It’s easy to get down about the future of transit.
Ridership, more than a year into the pandemic, is a fraction of what it once was. In Toronto, it had fallen 73 per cent in mid-April compared with previral times. This hole has required massive emergency infusions – $1.3-billion – from the federal and provincial governments, yet the Toronto Transit Commission is still in the red. The story is much the same across the country.
Given questions about what work will look like in the future – home, office, or a combination thereof – for some observers the longer-term transit outlook will carry lasting scars from the present bleak moment. In March, credit-rating agency Moody’s Investors Service assessed transit in London, Paris, New York and Vancouver, and predicted a “permanent” 20-per-cent reduction in ridership.
Lashing storms can feel permanent. Thick fogs seem like they may never abate. But while the pandemic will not be easily forgotten, it will end, and transit will still be an essential pillar of Canadian cities. With climate change and population growth, it will also become a more important one.
So this week’s federal funding of transit, with more than $12-billion going to major projects in Toronto, its suburbs and Hamilton, is welcome. The investment is exactly the right thing to do. The Golden Horseshoe, home to more than one-fifth of the country’s population, needs better transit, and these investments will generate decades of benefits. This is not about the dark spring of 2021. It’s about 2041, and 2051.
In Toronto – where $10.4-billion will help build the new Ontario Line, extend the Yonge subway, the Scarborough subway and the Eglinton Crosstown light rail – each project has its own controversies, and rightful criticism can be levied against all of them.
The federal Liberals, in their quest to supercharge transit, decided to back Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s template, even if there is a temptation to want to redraw the plans. The Eglinton LRT should not be tunnelled, for one, and too few stops are planned on the Yonge extension.
But all these plans have been reworked for a long time. Building transit in Toronto is defined by interminable delays. The important thing is these projects, though imperfect, are moving ahead.
To be sure, the current troubles for transit will not suddenly lift. But they are not likely to be as bad as Moody’s argues. TransLink in the Vancouver region foresees ridership as high as 90 per cent of prepandemic levels next year. Edmonton estimates it could regain all lost riders by fall, 2022 or, latest, in 2023.
The TTC is also confident. Its data show that the emptying out of offices may be the leading cause of lower ridership, but it only accounts for a quarter of the total decline. So flexible work does not mean the death of transit.
A key challenge will be making people feel confident about returning to transit. The pandemic has taught us to recoil from crowded spaces. The TTC is working to ensure safe air on subways, streetcars and buses by upgrading HVAC filters. It’s also looking at a new filter system called photocatalytic oxidation. But transit has not been a noted source of virus transmission and, as life resumes and people are vaccinated, it’s reasonable to believe riders will return to transit.
Of course, the best way to entice people to use transit is to build more of it, and make it better. The big projects matter – but so do smaller ones, like 60 new Toronto streetcars announced this week.
While politicians love big announcements, quieter decisions, such as adding bus-priority lanes, make a difference. When transit is fast, reliable and shows up often, people will use it. Moody’s conceded that its prediction of a “permanent” decline would be offset in part by new riders attracted by better transit capacity.
On that score, one interesting prediction is for quieter rush hours – the peak periods that have long shaped transit, morning and evenings, in and out of downtown.
If these surges were smaller – as some people work from home a few days a week – transit planners believe it could benefit systems as a whole, as more resources could go to improve service in general.
Mass urban transit may seem in doubt. It is not. Great cities have great transit. The pandemic has shaken humanity, but it has not changed the fundamental facts of what makes cities work.
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