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A Skytrain departs from Brentwood Town Centre station, in Burnaby, B.C., on April 13, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

For years, Pierre Honeyman bought a monthly transit pass to get to work from Mount Pleasant in central Vancouver to the Burrard Street office of the software company where he works.

But then, during the pandemic, the office shut down completely. When it reopened, Mr. Honeyman was only going downtown three days a week for work or to go to the gym. It stopped making sense to buy a pass, which now clocks in at $104.90 a month.

“When I did the math, it wasn’t worth it for me to buy it again,” he said. So he instead just puts money on his TransLink card.

He’s not the only one.

That is one of the new realities that Vancouver’s transit system – and every other transit system in North America – is facing as work and commuting patterns evolve. And while TransLink is doing far better than most at building ridership, passengers’ changing habits have forced the agency to confront revenue challenges.

The most recent statistics on American and Canadian transit shows the Lower Mainland’s system has recovered more ridership than any other city in those two countries, even New York. In the last week of August, it was up to 88 per cent of prepandemic levels, and got close to 100 per cent on that weekend.

Those numbers are on the rise again as the region’s tens of thousands of high school and postsecondary students go back to school and office workers return to whatever their new pattern is during this stage of COVID-19 recovery. There will be 18 additional bus routes, including a restored run from West Vancouver directly to the University of British Columbia.

Overall, TransLink has 1.1 million boardings (about 400,000 riders doing multiple rides) on an average weekday, making it the fourth-busiest transit operation in the U.S and Canada, after New York, Montreal and Toronto, according to the most recent numbers from the American Public Transit Association.

And parts of the system are actually seeing more business than before the pandemic started. Evenings and weekend ridership has surged, as people leave their cars at home when they go out for fun. Bus routes south of the Fraser River are going way beyond 100-per-cent recovery.

But getting riders back to prepandemic levels on the buses and trains is not the same thing as recovering prepandemic levels of revenue.

The monthly passes that used to be a rich vein of income for the system have dropped from 45 per cent of revenue to 38 per cent. And even though ridership may be back to 80-plus-per-cent levels, revenue is only at 70 per cent of what it was before the pandemic, says TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn.

That’s prompting concern, and not just from the Lower Mainland mayors and people running TransLink, but also from sectors that have heavily promoted transit use.

The University of British Columbia is served by 1,000 bus trips a day during the school term, as its daytime population swells to 80,000, with almost half of the arrivals coming by transit. It’s such an important part of the university’s operations that the school is launching new initiatives to get more people to take transit. The latest is a subsidized transit pass for its lower-paid workers, a program that saw 200 people sign up right away when it was introduced recently on the Vancouver campus, said UBC senior planner Michael White.

“We’ve been surprised by the demand for the campus experience,” he said.

Transit is also crucial for business districts. Groups like the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade say that maintaining what has been a successful transit system is going to be essential for recovery throughout the region, but especially for the downtown where there are fewer office workers and tourists and more concerns about public disorder and street crime.

“We have to have more people coming downtown, otherwise the issues we are seeing are going to get worse,” said the board’s CEO, Bridgette Anderson. “So we’re concerned about the way transit is funded because transit has changed.”

In the last three years, TransLink has outperformed other systems in part because of the huge support it got from the provincial and federal governments, which put in $1.3-billion overall, including $479-million from B.C. this March.

That money, combined with a focus on keeping route frequencies high in the areas they were most needed, helped Vancouver avoid the “death spiral” to which transit systems in other cities succumbed, said Brad West, chair of the TransLink mayors’ council chair and mayor of Port Coquitlam.

“We were able to avoid all that. And now we are on track for service expansion rather than debating which routes to cut,” said Mr. West.

Consultant Tamim Raad, who has done work with the Montreal, Toronto and San Francisco systems, said Vancouver’s smart tactical decisions during a difficult time made the difference. In other cities, many of which struggle with having multiple transit agencies that don’t co-ordinate the way TransLink does for the Vancouver region, decision-makers fell into a cycle of cutting service to save money, then losing even more riders than before, and then cutting service again.

“[Vancouver] didn’t cut back. It didn’t furlough all its workers and then find itself having a hard time getting people back,” said Mr. Raad. “It held its service levels where it mattered the most.”

Now, mayors in the region are focusing on the problem TransLink had before the pandemic: too many riders and too little infrastructure.

“In 2019, the system was bursting at the seams,” said Mr. West.

TransLink is now planning for major expansions in its most recent 10-year plan, including a gondola from one of the Burnaby SkyTrain stations to Simon Fraser University’s hilltop campus, new bus rapid-transit lines, the extension of the Broadway subway from Arbutus to UBC and rapid transit to the North Shore.

But it’s not clear how all that is going to be paid for, along with the cost of maintaining good operations. Mr. West said mayors are urging B.C. and Ottawa to come up with some way of financing that, but haven’t pitched any specific mechanism for doing it.

He would like to see the federal government move up its promise of a permanent transit fund from 2026 to 2024.

“We can’t be twiddling our thumbs for two years. The need is right now.”

And it’s not just a need for new equipment and new routes. TransLink is also focusing on making transit as positive a ride as possible. That means addressing overcrowding and annoying payment complications, as well as bad behaviour on buses and trains.

On the routes that Mr. Honeyman takes along Broadway and Main, it’s the disorder that seems to prevail on some buses that is the biggest problem – including many people who don’t pay, and some who openly use drugs during the ride.

“I definitely think they need to address the perception of a lack of security,” he says.

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