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A lone man wears a mask while waiting at the intersection of Queen Street and Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto on April 16, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Like any good war, rumours about its end started almost immediately after it began. When, the world wonders, will we get back to normal post-COVID-19? We got a glimmer recently when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that, while restrictions would be in place for at least a few more weeks, the federal government and the provinces were thinking about what comes next.

“Different regions of the country are at different places along the evolution of their COVID-19 curve,” he said. “Those discussions are ongoing about how we’re going to reopen the economy.”

What will commuting be like after the grand reopening? Do we really want to go back to normal?

During our days of social distancing, we’ve seen the unimaginable become reality. Tracking by Apple Maps shows that driving is down 58 per cent in Toronto, 48 per cent in Vancouver, 49 per cent in Calgary and 64 per cent in Montreal.

So far, Toronto appears to have gone a whole month without a hit-and-run fatality. Impaired driving is down, and air pollution is down. Way down. Scientists at the Global Carbon Project (GCP) maintain that this year, global carbon dioxide emissions could plummet by more than five per cent. That would be the most significant drop since the end of the Second World War.

Commuting today consists of the following:

  • Empty streetcars;
  • Cyclists trying to beat a record;
  • Habitual joggers keeping up their regime;
  • Pandemic joggers who started after social distancing was imposed and will stop as soon as it ends;
  • The homeless and destitute suffering;
  • People in cars gawking at the above-mentioned people.

We have the opportunity to try radical transit solutions that would have been impossible to push through back in the good old normal days. We should not, as the adage says, let this crisis go to waste.

Let’s examine the bad news first. Commuting post-COVID-19 will mean lots of traffic; it will mean more congested highways and streets. People will seek refuge in their cars. If they don’t own a car, and they can afford it, they’ll buy one. It’s understandable. Citizens who have spent months huddled in their homes in fear of catching a highly contagious virus are not going to want to use public transit. In Toronto, use of the TTC is down currently down by 82 per cent. People consider a streetcar a modern-day plague cart. TTC workers have walked off the job stating that they feel unsafe.

In China, where COVID-19 first hit (and to looks be making another appearance) highway volumes have surpassed those of the previous year. Cars sales are high. Bloomberg reported that an Audi AG sales representative in Wuhan said, “It’s like a boom after a two-month dormancy. I thought sales would be frozen.”

Cities can try to curb increased traffic congestion by claiming territory for bicycle commuting. Forget bike lanes. We need bike streets and bike highways. Winnipeg and Calgary have recently reduced car lanes and opened up space for cyclists and pedestrians. Every municipality has plans in development to encourage commuting by bicycle. When we reopen the economy, there will never be a better chance to implement them. It’s put up or shut up time.

Of course, many of us, especially white-collar workers, may not end up going back to the office. We’ve been forced to adopt methods of online communication and video conferencing that were once regulated to the sidelines. Zoom? BlueJeans? Congestion could be curbed as folks stay home.

But who knows how long this shift will last. It’s important to note that in the same way living together for two months is different than being married, working from home for two months in social isolation is different than full-time work from home. Working happily from home requires a significant change in attitude and culture, not just some new software. It’s hard to say whether we, as a society, are there yet.

So, the future will be better, or it will be worse. You heard it here first, folks. One thing is certain. Regardless how it all plays out, whichever form of transportation we choose, I can guarantee we’ll all be glad to be back on the road.

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