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The downtown core of Toronto is seen in the distance as streetcars, cyclists and auto traffic crossing the Queen St. Viaduct in Toronto on June 13.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

For Seth McDermott, owning a car has never really been part of the plan.

“My family never owned a car – we were pretty low-income,” he said. “So going on the bus was always my life. It took me where I needed to go, and I thought it was a fun way to see the city.”

Mr. McDermott, who is originally from Kitchener, Ont., now lives in Toronto and works as a transit technology analyst for a large engineering firm. He is a self-described public transit enthusiast.

He still doesn’t have a car – not for financial reasons but by choice. He says living in a large city with a good transit system allows him to get to most places. Car-sharing services fill in the gaps.

“The same way you would develop a relationship with your car – this is your means of transportation, this is how you get around,” said the 28-year-old, part of a growing cohort of urban millennials and Generation Zers who are choosing public transit because they are concerned about the environment and the rising cost of living.

As transit agencies across Canada seek to rebuild ridership after pandemic restrictions and an abrupt shift to remote work emptied out buses and subway cars, some are looking at these younger riders as key to that recovery – something experts say will be critical to the long-term health of public transit.

Demographic data on transit use is sparse – the country’s largest transit agencies don’t track it in detail, and there have been few academic studies.

A 2018 study by researchers at McMaster University found that a large proportion of Canadian millennials are using public transportation, far exceeding use by older Canadians.

According to data from the 2016 census, the most recent available, the 15-24 age group had the largest proportion – almost half – of sustainable transportation users, partly due to the fact that few owned cars. Transit use was second-highest among the 25-44 age group, at about 15 per cent, up from less than 10 per cent in 2001. And transit use has also been steadily increasing across all age groups for more than two decades.

But the pandemic saw ridership plunge everywhere, as transit agencies cut back on the frequency of service and many people opted to work from home or moved out of cities altogether. According to Statistics Canada, public transit systems across the country saw ridership drop about 71.5 per cent in February, 2021, from the same month a year earlier, though the agency did not track how demographics factored into that number.

Ridership in Canada’s largest cities is rebounding but still below pre-pandemic levels. Some transit agencies have identified young commuters as an important part of their recovery.

For example, the Société de transport de Montréal reported that its University of Montreal station recovered to almost 73 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels by March of this year, whereas the entire system was still at about 59 per cent of pre-pandemic ridership.

TransLink, the transportation agency for the Metro Vancouver region, has been attempting to woo younger riders through social media such as Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and Instagram. The region also has a universal bus pass system for university students.

“It’s convenient, it’s affordable, and a big one for young people is that it’s sustainable,” said TransLink spokeswoman Tina Lovgreen. “We are dealing with a climate crisis right now and one of the easiest ways you can make a difference is by choosing public transit.”

Ms. Lovgreen said TransLink has recovered to more than 70 per cent of its pre-pandemic ridership, ahead of cities such as Toronto and Montreal.

Overall ridership in Toronto was at about 15 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in the spring of 2020 but has since recovered to about 60 per cent. Data taken from PRESTO fare collection cards (which excludes cash payments) found that ridership among 13-to-19-year-olds increased more than fourfold between July, 2021, and May, 2022, with an additional 71,220 riders from that demographic.

Edmonton’s transit agency conducts rider surveys that provide a broad sense of how the demographics have shifted during the pandemic. Sarah Feldman, the director of business integration and workforce development at the Edmonton Transit Service (ETS), said in an e-mail that the age of riders has changed significantly in the past three years.

Ridership among the 15–24 age group decreased between 2019 and 2021, largely attributed to secondary schools and postsecondary institutions switching to online classes. However, in the first half of 2022, ridership among this age group increased as many students returned to in-person classes.

Like TransLink, the ETS has used social media to boost ridership and encourage residents to return to transit.

Matti Siemiatycki, a professor at the University of Toronto and an expert on transportation policy and planning, says young riders are key to public transit’s recovery. He says many statistics show that young people are more likely to use transit than previous generations, but agencies must accommodate them by boosting service wherever they live or go to school.

As students return to school, Prof. Siemiatycki said programs such as the U-Pass in Vancouver, which provides subsidized fares paid through student fees, are important.

“Part of this is also making sure that you have fares that are accommodating, but even as important, is making sure the service that you’re providing is actually accommodating to the types of trips that youth are making,” he said.

“If you want youth to use transit, the service has to be there, in addition to it being at an affordable price.”

He said some older millennials who have started families and moved out to the suburbs have tended to stop using public transit and have embraced cars to get around, but the post-pandemic generation may be able to reverse this trend.

“We can come out of this pandemic in one of two ways,” he said. “We can come out of it in a very car-oriented trajectory – which will have one set of impacts. Or we can reaffirm our commitment to public transit and see our cities become transit metropolises.”

Josipa Petrunic, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC), says that while marketing is an important and easy way for transit authorities to reach out to younger demographics, changes need to be made to meet the growing demand for affordable and reliable services.

“The reason people are delaying buying cars is the same reason why they are delaying having babies or delaying getting married – it’s too expensive,” she said.

“If we’re going to attract youth to transit, the system has to be really good so that when people go into it, they never want to leave. It’s not just about appealing to youth, it’s about appealing to somebody you want to be a client of your service for the rest of their lives.”

Ms. Petrunic, who works with transit agencies to modernize their technology and services, says agencies have tried things such as free transit for young people, making public transit more mobile friendly and introducing on-demand options to rebuild ridership.

She says people will be more likely to use transit as they get older if they do so from a young age.

“Make it fast, convenient and cheap,” she said. “That’s what young people are attracted to – like anybody else.”

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