SkyTrain in Whalley. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

SkyTrain in Whalley. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

‘Build it and they will come’: Canada’s public transit looks to rebound from COVID

There were fears transit agencies in Canada would have to make drastic service cuts

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to massive declines in public transit ridership across Canada, yet many cities decided to maintain service levels this year, while others even chose to expand.

Not long after the global health crisis reached Canada, rates of public transit use across the country dropped by about 85 per cent, according to prof. Matti Siemiatycki of University of Toronto’s geography and planning department.

The transportation policy expert said there were fears transit agencies in Canada would have to make drastic service cuts. “Public transit networks have been among the most impacted sectors in the economy from the pandemic,” he said in a recent interview.

Instead, provincial and federal funding rescued the country’s transit systems from the verge of collapse, he said. In the United States, however, public transit systems are facing the “dreaded transit death spiral,” Siemiatycki said, where cuts lead to further declines in ridership, which lead to further cuts and declines.

Washington, D.C., and Boston have announced major service cuts. In New York City, the local transit authority said in mid-November it may be forced to cut bus and subway service by 40 per cent and lay off more than 9,000 workers.

In contrast, Toronto and Montreal are expanding their transit systems. Luc Tremblay, CEO of the Montreal Transit Corp. said in a recent interview Montreal chose to maintain service levels in 2020 at 2019 levels — despite the fact ridership is about 65 per cent of what it was before COVID-19 hit.

Montreal, Tremblay said, made that choice so service is available when riders decide to return. “It’s the key,” he explained. “Build it and they will come.”

On Dec. 15, as Quebec imposed more COVID-19-related restrictions to stop a surge in infections across the province, the government announced a major expansion to the city’s light rail system. Twenty-three new stations will be added to the commuter rail network, with construction set to begin in 2023.

In the country’s largest city, the Toronto Transit Commission said service during the week of Dec. 4 was at 95 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. The transit agency said it will maintain the same level of service in 2021. The Ontario government is also moving forward with a $28-billion plan to expand transit in the Toronto area.

In British Columbia, transit agencies will receive more than $1 billion in federal and provincial funding to maintain service levels. Federal money also helped Winnipeg’s public transit agency fill a gap in its budget after ridership — and fare revenue — declined.

Marco D’Angelo, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, a trade association that represents the country’s public transit agencies, said service across the country is currently about 87 per cent of pre-COVID levels.

“Systems are not planning to reduce service, but that will likely change unless governments extend financial support,” he said in an email.

Siemiatycki said that while ridership is down, the health crisis has shown the importance of public transit. “Even through the pandemic, transit played a critical role in our economies,” he said. “Transit was a lifeline service for people to reach their front-line place of employment.”

Daniel Bergeron with Montreal’s public transit authority said he expects the pandemic-induced decline in ridership to have an almost $1-billon impact on the agency’s budget between 2020 and 2022. He said government subsidies will help cover most of the shortfall, but added that expenses will need to be cut and improvements put off in order to continue to offer service at 2019 levels.

When the pandemic is over, people will move around differently, he said, adding that he expects service to increase outside traditional peak periods. People working from home will be more likely to take trips during the day instead of at rush hour, he said.

“In the short term, there’s uncertainty,” he said. “But in 10, 20 years, it will be a new normal but still normal. We may have a bit more working from home, but it’s not open to everybody.”

People will still have to go to work in shops, restaurants and manufacturing facilities, and he thinks people will still want to go out to restaurants and go shopping downtown.

“Good quality of life is not living near a highway,” Bergeron said. “Nice neighbourhoods usually come with good public transport services.”

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronaviruspublic transit

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Prince George Cougars triumph over the Langley-based Vancouver Giants Monday night, by the score of 4-1. That follows a similar defeat on Saturday by the same team. (Cougar’s Allen Douglas/Special to Black Press Media)
Vancouver Giants fall in 4-1 loss to Prince George

WHL hockey team goes up against Victoria in Kamloops on Thursday

COVID-19 virus (file photo).
COVID cases recorded at 5 Langley schools

14 schools remain on Fraser Health exposure list

Trinity Western University’s Student Association organized a celebration parade for graduating students Saturday, April 10, 2021. (Trinity Western University/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
University student association hosts grad parade at Langley campus

Students honoured with special Saturday event

Seven-year-old Aaliyah Rosa was found dead in an apartment in Langley in July, 2018. (Langley Advance Times files)
Judge to rule on final witness in Langley child murder trial

The trial of KerryAnn Lewis has lasted far longer than expected

Basmodi protest on Saturday, April 10 at Aldergrove Community Secondary School. (Special to The Star)
‘Basmodi Wave’ protesters in support of Indian farmers demonstrate at Aldergrove school

200 pairs of shoes were on display, one for every protester killed in India

A person receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C. sees 873 more COVID-19 cases Tuesday, decline continues

Hospitalizations up to 377, two more deaths for 1,515 total

In a 2019 photograph, Yin Yin Din held a picture of her brother Kyaw Naing Din, 54, and her late father Hla Din who passed away in 2014, during a trip to Victoria. (The News files)
Family of B.C. man killed by cop appeals to Attorney General for help

The Din family want B.C. Attorney General David Eby to forward their case to Crown

B.C. Premier John Horgan speaks at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
Tougher COVID-19 restrictions in B.C., including travel, still ‘on the table’: Horgan

John Horgan says travel restrictions will be discussed Wednesday by the provincial cabinet

Protesters occupied a road leading to Fairy Creek Watershed near Port Renfrew. (Submitted photo)
B.C. First Nation says logging activist interference not welcome at Fairy Creek

Vancouver Island’s Pacheedaht concerned about increasing polarization over forestry activities

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Flow Academy is not accepting membership applications from anybody who has received a dose of the vaccine, according to a password-protected membership application form. (Submitted image)
B.C. martial arts gym refusing patrons who have been vaccinated, wear masks

Interior Health has already issued a ticket to Flow Academy for non-compliance with public health orders

Of 46 arrests made between March 16 and 19 at Metrotown mall in Burnaby, 27 suspected shoplifters are now facing charges. (Twitter/Burnaby RCMP)
RCMP arrest 46 people in 4 days during Metrotown shoplifting crackdown

$4,800 in stolen merchandise was recovered and returned to businesses inside of the mall

Kao Macaulay has been charged in relation to a home break-in on March 30 in Abbotsford in which five kittens were stolen. (Facebook photo)
‘Prolific offender’ charged with theft of 5 newborn kittens in Abbotsford

Kao Macaulay, 23, is accused of breaking into home on March 30

Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions (Screen shot)
Minister of mental health tells Surrey audience COVID-19 ‘has made everything worse’

More than 23,000 people in B.C. are receiving medication to treat opioid addiction

Most Read