of which will be dedicated to helping pay for services such as public transit. The federal government will also “cost-match more than $2.3 billion to support any additional provincial/territorial contributions for public transit” for municipalities.

Provincial governments, such as those in Quebec, Ontario, and B.C. have also dedicated additional funding to cover losses and instituted measures to acquiesce some of the health concerns associated with taking public transit, such as making masks mandatory aboard transit vehicles. While these are all welcome interventions, only time will tell if Canada’s second wave will deliver another devastating blow to public transit ridership, and consequently, municipal finances.

Active transportation

Some municipal governments across Canada sought alternative transit systems that make commuters feel safer and less anxious. Active transportation (transportation based around physical activity e.g. cycling and walking) has been promoted by a number of city councils that have allocated road space to temporary pedestrian and bike lanes. For example, in May 2020, Valerie Plante, the mayor of Montreal, announced the development of the Safe Active Transportation Circuit, which aims to add 112 km to the 900 km of existing active transportation lanes in the city. However, the plan might also have downsides. For example, the extension of active transport circuits requires the transformation of many roads to one-way routes, which may lead to more traffic congestion and the emission of more GHGs. Similarly, Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Kitchener, Toronto, and Moncton have extended active transport routes as emergency alternatives to public transit. Fortunately, this initiative carried out by city councils provides health benefits to active commuters and decreases noise pollution around cities. However, moving forward, it is important to consider adapting active transport routes to Canadian winters. Therefore, implementing a winter active transport network and maintenance strategy that prioritizes safety, feasibility, and comfort is vital to ensuring the sustainability of this alternative.

Moving forward

Despite the uncertainty of the next few months, there are certain initiatives that can help make public transit more appealing, and thus improve ridership and help keep transit agencies afloat.

In addition to funding, making public transit safe for riders is of the utmost importance. In a Statistics Canada survey from June, 94% of respondents indicated that fear of using public transit was one of their concerns with going back to the workplace. Even of those who reported they felt safe about returning to their physical workplaces, 74% said they were “very or extremely concerned about using public transit .” Even if there is little evidence that public transit poses risks for outbreaks, governments and municipalities must do their best to convince riders. Therefore, mandating masks, increased cleaning measures, and increased schedules (to allow riders to effectively distance), are all crucial to encouraging riders back on board.

Transit agencies can also experiment with on-demand transportation, which allows for flexibility and efficiency, and deploys vehicles in response to customer demand as opposed to a fixed schedule. These types of transit innovations can help public transportation be more accessible, and at a lower cost to municipalities.

With our cities getting bigger and climate change looming imminent, it is important to continue investing in sustainable, creative, and environmentally-conscious ways of getting around. Even if teleworking is somewhat here to stay, public transit will still play a huge role for our economy and municipalities going forward.

A student-run non-profit that works to foster the student voice in science policy and evidence-informed policy-making in Canada. Based in Montreal.