Luis Virla boarded a bus for several years and then boarded a commuter train in Calgary. But like many others, once the pandemic began, he stepped on the brakes in using transit.
Even now that the pandemic restrictions have almost disappeared and his fears that the virus will subside, the 36-year-old man is still not in transit through Calgary for his job at a technology startup. Instead, he spends most of his working days at home.
If he needs to go to the office, he will either drive or ride.
“I’ve driven very little since the pandemic,” Virla said.
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As part of a family of four, including two small children, he realizes that he will eventually have to return to the habit of traveling by bus and train because of his single-car household.
“I would definitely go in transit again, but I probably wouldn’t want to commute every day,” he said, preferring more flexibility.
The number of passengers in transit across the country is still significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels, even though more people are returning to offices and gas prices are reaching record highs.
A long convalescence ahead of us
While vehicle use and air transport have almost completely recovered from the pandemic, transit use may take several more years to return to normal, observers said.
The latest passenger data from Statistics Canada comes from March 2022. This was the twelfth month in a row with a year-on-year increase in urban traffic. Yet the number of passengers is only 52 percent of what was at the start of the March 2020 pandemic.
“The nature of work and work-related travel has changed significantly since the pandemic,” said Raktim Mitra, an associate professor at the Metropolitan University School of Urban and Regional Planning in Toronto.
More people walk and ride bikes when they can, he said, and it can be difficult to get rid of the habit of driving. Some commuters are still spatially aware and concerned about COVID-19 after being told for most of the last two years to physically distance themselves, he added.
“I suppose it will take at least two, three, four years to return to where we were, if we ever return,” he said.
The latest employment figures show that about 19 percent of employed Canadians still work from home, compared to 30 percent during much of the pandemic. About five percent have a hybrid layout where they divide their time between office and work from home.
According to the Avison Young Index, which uses aggregated location data from cell phones, Calgary has seen one of the highest revenues in downtown walking on weekdays compared to pre-pandemic levels in North America.
The influx of workers into the city center is still driven mainly by cars and trucks. The total number of Calgary Transit passengers has risen recently to about 55 percent of the pre-pandemic level.
“Calgary is heavily influenced by people who love to drive. And our downtown market has a lot of people who have historically always wanted to drive to work. This has allowed people to feel more comfortable about returning to the office.” Said Todd Throndson, CEO of Avison Young in Calgary.
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Many passengers in the city notice that trains and buses can be spacious on Mondays and Fridays, while other days of the week are full; many companies require employees to be in the office only from Tuesday to Thursday.
“Interesting things are happening with the driver when it comes to returning to the office,” said Stephen Tauro, a Calgary Transit spokesman. “We’re in transition.”
Ridership in the city is slowing and is expected to gradually increase during the summer, Tauro said with an expected jump in September with the school returning and more people back to the office. Still, he’s not sure when the number of riders will fully recover.
Public transport use varies from country to country, with some cities in Ontario such as Brampton and London reporting that passenger numbers are recovering to more than 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels. However, in some small towns, passenger numbers are 80 percent lower than in 2019.
“I think a lot of people are going back to work, so it’s getting busier and busier day by day,” Zain Mazhar said before boarding the bus on his way from Mississauga to Ajax, Ontario.
For most of the past year, Tina Huang has usually had empty seats next to her on a bus in Toronto, but “it’s crowded there now.”
Fewer drivers have meant a sharp drop in transit revenues over the past few years, offset by billions of dollars in temporary government support. Many transport agencies are still juggling the provision of more routes and services to attract customers back, while trying to keep costs under control.
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Some in the sector are optimistic about the rapid increase in passenger numbers across the country, especially in large cities.
This is a time when transportation agencies should plan to increase demand, said Josipa Petrunic, president of the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium, a non-profit group based in Toronto.
He expects to hit the inflection point as more and more people return to the office, combined with growing immigration and population.
“Suddenly people will get really upset about the transit service, which is not fast, not convenient, not on time and not getting them where they need to,” she said. “Meanwhile, the price of gasoline is over the roof and it’s breaking the bank.”
Overall, Petrunic expects it to take two years for transit drivers across the country to overcome the pandemic and return to the 2019 level.
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