Opinion

Public transit's rough ride during the pandemic will reshape communities

We're likely at the crossroads of a major restructuring of cities, towns and transportation networks, writes Adam Giambrone.

We're likely at the crossroads of a major restructuring of our cities, towns, transportation networks

A commuter rides a nearly empty subway train in Montreal on May 25. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Adam Giambrone. He is the former chair of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), and is currently general manager of the Saudi Public Transit Company (SAPTCO). For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

With the first baby steps being taken to reopen Canada's economy, we are optimistically turning our thoughts to a return of the normal. But we are also being warned that we won't be returning to the same cities, work, or leisure that we left behind in March.

This new pandemic reality will shape our cities and transport modes in ways we could not have imagined just a few months ago.

Contagious diseases have always generated urban transformation. Late 19th- and early 20th-century health scares focused blame on poor, crowded, inner-city neighbourhoods. But better public transport in the form of streetcars and trains provided the opportunity for less density and more parkland – the suburbs and commuter culture were born, and then rapidly expanded through investment in highways.

COVID-19, in contrast, has been a catalyst for many people to start working remotely. If proximity to one's job becomes a less significant factor in deciding where to live, there might be a greater appreciation not for the lonely suburbs with their lack of community hubs, but for lively far-flung villages that offer a smaller scale than today's cities. We could be heading towards a world in which existing city centres and these newfound mini-metropolises rise in prominence, while traditional commuter belts fade in popularity as daily commutes become less necessary.

The pandemic will likely affect popular modes of transportation, too.

While it is still early days, the reports coming out of places emerging from full lock-down are a mixed bag. In China and parts of Europe, there is clearly a move towards things like walking and biking – with up to a 150 per cent increase in some cases, according to the Institute for Transit and Development Policy analysis of studies – not to mention increased reliance on micro-mobility such as e-scooters.

These trends, if they continue, will change the urban landscape.

As more economies reopen during the pandemic, public transit services are trying to figure out how to handle an increase in riders while keeping passengers safe. 4:18

Already, cities around the world are permanently dedicating more road space for pedestrians and cyclists. In the long run this will be positive, since active transport (i.e., any direct human-powered method of transportation, such as walking or bicycling) is the cheapest mode to provide infrastructure for, and offers the most health and environmental benefits.

The bad news is that car use is also rapidly returning to pre-COVID-19 levels in the same places that have seen active transport increases. This is coupled with as much as a 50 per cent drop in public transit use in places like China even after the economy opened up again, likely driven by a fear of public transit's forced togetherness.

When one factors in fewer transit riders due to astonishing unemployment levels, new habits around home working and shopping, and reduced spending on leisure, transit systems are going to be faced with some tough years.

Fewer riders will take the pressure off already overcrowded systems. However, that will reduce the perceived urgency of improving our rapid transit networks across the country, and it also means less revenue.

While some transit improvement plans may go ahead in the form of economic stimulus initiatives, the long lead-time for large transit projects may lower their priority.

Government budget constraints may result in new transit lines remaining mere lines on a map, as the billions that were allocated for them are re-assigned or eliminated. We've seen this play out in past economic downturns, and this one will, according to the International Monetary Fund, be "the worst recession since the Great Depression."

Results of an audit of the transit service are expected in August, data was collected before the COVID restrictions came in. Trish Ellsworth is chair of the Saint John Parking and Transit Commission. 8:01

Meanwhile, Canada's attractiveness – resources, freedom, peace, a welcoming attitude – is not going away. Our cities will likely continue to grow, even if immigration and economic activity is reduced temporarily and if some who have workplace flexibility choose the aforementioned village life. And despite increased walking and cycling, our cities will still need more public transport for the same-old reasons: environmental protection, preventing gridlock, and creating densification and lively communities.

So transit will need to change.

We'll need to be smarter. We'll have to evaluate our transit capital projects to make good use of reduced dollars, hence perhaps fewer subways and/or more Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Light Rail Transit (LRT).

If transit dollars are limited, we should also refocus on maintaining the systems in good repair. It is always possible to expand a working system, but much harder to rebuild a crumbling and unreliable system.

As more business reopen in Montreal, the city's public transit authority says it will hand out 1.5 million free masks to its clients by early fall. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

And we'll have to rethink capacity, since crowding will not be acceptable – at least for the foreseeable future. As each subway car, bus, or streetcar carries fewer people due to social distancing measures, the number of vehicles needed and the cost per capita will increase — especially with added cleaning protocols to perform.

Still, social distancing may also mean fewer people travelling in the peak periods. That would help make transit more efficient, since systems are built for capacities that, before the pandemic, were only reached a few hours a day.

Ultimately, the need or desire for more vehicles per capita to reduce crowding may also quicken the move to totally autonomous vehicles, since they cut operational costs by up to 75 per cent and therefore could allow more public transit vehicles to be cost-effectively operated, without the need to increase the number of drivers.

We may also find that the world's ride-sharing companies, which have been growing mostly at the expense of transit, are not that appealing to cost-conscious riders, or those wary of close-contact transport — especially services with multiple people per vehicle. Considering that these companies have never been profitable (including Uber and Lyft), they could find attracting additional investment difficult, and we might even see shutdowns.

Uber now requires passengers and drivers to wear masks as part of a COVID-19 safety strategy rolling out across North America. 2:01

Despite all the challenges created by the COVID-19 outbreak, no pandemic or natural disaster has managed to kill humanity's desire for interdependence and shared experiences. That means we are destined to continue to put a premium on co-existing at close range.

And it also means we're likely at the crossroads of some major restructuring of the cities we so deeply care for, and their transportation networks.

As this epidemic shapes the evolution of our society and cities, we're going to need to make smart choices.


About the Author

Adam Giambrone is a former Chair of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and is currently General Manager of the Saudi Public Transit Company (SAPTCO).

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