As devastating as the impacts of COVID-19 have been, there has never been a more transformative opportunity to revolutionize and democratize transit. And so, in our first Blog piece, we’re writing about transit investment in a post-COVID-19 world.
Listen, we’re also tired of reading about COVID-19. We know it’s unpleasant to read yet another article mentioning “coronavirus” and “pandemic.” But as devastating as the impacts of COVID-19 have been, there has never been a more transformative opportunity to revolutionize and democratize transit. And so, in our first Blog piece, we’re writing about transit investment in a post-COVID-19 world. Indulge us.
For six months, transit agencies have been bleeding revenue. Take Calgary Transit. The transit agency has seen a 93% decrease in ridership compared to 2019 and laid off 430 employees. Agencies including the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and TransLink (of Vancouver), have experienced enormous drops in passenger boarding since March.
Let’s compare COVID-19 to the 2008 Great Recession. In March, economies across the world shrunk as lockdown orders grounded business and trade to a halt. Canada’s economy contracted by 42% in the second quarter, or 5x as much as it did in the same quarter in 2008. But after the housing bubble popped in 2008, transit ridership in the United States actually increased to its highest level since 1956. Cash-strapped commuters sought cheaper ways to get to and from work. The problem is that in 2008 transit riders were combatting predatory loans and corruption, not a microbial virus that changes day-to-day. Well, maybe we’re now combatting both, but that’s for another blog. In any case, mass transit is managing a public-health crisis not seen on such a scale since the Spanish Flu over a century ago.
The good news is that there is a ton of space for innovation in the transit ecosystem. And to emerge from this crisis, innovation and change will be needed. TransLink, who saw its highest ever boarding numbers in 2019, is not expecting ridership to rebound until 2025. To recover, transit agencies will need to become more responsive, dynamic, and predictive of passenger needs and anxieties. In doing so, agencies will continue to be able to provide essential services – and stop their fiscal blood flow.
How can agencies innovate and ease their woes? Let’s assess two interlocking ways. The first is through straight-up cash injection. A public bailout in the grandest sense of the term. To some degree, operators and agencies are being bailed out as we write. The $19B Canada Safe Restart Agreement, a joint federal-provincial spending plan, earmarks an unspecified amount for public transit. This is $19B of good news, first because transit is an essential service. And second, when Canada begins to search for ways to recover from the coronavirus-induced recession, investing in transit is a great way to get bang for our public buck. Stats from the U.S. show that a US$1 investment in transit created 70% more job hours than investment in traditional infrastructure like roads. And a policy paper published by the Canadian Urban Transportation Association (CUTA) underscores underscores just how holistic benefits from transit investments can be. Annual value from greenhouse gas emission reductions amounts to CAD $206M; collision savings in the entire system to the tune of $3.2B; and total GDP output from transit is about $12.6B.
The second way for transit to thrive post-pandemic is to match demand. During the pandemic, demand for transit has fluctuated with lockdown stages, case numbers, and passengers’ comfort level. This means that agencies and operators must make anticipatory cuts to services and, when the time comes, ramp it back up (or down). And while ridership may gradually return to pre-pandemic levels, it is unlikely to increase coverage of suburban and low-income areas.
Thankfully, emerging on-demand and microtransit options for cities may be able to help fill the gap. On-demand transit unlocks several benefits for agencies and operators. First, it reduces the risk of running empty busses, thereby saving precious resources for continued and quality service. Second, because on-demand is tethered to passenger requests and not one fixed route, service coverage could increase for passengers underserved by transit. (Democratizing transit access is a vital issue to address, as evidence suggests that racialized and low-income communities have less access to transit than others. Consider Toronto.) Finally, agency and operator savings could be even higher if on-demand utilizes infrastructure like existing bus stops and fleets.
There is evidence that decision-makers are looking into on-demand, too. For agencies in Ontario to access Safe Restart funds, they have been asked by Transportation Minister Carolyn Burnett to “explore microtransit.” Ultimately, microtransit may not be the be-all-end-all solution to our transit woes. But we’ll be worse off if we don’t explore options that could improve the way we move in a post-pandemic world. So, let’s get working.