Skip to main content

Passengers exit and board Skytrain cars at Brentwood Town Centre station, in Burnaby, B.C.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Rush hour on transit routes across the country will likely never be the same after the pandemic, and transit planners fear that past gains in ridership will be lost forever.

But there may also be an opportunity to create more efficient transit services for everyone, say planners and analysts who are spending considerable time trying to figure out the postpandemic future.

The trends of working from home for part of the week and more variable hours when employees do go into the office aren’t likely to disappear even after life returns to a semblance of normal, said Geoff Cross, vice-president of planning and policy for the Lower Mainland’s TransLink agency.

But that could actually help improve transit systems, he said. It might mean they no longer have to stretch to provide service for the peak-hour commuting, which has been the most expensive and demanding part of the system.

“The peak, it’s the one that will be hit the most,” said Mr. Cross, who presented new ridership projections to the TransLink mayors’ council last Thursday.

Mr. Cross said the whole system has had to be big enough to handle the largest possible crowds for weekday morning and afternoon rush hours. If more workers commute throughout the day, the system could improve all service everywhere rather than focusing so much on the big two bulges.

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 named in the report, but it’s in the same class, with 67 per cent of its operating costs paid for by fares.

“Changes in working patterns and lifestyle will trigger a permanent drop in mass transit systems’ ridership compared to pre-pandemic levels, creating an enduring loss of own-source operating revenue,” said the report, which was based on a broad assumption that one in five employees in any large city will be working from home in the future.

Like TransLink in Vancouver, the Toronto Transit Commission sees things slightly differently.

“We weren’t looking at anything as dire as a permanent 20-per-cent loss,” said the TTC’s chief strategy and customer officer, Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas, although she agreed that transit after the pandemic won’t be the same as before.

Work commutes are only part of the picture, transit system analysts note as they examine all the different types of riders.

“We can attribute 26 per cent of the ridership loss [in Toronto] … to working from home,” Ms. Llewellyn-Thomas said.

Of the missing riders from the Toronto system, about 12 per cent are people who can’t work from home but switched to other modes of travel, such as walking, cycling or ride-hailing. Students, now mostly gone from the system, are usually 11 per cent of the load, she said.

The TTC and TransLink have also been looking at the patterns likely to affect different sectors, including students, office workers, factory workers, shoppers, and people attending cultural and sports events.

Mr. Cross’s team is looking at six overall factors that are likely to affect future transit use: postpandemic hesitancy over sharing space, new patterns of telecommuting, changes in jobs numbers, changes in discretionary trips, patterns of car ownership and gas prices.

TransLink and other systems are predicting that ridership this fall will be more robust than they had thought six months ago because vaccination rates have increased at a speed not anticipated back then.

The announcement that B.C. postsecondary institutions will return to in-person teaching in September has also improved the transit forecast for the Lower Mainland.

As well, the region continues to grow and urbanize, Mr. Cross said, so ridership will probably exceed previous levels in future years, although it won’t get to the peak-time crushes of before the pandemic. The current TransLink analysis projects that, by 2022, ridership will be back to about 80 per cent to 90 per cent of what it was.

The picture is similar in Edmonton and Calgary, where transit planners anticipate that, if vaccines continue to roll out quickly, the return to prepandemic levels of ridership will be faster than previously projected. Edmonton is currently at no more than 45 per cent 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 fall of 2022. Worst case, a year later.

Edmonton and Calgary planners also say they may see longer-term changes.

Calgary Transit spokesman Stephen Tauro said that, 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.

Ryerson University professor Murtaza Haider and London-based transit consultant Michael Schabas say 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.

Prof. Haider said transit systems could be able to focus less on new lines to bring people in from the outer edges of cities and more on improving service in core areas.

Mr. Schabas said that will likely require transit systems, especially those that rely heavily on farebox 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.

The federal and provincial governments have already stepped in to keep transit systems functioning, as they’ve sustained huge revenue losses.

In a report from the TTC on April 8, the agency totalled its revenue losses for 2020 at $590-million, but said provincial and federal money would “fully offset” that shortfall.

The recent TransLink report said the system could lose $2.3-billion in revenue between 2022 and 2030 because of the structural changes to ridership.

So far, federal-provincial relief has provided $644-million. Edmonton’s $66-million loss in revenue has been almost covered by the same federal-provincial program.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct