The $100 Question – Will Transit Ridership Return?

The Covid-19 pandemic has transit planners worrying about future operations, especially in Vancouver.

Despite TransLink’s claims that……

“The agency is projecting ridership to be at 80 to 90 per cent of pre-pandemic capacity by next year”

………. privately, some insiders are predicting that transit may reach pre-covid levels in ridership in a decade!

Why so.

One big reason is that a lot of transit customers are finding out how bad transit is, compared to taking the car. Trips that now take 40 to 50 minutes by car, take 90 minutes by transit. TransLink provides a service that is stale and user unfriendly; as a product, transit is somewhat toxic.

Remote work and education has become more of a norm, reducing transit use and more bad news, a lot of businesses are relocating outside the hugely expensive downtown core.

The regional transit system has been designed to feed transit hubs, where offices and other businesses are located, but recent massive tax hikes , based on inflated property values in and near those hubs has caused businesses to close and or move away.

Added to this, many older people are finding Metro Vancouver too expensive to live and are moving out, as the Fraser Valley housing boom is well illustrating.

Thus, with a hugely expensive light metro system built to deal with 20th century ideas of commuting to work, the 21st century demands a far more flexible public transit product. Alas with the SkyTrain light-metro system, flexibility is impossible as the massive cement guideways have become anchors of inflexibility.

Should there be a complete rethink about the Broadway subway and the Expo Line extension to Fleetwood? Are the assumption made about SkyTrain expansion valid post Covid?

Is the current $4.6 billion investment to extend the Expo and Millennium Lines a mere 12.8 km is akin to a dinosaur flailing in a tar pit?

Prudent politicians should look 20 minutes into the future and adjust their 20th century concepts of public transit and plan for 21st century public transit, where flexibility and affordability in operation is number one reason for people taking transit!


Vancouver and Calgary
Globe and Mail Western Canada Newsletter April 17, 2021

Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.

The COVID-19 pandemic gutted ridership on Canada’s public-transit systems after the abrupt and widespread lockdowns of the first wave a year ago, and there has only been a slight recovery since. Empty buses and trains prompted layoffs and translated to significant cuts to fare revenue.

A combination of business closures, the massive shift to working from home, and public health advice about avoiding crowds have all changed the way many people use public transit. And now local governments are facing the prospect that some of that shift may be permanent – even when the pandemic is over.

That reality will require public-transit agencies and the governments that finance them to adapt to a new reality in which people travel less or at different times of the day. And the post-pandemic recovery could present an opportunity to reimagine those transit systems in a way that may leave them better off.

Last month, Moody’s Investor Services estimated transit ridership will drop permanently by 20 per cent.

The Moody’s report said the structural changes will particularly affect cities such as New York, Paris, London and Vancouver, where transit has been popular enough that fares have covered a big part of operations. Toronto wasn’t mentioned in the report, but it’s in the same class, with 67 per cent of its operating costs paid for by fares.

Canadian transit systems aren’t projecting anything that dire, but they are preparing for long-term changes.

In Vancouver, the regional transit authority, TransLink, has produced its own analysis, projecting things to improve this year as vaccines take hold and postsecondary institutions resume in-person classes in the fall. The agency is projecting ridership to be at 80 to 90 per cent of prepandemic capacity by next year.

Geoff Cross, TransLink’s vice-president of planning and policy, said changing travel patterns could mean the agency no longer needs to stretch to provide service for the peak-hour commuting, which has been the most expensive and demanding part of the system.

If more workers commute throughout the day, the system could improve service everywhere rather than focusing so much on the big two rush hours.

Edmonton and Calgary are also expecting things to rebound this year. Edmonton is currently at no more than 45 per cent of prepandemic capacity right now, while Calgary is at 30 per cent.

Sarah Feldman, Edmonton’s director of planning and scheduling, said the city has several scenarios about potential recovery. Best case, everything is back to where it was by the fall of 2022. Worst case, a year later. And the agency is also preparing for a reality that ridership may not recovery fully – or if it does, public transit may need to look different.

Calgary Transit spokesman Stephen Tauro agreed that the pandemic could spur long-term change. For example, an increase in the number of people working from home might cut commuter traffic, but might also prompt those people to rethink car ownership and use transit in different ways.

“We know, historically, that in any great, vibrant city, the backbone is a good transit system, and we don’t see that going away,” Mr. Tauro said.

London-based transit consultant Michael Schabas said many cities will no doubt experience a reduction in peak-time commuting; that trend has been under way for decades.

“The peak has been flattening for 30 years,” said Mr. Schabas, who has been a consultant for transit systems in Vancouver, Toronto, London and other places.

He said that will likely require transit systems, especially those that rely heavily on fare box revenue, to adjust their funding models. In Vancouver, TransLink was getting 57 per cent of its operating revenue from fares alone before the pandemic. The rest of the money came primarily from taxes on property and fuel.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.


2 Responses to “The $100 Question – Will Transit Ridership Return?”
  1. nathan davidowicz says:

    Toronto is predicting a return to Pre-COVID ridership will take 4 yrs.TransLink predictions are wrong.
    Need a completely different approach. Transport 2050 is just a public relation. TransLink is depending on consultants and then does not implement any of the consultant’s recommendations. We never implemented and or achieved the targets of Transport 2021. Need to continue demonstrating like we did last week outside Vancouver City Hall and the TransLink Minister office. Hopefully, someone will wake up in the BC Government.

  2. AG says:

    Skytrain is great. It is fast and cheap to get anywhere in Vancouver. Skytrain to UBC and Langley will be completed by 2030. Next, Skytrain will be extended to Maple ridge from Coquitlam. A fourth line will go from Surrey to Whiterock.

    Zwei replies: Haven’t a clue do you. At over $200 million/km to build, it will never happen.

Leave A Comment