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A bus shows a sign of rear door boarding only as it drives in Lynn Valley in North Vancouver, in this file photo from March 25, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs

Just when people in B.C.’s Lower Mainland had tired of gridlock and were turning in droves to public transportation, the COVID-19 virus dealt the transit system a gut punch so harmful, it could take years to recover.

Before the pandemic hit, TransLink was on a roll. The authority won the American Public Transportation Association’s top award last year, partly for increasing ridership growth by 18 per cent between 2016 and 2018. TransLink’s ambitious expansion plans – with new train lines for Vancouver and Surrey – rely on that growth to continue.

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But in slightly more than six weeks, COVID-19 has knocked the masses off mass transit. The buses, trains and SeaBuses are mostly empty; TransLink reported last week that ridership has dropped by 83 per cent. Without fare-paying crowds, a transit system is a giant money loser. And that is why this week, TransLink slashed service and laid off 1,500 bus drivers, mechanics and other staff. With ridership low and no immediate bailout forthcoming from any level of government, TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond told The Globe and Mail he had no choice.

The logic seems obvious: Why run a transportation service for a population ordered to stay home? Until, that is, you consider essential service staff, some of whom depend on transit to get to work. TransLink reports that it has tried to keep the routes to health care facilities open. But that doesn’t help grocery-store, food-service, pharmacy and pet-shop employees.

I am certain that once workplaces, schools and shops begin to reopen, TransLink will not be allowed to fail. B.C. Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are already discussing how to share the financial burden of restarting the transit system.

The greatest challenge facing TransLink could be to persuade the public to once again climb aboard. After weeks of artfully dodging each other on sidewalks and in grocery-store aisles, squeezing into a packed train car or bus is going to feel downright dangerous.

TransLink is instructing riders to enter through the back doors of buses and has suspended fare collections. It is limiting numbers on buses and SeaBuses to permit physical distancing. It is disinfecting vehicles, vessels, stations, Compass machines and escalator handrails at least once a day. Hand-sanitizer stations have been installed at all train stations.

But is that enough? In Seoul, where one large virus outbreak is suspected of spreading on transit, cleaning crews are scrubbing trains and stations five times daily. In Singapore, residents are being issued free reusable masks that must be worn on transit. TransLink hasn’t gone this far yet and says it is taking its cue from provincial health officer Bonnie Henry.

We know that once the current spike in COVID-19 cases subsides, there will be flare-ups until a vaccine is discovered. Until then, I plan to stay off transit until I see science laying out best safety practices. But many won’t have that choice. It may turn out that the best way to ensure the safety of riders and transit operators, for now, are the very things that hurt revenue: lightening passenger loads by working from home, staggering work hours and riding our bikes.

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The pandemic already has us walking and cycling in record numbers and many cities, including Vancouver, have closed some roads to clear more space for bikes. Milan is converting 35 kilometres of roadway to bike paths to ease air pollution, and Bogota is creating 76 kilometres of emergency bike lanes to ease transit crowding.

It’s ironic that a virus with the potential to kill us may end up making some of us healthier. But cycling isn’t a complete answer – it doesn’t work in extreme weather or for long commutes. Still, those thinking of switching back to their cars may change their minds when they find the roads more jammed than ever.

The answer is still public transit and as a society we must pay to keep it running for the sake of our long-term economic recovery and environmental health.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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