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TransLink senior managers say it could be as long as three to five years before the system gets back to pre-pandemic ridership.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

In the world before COVID-19, Vancouver’s increasingly successful transit agency hit another new peak in 2019.

According to its just-released report for the year on ridership, the transit system – one of the star performers in the U.S. and Canada – saw a new record high of 453 million boardings and one more year in which the proportion of additional rides far exceeded population growth.

Now, TransLink senior managers say it could be as long as three to five years before the system gets back to those levels, with the region facing the potential for a second wave of shutdowns, a longer-term recession, and some degree of permanent work restructuring as office jobs and education shift online.

“It’s too early to tell exactly, but the preliminary thinking is that it will take several years. It could be three to five,” said Geoff Cross, TransLink’s vice-president of transportation planning.

And, while planners always knew that working from home is a growing phenomenon in many cities, the pandemic has wrenched that trend from a slow upward curve to a rocket launch.

“Working from home, school from home are trends we’ve been looking at for years. But that is accelerated,” Mr. Cross said.

Now, he said, TransLink planners need to use the information about the growth and trends in the system pre-pandemic to figure out what to do going forward.

One strong pattern in the 2019 numbers was the growth of ridership on lines that don’t necessarily convey commuters into downtown and that seem to be serving lower-paid workers who are travelling to jobs all over the region.

Bus lines in Surrey, Delta and Langley, along with those in Burnaby and New Westminster, saw some of the biggest increases: 22 per cent for the south-eastern region; 15 per cent for Burnaby/New West. That compares to the ridership increase in the region overall, which only averaged at 3.7 per cent, or 15.5 million boardings, from 2017 to 2018. (Lines that cross Vancouver east to west in the southern half of the city have also seen significant increases.)

The ridership in some of the suburban areas is also coming back a little more strongly than elsewhere. While the system average now is at about 40 per cent of pre-COVID ridership levels, or 450,000 boardings a day, it’s noticeably higher in some parts of the region.

“South of the Fraser, the numbers are 10 points higher – 51 per cent there,” said Mr. Cross.

In the region’s southeast, including Langley, Surrey and Delta, 29 of the 45 routes have gone back to seeing between 60 and almost 80 per cent of their normal ridership.

TransLink planners are not totally sure why some parts of the region are returning to transit faster, but it’s something they’re watching closely to see where the system is going. “It could be affordability issues, it could be the kind of work they’re doing.”

The system is still losing tens of millions a month, though not as much as the $75-million a month reported in the early weeks of the pandemic.

Ironically, the agency is gaining some revenue as people return to work and shopping but by private vehicle. The region’s gas-tax revenue, which earned $34.5-million for TransLink in February, dropped to $19.5-million in April, but was back to $22-million by May. Some of that is also because Vancouverites can no longer go over the U.S. border to buy cheaper gas.

There is going to be some money available from the $540-million that the federal government announced last week would go to help B.C. transit – both TransLink in the Lower Mainland and the B.C. Transit-run bus systems elsewhere in the province – cope with pandemic effects.

Mr. Cross said it’s not clear yet what that can be used for and how it will be distributed.

There might even be some benefits from the pandemic period if people spread out their work and errands more evenly, instead of piling on to commuter rush hours.

“We build all of our systems for the peak of the peak. If we can spread that out, we can have a more efficient system.”

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