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

Oliver Town Hall (Town of Oliver Facebook).
Call for local artists to design centennial logo for Oliver

The Town of Oliver will be celebrating 100 years in 2021

Vaseux Lake in winter. (Facebook)
Dogs rescued after falling through ice on Vaseux Lake

Good Samaritans saved the trapped dogs

“My grandma always just said…making people smile is the most important thing,” says Nicholas Kruger. (Chehala Leonard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter)
Entrepreneur Nicholas Kruger nominated as Okanagan community changemaker

With humour and knowledge, Nicholas Kruger says it’s important to give back

Geoff Orr began building his dream home in the hills above Penticton over 14 years ago. The architect used recycled lumber from the old Super-Vale grocery store. (Floating Orb Productions / YouTube)
WATCH: Penticton man shows off dream home made from recycled lumber

A lot of the lumber used was taken from the demolished Super-Valu grocery store

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addresses the media during a news conference at the BC Centre of Disease Control in Vancouver B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
B.C. announces 485 new COVID-19 cases, fewest deaths in months

‘The actions we take may seem small, but will have a big impact to stop the virus,” urges Dr. Henry

RCMP released this photo on Jan. 27, 2021 of Terrance Jones, 40, a Caucasian man with a closely shaved head, brown eyes, dirty blonde or brown hair, and a thin mustache and beard. The inside of his right arm is covered in tattoos, including one of a face. (Kamloops RCMP photo)
RCMP want public’s help to locate Shuswap man wanted on charge of attempted murder

Sicamous man was arrested previously on Jan. 11 for allegedly breaching conditions of release

Royal B.C. Museum conservator Megan Doxsey-Whitfield kneels next to a carved stone pillar believed to have significance as a First Nations cultural marker by local Indigenous people. The pillar was discovered on the beach at Dallas Road last summer. Museum curatorial staff have been working with Songhees and Esquimalt Nation representatives to gain a clearer picture of its use. (Photo courtesy Royal BC Museum)
Stone carving found on Victoria beach confirmed Indigenous ritual pillar

Discussion underway with the Esquimalt and Songhees about suitable final home for the artifact

Former Vancouver Giants forward Evander Kane is seen here in Game 7 of the second round of the 2009 WHL playoffs against the Spokane Chiefs (Sam Chan under Wikipedia Commons licence)
Gambling debts revealed in details of bankruptcy filing by hockey star Evander Kane

Sharks left winger and former Vancouver Giants player owes close to $30 million total

Othman “Adam” Hamdan, pictured in front of Christina Lake’s Welcome Centre, was acquitted of terrorism related charges in 2017. He has been living in Christina Lake since November 2020. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Man acquitted on terrorism charges awaits deportation trial while living in Kootenays

Othman Ayed Hamdan said he wants to lead a normal life while he works on his upcoming book

B.C. Premier John Horgan wears a protective face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 prior to being sworn in by The Honourable Janet Austin, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia during a virtual swearing in ceremony in Victoria, Thursday, November 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Premier Horgan calls jumping COVID vaccine queue ‘un-Canadian’

Horgan says most people in B.C. are doing their best to follow current public health guidelines

Vernon’s Noric House long-term care facility is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
COVID-19: Two more deaths at Vernon’s Noric House

Total deaths climb to 17 at local long-term care outbreaks

A change to the drive thru sign at the Tim Hortons in Summerland came before Summerland council on Jan. 25. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
Summerland council approves variance for drive-thru sign

Questions raised about why issue was brought to council table

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart share a laugh while speaking to the media before sitting down for a meeting at City Hall, in Vancouver, on Friday August 30, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
Vancouver mayor, Health Canada to formally discuss drug decriminalization

Kennedy Stewart says he’s encouraged by the federal health minister’s commitment to work with the city

Most Read