Toronto

Riders are coming back but transit agencies warn they're not fully up to speed after COVID-19

Public transit agencies are welcoming a rise in ridership after two years of dismal demand from COVID-19. Now, they say the challenge remains in regaining riders who stopped taking public transit, attracting new ones, and finding ways to adapt to changing commutes.

Transit operators still hard pressed to attract riders and adapt to changing commutes

The TTC says as of mid-June, about 60 per cent of riders have returned compared to pre-pandemic levels. To prepare for a projected uptick in riders starting this fall, the TTC says it's conducting hiring blitzes for janitors and security constables. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Two of Ontario's biggest public transit agencies say they're seeing a welcome uptick in ridership after two years of dismal demand, but they warn there's still a long way to go before they can fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both the TTC and GO Transit say they've regained 60 and 50 per cent of pre-pandemic riders respectively due to the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions, more in-person events and a gradual return to office work. But they both say it's hard to plan for future riders.

"It's taken us two years to get back to this," said TTC spokesperson Stuart Green. The TTC says its financial report going to the board Thursday will forecast a $66-million revenue surplus, partly due to labour and operating savings, by the end of 2022. 

"We'll get back to those levels that are pre-pandemic, but probably not in the same patterns that we saw," Green added.

Government relief packages helped keep both transit agencies afloat since the pandemic struck in 2020. But at the best of times, both heavily rely on farebox revenue to operate. To keep that cash flowing, they say they have to regain riders who stopped taking public transit, attract new ones and find ways to adapt to changing commuting patterns.

"These are things that we need to be aware of so that we can make sure we're delivering the best service, at the right times of day, on the right routes," Green told CBC Toronto.

Green says weekend commuters are returning at a faster rate than weekday riders, since many who used to take the TTC to work for a 9 a.m. start, and who took transit home at 5 p.m, now go into the office at varying times throughout the week. 

There's a similar trend on GO Transit, which is partly why the company is exploring different fare options to bring more riders back, and implemented free wifi on trains, buses and in stations in 2020, says Anne Marie Aikins, spokesperson for Metrolinx, the provincial agency that oversees GO Transit. 

"That's going to be a key element — to use the commute as your part of your workday or relaxing," Aikins said.

Green says the TTC is also looking at different opportunities to bring in more customers, and points to the on-demand community transit buses that have been operating in East York, the Beach and in North York. He says it's also looking into ride sharing, as well as consulting and partnering with other organizations. 

Returning and improving commutes

Green says with the exception of seasonal services, all TTC service routes are still operating, with some at reduced capacity compared to pre-pandemic levels. In contrast, Aikins says while GO buses have returned to normal operations, about 25 per cent of train routes aren't operating yet.

She says the goal is to have all routes running at 100 per cent by the fall, and expects more riders to fill out the remaining empty space as gas prices rise and traffic gets thicker. 

"People are eager for us to bring back all of their services, and we're doing that as fast as we can," she said.

Metrolinx says GO Transit has recovered about 50 per cent of its ridership compared to 2019 levels, which was a record-breaking ridership year. The pandemic saw ridership dip by as much as 95 per cent in 2020. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Not only are riders looking forward to a return to normal services, they're also anticipating new ones. Aikins notes both commuters and transit operators alike are waiting for the Eglinton Crosstown and Finch West light rail transit lines to open in the next two years.

She says that's a direct contrast to Metrolinx's 2021 report, which noted a loss of commuter interest in GO Transit's expansion projects as a key risk for the organization.

"I think people are really anxious to see it all come together," Aikins says.

Coming back stronger 

The expansion of transit networks and the return of ridership is welcome news to Vincent Puhakka, a campaign committee member for TTCriders, a group that describes itself as a "democratic, volunteer-led organization of transit riders." But it doesn't fully show that transit agencies have learned the lessons of the pandemic, he says.

"Lots of people wanted to ride transit and the service wasn't there for them," said Puhakka, referring to the overcrowding of buses before and even during the pandemic, despite the slowdown in service.

"So what's going to happen when people return to transit in a big way, which is already happening?"

Puhakka says it's crucial that the City of Toronto help TTC and Metrolinx better integrate and streamline transit systems, keep fares affordable and make transit a priority in low-income areas that were shown to use the service more than others. 

Both operators note that while they're also ready to ramp down at a moment's notice in case future COVID-19 waves shut things down again, they're ready to ramp up services on all fronts to meet increasing demand — particularly in September as students head back to class. 

"The one thing I've stopped doing with this pandemic is predicting and assuming things are going to happen," said Aikins.

"It's hard to tell, but it's looking very optimistic that riders are coming back."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vanessa Balintec is a reporter for CBC Toronto who likes writing stories about labour, equity and community. She previously worked for stations in New Brunswick and Kitchener-Waterloo. You can reach her at vanessa.balintec@cbc.ca and on Twitter at @vanessabalintec.

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