No issue affects mobility, equity, and climate change more than public transit, which is essential to a green and socially inclusive recovery. If we don’t get our approach to transit right, we risk making urban congestion worse, making mobility dependent on income, and putting climate goals further out of reach.
Yet transit likely faces another year, perhaps more, of depressed ridership, and in turn reduced revenue. If this is unaddressed, we risk creating a future with higher emissions and more congested cities. Those who can afford to will drive. Those who cannot will endure long waits only to ride the crowded vehicles that remain.
Many of the challenges faced by public transit have been recognized — for which we are grateful — by federal and provincial governments totalling approximately $4.6 billion within the Safe Restart Agreement. Service had to continue in order to get essential workers to their jobs and allow people without access to cars to go about daily life. Service also had to be frequent enough to be convenient as well as avoid overcrowding on board.
To a large degree, those fundamentals remain unchanged. And as the federal government develops its longer-term recovery strategy, ways to keep public transit operating safely and conveniently, and ways to expand it to create good, green jobs should be top of mind.
Helping to build public transit infrastructure is a long-time federal priority under Liberal and Conservative governments alike. But the largest issue facing transit systems now is operating costs. Unless the revenue that used to come from the farebox is replaced somehow, transit is in grave danger of entering a death spiral — and in the process, imperilling the climate and equity goals at the heart of Ottawa’s recovery plans.
Let’s start with the prospect of a transit death spiral, a term starting to be used by the head of San Francisco’s transit system. As a result of COVID-19, transit’s economics have been turned on their head. On average, before the pandemic, Canadian transit systems covered 52 percent of their operating costs with farebox revenue. And then, almost overnight, ridership dropped by about 90 percent. By September, Toronto ridership was at 37 percent of its pre-COVID levels after an 85 percent drop by April. Calgary ridership dropped 90 percent in May, while Vancouver saw a drop of 83 percent.
By August, transit systems nationally had returned to about 40 percent of pre-COVID levels, based on weekly surveys the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) has been doing with the country’s largest transit systems. But ridership is unlikely to fully recover for some time. If the revenue that used to come from the farebox is not replaced, it’s not hard to predict what comes next.
Service cuts would be inevitable. And as buses and trains run more infrequently, riders with the means to drive or catch a cab or Uber almost certainly will. This will further depress revenue, leading to more reduction in service, and so on. The only people left will be those who live too far from work to walk or cycle, but whose income is too low to drive. Who are they likely to be?
At the height of the COVID lockdown, despite precipitous declines in ridership, about a million people nationwide took transit every day, CUTA estimates from its internal surveys. Many of them were essential workers, disproportionately lower-income, in the health, grocery, and janitorial sectors. Most were women. More than half earned less than $30,000 a year and 80 percent had no access to a car. Others were seniors or people living with disabilities doing essential tasks such as grocery shopping or seeing health professionals.
Canada’s challenge is not unique. And if we allow public transit to enter what the head of San Francisco’s transit system calls a death spiral, we will risk abandoning low-income workers, seniors, and people living with disabilities. Our most vulnerable neighbours will spend hours waiting for a bus or train, and when one does finally come it will likely be packed with other people without the means to travel some other way. In Toronto, there is a direct correlation between the most crowded routes and lower-income neighbourhoods in suburban Scarborough and Etobicoke.
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Put simply, we cannot have an inclusive recovery if our lowest-income workers and most vulnerable citizens have their mobility options severely and inevitably constrained. But we should also consider how people with higher incomes will get around once transit becomes too inconvenient or too crowded to take.
An August study from Statistics Canada underlines the danger. Before the pandemic, 13 percent of commuters nationwide went to work on public transit. By early summer, that had fallen to just three percent. Much of the decline was due to telecommuting. But of those people still travelling, four in five left public transit not to walk or cycle but to drive. If this trend solidifies as transit declines, the impacts on emissions and urban land use will be significant. Our cities will become more congested and our climate goals will become that much more difficult to reach.
It’s in this way that public transit is at the nexus of both climate and equity policies. And it is for these reasons that ongoing operating support from federal and provincial governments must continue beyond the Safe Restart Agreement. The funding should be calibrated to ridership numbers and decline as ridership increases with the economic recovery. Transit systems recognize that for the federal government in particular, providing operating support is a significant departure. Traditionally, it partners with provinces and municipalities to build public transit infrastructure, but recognized the essential role transit played during the pandemic and its importance to the recovery. The consequences of allowing public transit to wither on the vine are obvious.
But a less gloomy future is possible. Instead of rising emissions and growing inequality as transit fails, we can lower emissions and improve equity by creating jobs building public transit. Enormous strides in long-term planning have been made in recent years through the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program. This program should continue.
Historically, much of this was designed to get people from suburbs into the core, but even before the pandemic, this was changing. More people travelled from suburb to suburb as businesses located in places with cheaper real estate. We will likely see more demand from suburb-to-suburb and neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood in the medium term. Why? Many businesses located in the suburbs — shipping, manufacturing, food processing — require manual labour. Those workers aren’t working from home. And for those people who are, their daily trips are more likely to be closer to home.
We should also recognize that even before COVID, the growth rate in jobs and populations was greater in suburban areas than city centres — even with all the cranes in downtowns. By continuing to build transit in and between suburban communities, we can support people leaving their cars for more sustainable transport. Because we know that when Canadians have options, they choose transit in growing numbers. Between 2008 and 2018, national ridership grew by about 20 percent, according to data collected by CUTA.
Continuing to support ridership — through operating support and ongoing capital investments — is a pivotal step in lowering emissions while building fairer, better-connected communities. That’s the recovery we should be working toward, not one with higher emissions, more congested cities, and transport for only those who can afford it. The decisions made over the next several months will decide which one we get. Let’s get them right.