Gas prices have never been higher, but Canadians still aren’t jumping on public transit

For several years, Luis Virla hopped on a bus and then transferred to a train as part of his commute to work in Calgary. But like many, once the pandemic started, he curbed the use of public transport.

Even now that pandemic restrictions have all but disappeared and his anxiety about catching the virus subsides, the 36-year-old still isn’t commuting through Calgary in transit for his job at a tech startup . Instead, he spends most of his working days at home.

If he needs to go to the office, he will drive or take a ride.

“I’ve taken public transport very little since the pandemic,” Virla said.

As part of a family of four, including two young children, he realizes that he will eventually have to get back into the habit of using the bus and train because of his one-car household.

“I would definitely take public transit again, but I probably wouldn’t want to commute every day,” he said, preferring more flexibility.

Transit ridership across the country is still noticeably down from pre-pandemic levels, even as more people return to the office and gas prices hit record highs.

Ridership is growing at Calgary Transit, but it’s still only about half of what it was before the pandemic. (Geneviève Normand/Radio-Canada)

Long recovery ahead

While vehicle use and air travel have almost fully recovered from the pandemic, public transport use may still take a few years to return to normal levels, observers said.

The most recent ridership figures from Statistics Canada are from March 2022. This was the twelfth consecutive month of year-over-year growth in urban transit. However, traffic is only 52 percent what it was at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

“The nature of work and work-related travel has changed dramatically post-pandemic,” said Raktim Mitra, associate professor at Metropolitan University of Toronto’s school of urban and regional planning.

More people are walking and cycling when they can, he said, and it can be hard to break the driving habit. Some commuters are still space-conscious and worried about COVID-19, having been told to physically distance for much of the past two years, he added.

“My guess is that it will take us at least two, three, four years to get back to where we were, if we ever get back,” he said.

The need to move has diminished and could remain so for five years or more, says Raktim Mitra of Metropolitan University of Toronto. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Latest jobs figures show around 19% of employed Canadians are still working from home, up from 30% during much of the pandemic. About 5% have a hybrid arrangement where they split their time between the office and working from home.

According to an index by commercial real estate services firm Avison Young, which uses aggregate cellphone location data, Calgary has seen one of the strongest recoveries in weekday downtown foot traffic from levels of before the pandemic in North America.

However, the influx of workers into the heart of the city is mainly by car and truck. Calgary Transit’s overall ridership has recently increased, reaching approximately 55% of pre-pandemic levels.

“Calgary is heavily influenced by people who like to drive. And our downtown market has many people who historically have always wanted to drive their jobs. So it made people feel more comfortable about how they return to the office,” said Todd Throndson, general manager of Avison Young in Calgary.

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Different trends are emerging around the return to the office across the country, says Todd Throndson, general manager of Avison Young in Calgary.

Many city commuters note that trains and buses can be spacious on Mondays and Fridays, while they are full on other days of the week; many companies only require workers to be in the office Tuesday through Thursday.

“There are some interesting things happening with the ridership in terms of returning to the office,” said Calgary Transit spokesman Stephen Tauro. “We are in a transition.”

Traffic in the city is slowing and expected to gradually increase over the summer, Tauro said, with an expected jump in September as school returns and more people return to the office. Still, he doesn’t know when traffic will fully recover.

Uneven recovery

Transit use varies across the country, with some Ontario cities like Brampton and London reporting that ridership has recovered to more than 70% of pre-pandemic levels. In some small towns, however, ridership is down 80% from 2019 levels.

“I think a lot of people are going back to work and because of that it’s getting busier day by day,” Zain Mazhar said, before boarding a bus as part of his drive from Mississauga to Ajax. , Ontario.

For most of the past year, Tina Huang usually had empty seats next to her on the bus in Toronto, but “now it’s packed.”

Fewer riders has led to a sharp drop in transit revenue in recent years, which has been offset by billions of dollars in temporary government support. Many transit agencies are still juggling offering more routes and services to attract customers, while trying to control costs.

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Transit agencies should prepare for increased ridership, says Josipa Petrunic, president of the Canadian Urban Transportation Research and Innovation Consortium.

Some industry members are optimistic about the rapid increase in ridership across the country, especially in major cities.

This is when transit agencies should plan for increased demand, said Josipa Petrunic, president of the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium, a Toronto-based nonprofit group.

She expects to hit an inflection point as more people continue to return to office, combined with rising immigration and population levels.

“Suddenly people are going to be really upset with a transit service that’s not fast, not convenient, not on time, not getting them where they need to be,” she said. declared. “Meanwhile, the price of gasoline has exploded and broke the bank.”

Overall, Petrunic expects it will take two years for transit ridership across the country to overcome the pandemic and return to 2019 ridership levels.