Will Canadas transit systems change forever?
The i remember the last time. I rode public transit. It was last march seriously. And yes i know. I'm lucky i've been working here safe in the basement. And i haven't had to crowd onto a bus or a subway and i'm not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of canadians. Coast to coast who used to take public transit twice a day five days a week and now they just don't so that means there is less money available to keep transit service at normal levels a lot less but of course there are still millions of canadians who rely on public transit canadians. Who don't have a choice. Who need to get to work and for them. Transit needs to be clean and safe and reliable and that costs money more money it turns out during a pandemic so what have transit agencies across the country done to maintain that service. How have they coped with. Rising costs and ridership numbers that have dropped off a cliff. When will they be forced to make some tough choices. And how will public transit in canada's largest cities look different when eventually some of us return to the office jordan heath rawlings. This is the big story ben. Spur is the transportation reporter at the toronto star. He looked at transit services across canada in the pandemic. Hello ben hi. Thanks for having me. Can you maybe start today by just giving me a sense of scale in terms of what. The pandemic has done to transit ridership in canada. I have not for the record Been on public transit since march. Yeah and you're certainly not alone. These sort of top line numbers. I guess that in april of last year across the country transit use draw to about seventeen percent of what it had been the same month the year before so an eighty three percent drop that that pretty much occurred almost overnight that within a week or two cities across the country went into lockdown and people stopped using transit and so the is from that kind of low points of last spring ridership has started to creep up up but with the second wave. of course. it's not rocking back anytime soon. So across the country ridership is now out about forty percent of Of what's normal so it's still nowhere near where it used to be is. They're going to be some sort of that. Drop that becomes permanent Even once vaccine comes. In because i do know you know again anecdotally Some folks who have purchased cars during this and don't wanna take transit to work again. Yeah i think there's going to be long term of covert on public transit. Use for sure. No one. I've talked to is expecting a return to to normal transit. Ridership a once for instance. The vaccine is widely available. Even even after that happens. Even when i'm going outside and it's much safer than it is now With things go back to normal right away and that there's just a couple of factors there. I think people's work habits have changed. there's lots of more people who are working from home now and so won't need to commute everyday Via public transit public transit uses is normally closely tied to the economy when the economy's doing well when people a lots of people are working public transit. use Takes up in past recessions for instance. We've seen public transit ridership but dip. So i think if there's any kind of long term or even immediate near term on economic negative impact from covid. We're going to see a transit ridership. Be kind of in a depressed state for a while. We're gonna talk in a second about What's unique about the pandemic situation in terms of how well the government is supporting transit but in a normal situation taking away covid nineteen. How closely is transit. Service tied to ridership. You know what would happen in a normal situation with that kind of dip in ridership. Yeah it's a difficult question to answer. i mean they. I think there's no. There's no precedent for this. Of course no playbook for this kind of overnight rapid as steep drop in public transit use. But i'm actually kind of interesting that the closest analogue i think would be previous periods of economic recession. Where were you started to see transit ridership. Go down in response to that kind of notoriously toronto. At least in the early nineties There was a drop in t see use in what happened was that the city started to cut the tdc budget and rollback service An kicked off what what people have described as a transit death spiral and what's happened is there is that public. Transit of course is only kind of useful. It's reliable right. If you know that you're gonna that you can walk out your door and go to the corner and a bus will come on and maybe five or ten minutes. Then that's a useful service for you but if you have to wait you know half an hour forty five minutes. You're going to quit pretty quickly. Find another way to get around. So there's a kind of level where if you start to scale back transit service in response to lower ridership you actually start to drive people away from taking the service and that reduces ridership even more so so it's this kind of vicious cycle So that's happened. In the past where transit agencies have cut back and then led to the years lawn sustain drop in ridership and that's what a lot of people at the start of the pandemic a lot of experts and people. I spoke to at toronto city. Council for instance. We're really worried was going to happen. As a result of covid in that so far we We have actually haven't seen so we haven't seen a lot of service cuts across the country. Yes there has been. There has been service cuts so i think the latest Fears from the canadian. Urban transit association is that in december operators across the country were operating at about eighty seven percent of normal service so a thirty percent cut which is nothing but It certainly hasn't fallen as far as demand has so demand is only had about forty percent of normal also. An eighty seven percent is while above Demand and the reason why that is is that the federal and provincial governments have come forward with them significant funding to keep transit's operators afloat on because of course transit's agencies get a the vast bulk of their revenue from the fare. Box writes a win. Writers aren't taking the service. They their sources of funding. Dry up very quickly. So they've had to rely on federal and provincial Essentially to keep operating and there's some nervousness Certainly last year that It took some time for on the federal and provincial governments to to reach an agreement but They did come forward with funding and And it has allowed agencies to continue operating that something close to normal. Is there a limit to that funding. Because to your point earlier you know the ridership is not gonna come all the way back quite likely And knowing federal and provincial governments They don't tend to handle this kind of support. Definitely yeah with other sectors You know. I think some people are seeing the situation with transit as an. Kobe has been something of an opportunity in the middle of this crisis for for a long time. -tario for instance defended the provincial government would actually provide regular operating funding every year to transit agencies. Like t see. They stopped at in the mid nineties and Basically the city had to take on a lot of those costs in the city. Has you know limited funding compared to the provincial government and so now with the situation where the province has stepped forward in provided operating funding to get through this pandemic. You have some people who say that needs to become permanent now. That cities In order to operate the robust transit systems until ridership returns to normal. We're gonna need some kind of assistance from the province. So they're they're they're advocates than people city council who have launched said. The prompt should should help fund transit operations in a big city like toronto. That you know is an economic engine of the province They need to keep doing that for the foreseeable future. Even aside from just maintaining service amidst declining ridership what other costs have transit agencies faced with the pandemic you know. I imagine there are things like masks and operators safety and a ton of stuff. They couldn't have anticipated. The early on in the pandemic agencies realized that they had to take measures to to change their operations and and try to make them as safe as possible for people. Who did Need to continue to ride. They've made mass mandatory for for riders and for employees that most agencies They've done things like tried to encourage social distancing by putting up barriers in on an stations for instance or on decals on station platforms that they've had to invest too heavily in things like hand sanitizer for for their employees and for the public Blocking off a certain seats on on vehicles to help encourage civil distancing so all of that comes with a cost it. It's not some quite as much of a cost. The really steep revenue loss as a result of fewer riders. But it is You know millions of dollars in additional cost for those kind of anti covert measures in the near term. Are we likely to see any changes of approach from trump's agencies to their schedules to how they operate because again you know we've already spoken about who is using transit and who's not and i can't imagine the downtown business. Commuters that have traditionally been. I guess A big part of the transit picture are are her as important as they used to be. Yes so that. That's a really good point in toronto. For instance you know. Our subway system has been designed to kind of funnel people into the downtown corridor in the day and then take them back home but during the covid crisis that dot patterns completely gone there's Far fewer people are taking the subway system for instance Then the bus network Out in a more suburban areas of toronto so Subway service Or ridership on the subways about twenty four percents of what. It used to be well on buses. It's about forty one percent. And i've spoken to some researchers researcher in australia action. He's done some really interesting work. Predicting that there could be a sustained. Thirty percent reduction in people commuting downtown Even once the worst of the crisis over and so that does change how you have to offer you transit system that you know we're seeing the people who are still kind of relying on public transit. Toronto during the crisis are people who don't live downtown. Who aren't working in finance. For instance i'm going to treat or something There are essential workers at food processing plants at groceries Healthcare facilities and there are people who don't have an option to take transit In the form of of Boss lines which are generally seen as less. Glamorous some moses service that don't get as much attention but i think one thing that we could expect to see going forward is transit authorities paying much more attention to those to those bus lines outside of the downtown core ensuring that those enough service there to adequately service people but also to keep people safe in the near term right where we want operate as much as possible so that crowding is kept at a minimum and that there is a dangerous spreading the virus when you talk to people at the stm in montreal at t c in toronto. Is that something. They're actively planning for like a rethinking of routes and schedules to adjust to a a new kind of city when this is over yes so it in t- in toronto for instance the td tdc. They've cut service on a subway and streetcar lines but had into this year. They're actually operating more bus service than they were before the pandemic hit so. I think that shows you the kind of new pattern. That's emerging and. I think there is going to be much more. Focus on on those lines outside of the downtown core and also just shifting of priorities right because normally of course you would see the heaviest transit use during the morning and afternoon rush hours where people are going to their offices but if more people start to work from home or slightly less regular hours where they might spend some of their day at home in some of their day the office That pattern evaporates where. We're not gonna see those huge spikes in the morning and afternoon and so therefore the transit agencies can actually be a bit more flexible. The demand will be more evenly spread out throughout the day. And that's actually probably thing for transit. Operators and for riders right we. We might not see the the really heavy crowding in those Peak rush hour periods and it could be a bit more less crowded safer and kind of more relaxed. The commute in the in transit agencies will come apply their service accordingly in the bigger picture. How are these agencies. Framing their approach. as we go into two thousand twenty one and beyond because it used to be an approach. That was pretty carefully tied to getting more buses to the busiest routes and you know following where ridership goes and. I don't know if that kind of approach is possible right now. Yeah i think there's a real push an attitude woman. A canadian traces needs to seize to do what they can to sort of. Stay the course right whether there is going to be a long term effects of the pandemic. i think there's a recognition that things are are kind of really bad right now but hopefully won't be as bad within a couple of months right so they're trying to of get through this crisis of much much lower ridership in hoping to get back to something approaching normal but i was kind of interesting numb so for example in montreal s. t. end they're they're operating the same level of service. They did before the pandemic their plan to operate that this year or next year in the ceo of Sem actually kinda friend did as a moral obligation to keep doing that right to operate a transit system that allows essential workers during this crisis to continue to go to work and also allows them to do so safely right. If you start to cut service than vehicles get much more crowded and and then they could be unless safe while the viruses still circulating So s is framed it as their duty to to keep a kind of fully-functioning transit service on out there. I think a lot of other agencies across the country are thinking. The same thing does that. Approach may be combined with The advocates you mentioned who are looking for funding. Do you see any of that. Making its way up the government chain. I mean this has really revealed What's an essential service and what's not over the course of the past year. Yeah i what. What transit agencies might say in the the leaders i've talked to on our pre hardened by the fact that The province and feds have come forward with operating funding for transit systems. I think they see that. As recognition from government that transit agencies are really important for cities and they we need healthy transit systems if we wanna have functional cities both during and after the pandemic. The question is is how how long that does last right. If transit agencies are facing long-term budget shortfalls whether there'll be appetite for provinces as in particular to come forward with some kind of steady operating funding the other possibility and the something that advocates and government officials are pushing for is for Greater diversity in the revenue streams for public transit so for instance in toronto the operating budget of the tc. It's two thirds of it comes from the fare box so it's really vulnerable to sudden drop in ridership like this whereas potentially if there is a greater mix of funding streams if If transit was paid for using Parking taxes or road tolls something like that could be more protected from ridership dropped. So the tdc's been pushing for for that. Td and city officials have been pushing for those kind of a revenue tools for a while but the province has since allowed the city to actually enact them. So i think we could expect a kind of a renewed push for that kind of more diversified revenue streams so that if ridership dropped does drop again if ridership drops again in some future pandemic. It may not be as as bad a financial disaster. Do not say the words future. Pandemic on this podcast. I mean that's that's another interesting thing though that some You know transit agencies are are still kind of pushing along with their plans to for instance by new vehicles right and agencies are trying to build in pandemic protective measures in new vehicles that they buy so for instance buses that have fewer touch points. Fewer places where people are going to put their hands Kind of new technology like uv Filter is on air systems in in vehicles so that virus particles are less likely to to circulate and stuff so transit agencies are unfortunately or fortunately are just kind of Alarmingly a getting ready for for the next pendon. I hope that we never have to have the conversation about rolling out those new vehicles in time for the next pandemic ben Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. Thank you very much for having me ben. Spur transportation reporter at the toronto star. That was the big story. If you'd like more to the big story podcasts. dot ca. talk to us on twitter at the big story. The send us an email. Let us know what you think. The big story podcast all one word lower case at dot rogers dot com. And find us in your podcast player rate review five stars etc. You know the deal. Tell your friends like subscribe everything. Thanks for listening. I'm jordan heath rowlings. 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