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Canadians are starting to drive more as pandemic restrictions ease. Meanwhile, transit ridership is still well below what it once was.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canadian drivers are likely to face longer commutes and heavier traffic congestion as pandemic restrictions ease and cities across the country gradually reopen.

Rush hour was undoubtedly miserable before the pandemic, but roads could become significantly more congested if commuters return to work while continuing to avoid public transit. If the pattern in other countries is any indication, the next stage of the pandemic could be a wave of gridlock.

“When [a country] opens up, people are choosing to drive significantly more than they did before the pandemic,” says Andrew Stober, head of public partnerships for Waze Mobile Ltd., a Google-owned navigation app with more than 130 million users.

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Across Canada, the number of kilometres driven daily suddenly dropped by more than 70 per cent in April 2020, according to anonymized, aggregate data generated by Waze users. As a country, we’re just now starting to drive about as much as we did before the pandemic, Waze data show. Meanwhile, transit ridership is still well below what it once was.

While there’s no way to be sure how many people in Canada will resume their daily commutes, or what mode of transportation they’ll take – two factors that are crucial in determining how bad rush hour will be – countries that are further along the road to recovery paint a discouraging picture. Looking at how those countries are doing is the closest thing we have to a crystal ball, and the numbers are quite startling, Stober says.

Prior to the two-week city-wide lockdown announced in Sydney on June 26, weekly COVID-19 case counts in Australia had rarely exceeded double digits since January. As life returned to something resembling normal, driving became more popular than ever. In Sydney, people were driving roughly 24 per cent more – by distance – than they were before the pandemic, Stober says, and that was fairly consistent for most of the year.

In Canada and cities around the world, rush-hour traffic plummets as people respond to the COVID-19 pandemic

“If you have that many more cars on the road, there’s no way you’re not going to have more congestion, more time sitting in traffic, more crashes,” he says. Daily distances driven are up across Australia, as well as in other places that reopened earlier, like London and Singapore. People are increasingly using cars for recreational and errand trips, says Stober, and if that continues while commuters return to work by car as well, the roads are going to be even more crowded.

According to data from TomTom NV, a company that provides location and navigation services to Uber, Apple Maps and others, traffic congestion in Sydney and London is already worse than it was. Drivers in both cities are often spending about 10 per cent more time stuck in traffic than they were during the same period in 2019.

If you’re only going into work a few days a week, perhaps there’s a greater incentive to drive. You might be willing to spend a bit more time bogged down in traffic, or pay a bit more for parking, Stober suggested. Surveys conducted during the early days of the pandemic last year found that more people who didn’t own cars were looking to buy one. Also not helping matters is the fact people are leaving downtown condos for larger houses further afield.

In Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, TomTom data show that traffic congestion is gradually approaching prepandemic levels.

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“I would be shocked if we don’t face a congestion bulge,” says Josipa Petrunic, president and chief executive officer of the non-profit Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC).

“Not everybody can afford a massive increase in their congestion time,” she says. “I think what’s going to happen is a lot of complaints from voters very quickly, and I don’t know if our municipal or provincial politicians are ready for that.”

Big cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver depend on public transit; there’s simply not enough room on the roads for everybody to drive or take a taxi. Transit ridership is creeping back up from a 90-per-cent decline in some cities last year to 50 or 60 per cent of prepandemic levels, Petrunic says. Data from Apple’s Maps app also suggest transit usage is far below normal levels, while driving and walking are far more popular than ever.

“The challenge we have now is figuring out how much of this ‘move to my car’ is a permanent fixture, a fear of transit, and how much is a temporary rebalancing of people managing their work life,” Petrunic says.

In March, a report from Moody’s Investor Services predicted transit ridership would drop permanently by 20 per cent, although Canadian transit planners’ own assessments are much less dire.

While the trends observed elsewhere threaten to undo the modest progress Canadian cities have made toward reducing our reliance on cars, they also present an opportunity.

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The looming wave of traffic jams could be a 24-month blip, Petrunic says, if cities and transit agencies reopen wisely, ramping up service and publicly extolling the value of a green recovery.

“Where I see the hope is from those transportation leaders who recognize that this is going to be an opportunity for people to change their travel behaviour; let’s make sure they’re not just driving by themselves,” says Waze’s Andrew Stober. As The New York Times recently noted, a decline of even just a few percentage points in peak commuting trips could go a long way to making rush hour less painful.

After a taste of life without traffic congestion – with outdoor patios instead of parking spaces, with new bike lanes making it nicer to get around, and the knowledge that working from home is doable for so many office workers – it would be a shame to go right back to where we started, stuck in cars, in rush hour traffic that’s only getting worse.

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