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A woman wearing a mask exits a subway train in Toronto, on March 17, 2020.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

The Toronto Transit Commission is forecasting that ridership will return to half its prepandemic level as early as next month, a milestone that would allow the agency to bring back its remaining laid-off staff and reduce the hole its losses have been blowing in the city budget.

TTC chief executive officer Rick Leary said the projection is based on discussions with school boards and neighbourhood business groups, to get a sense of how much demand might be expected to grow over the next six weeks or so. Ridership is currently around 37 per cent of normal.

Transit forecasting has been charting unfamiliar waters since the pandemic struck and a change in Toronto’s circumstance – such as a new lockdown or outbreaks in schools – could alter the numbers substantially. Mr. Leary acknowledged the growing discussion about whether Toronto, where the number of new COVID-19 cases has risen, is heading into a second wave.

“Everybody’s being very cautious, right, and we are as well,” he said in an interview. “But with that, over the last three weeks we’re starting to see [ridership] creep up a little bit.”

Transit agencies in much of the world suffered in the early months of the pandemic. Large numbers of people working from home, the shutdown of many social and retail destinations, and a fear of enclosed public spaces contributed to plunging ridership in numerous cities.

The TTC, the most heavily used transit agency in the country, saw its ridership nearly decimated. In the spring, TTC ridership reached lows of around 15 per cent of normal. Plunging passenger volumes meant the agency – which before the pandemic took in about $24-million weekly via the fare-box – was the single biggest contributor to Toronto’s red ink, adding tens of millions to the city’s budget shortfall.

The ridership drop was even more stark at Metrolinx, the provincial agency that oversees GO Transit. That agency, which is smaller than the TTC and relies heavily on commuters for its passengers, said this week its number of users plunged 97.3 per cent in April before starting a long slow rise. On Tuesday, ridership was down 82 per cent compared with the corresponding day last year.

Ken Kuschei, Metrolinx director of customer insights, said that more frequent service has been implemented recently on a number of bus routes to accommodate returning university students. He cited the agency’s contact with the local universities, which indicated that about one-quarter of students were planning to study in person, and said that service can be adjusted quickly if routes become overcrowded.

Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster said that the 18-per-cent ridership figure earlier this week is already higher than the agency had projected reaching in September. He would not share an updated projection, saying that the modelling is dependent on too many unknowns.

“There’s no single answer I can give you,” he said. “There’s not a number we want to put in the public domain on a forecast because it varies so much based on what actually happens.”

Mr. Verster said that riders were reacting positively to Metrolinx efforts to keep the system safe. Among other measures, the agency recently mounted plastic dividers between train seats. As well, some buses and drivers have been held in reserve and can be dispatched to routes experiencing heavier use.

The TTC is also watching routes and sending extra buses where possible to reduce crowding.

The main TTC union, ATU Local 113, argues that the agency has been too slow to react to crowding and should bring back all remaining laid-off workers. About 150 workers were given notice to return in late August, but another 300 are still waiting. In the summer, the TTC board gave the agency authority to return to full work-strength once ridership reaches 50 per cent of normal.

Mr. Leary, the TTC CEO, said that the agency should be able to surpass that number relatively soon but acknowledged that it can increase its ridership only so much amid a pandemic.

A return to full pre-COVID ridership is probably not plausible without a vaccine, he said, although he believes that as many as three-quarters of former passengers can gradually be persuaded to take transit if they believe the agency is doing its best to keep them safe.

“As long as we can continue to make them feel comfortable,” Mr. Leary said, “we can get people to come back.”

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