Facing flagging ridership, transit needs more investment, not less, to survive the pandemic: Andy Byford
Scaling back is the wrong response to plummeting usage and fares, says former Toronto transit head
Transit systems around the world are facing the major challenge of convincing commuters, who have stopped using trains and buses in record numbers throughout the pandemic that it will be safe to do so again, according to long-time transit guru Andy Byford.
And it's crucial because without a renewed infusion of riders' fares, many transit systems will face severe service reductions that will primarily affect disadvantaged communities.
Byford, who is currently the commissioner for Britain's Transport for London (TfL) system, said ridership dropped to historically low levels during the first COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020.
"We dropped to something like five per cent of normal ridership on the tube, so levels not seen since Victorian times. The buses were down to around 20 per cent," he told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay.
"It was surreal to see."
Many cities in Canada have seen a similar exodus. According to Statistics Canada, passengers took a total of 161.2 million trips on urban public transit in February 2020. The figure plummeted to 25.7 million by April of that year.
In October, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) reported that ridership on its buses, subways and streetcars averaged 46 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
Make transit 'safe, clean, reliable'
Byford's warning to Canadians and their transit is blunt: use it or lose it.
His advice on how to achieve that? "You've got to make it attractive, safe, clean, reliable."
Most important, he said, is to increase the number of buses and trains, not reduce, to ensure riders can physically distance from each other.
"People expect that they do not want to be crammed in anymore," he said.
Wearing masks should be mandatory on board, he said, and strictly enforced with fines.
Vehicles also need to be constantly cleaned — more often and more intensely than they were before the pandemic.
In London, he said TfL worked to reassure riders that a bus or train isn't a "massive germ carrier" by hiring independent evaluators to test vehicle touch points and air quality.
Terry Johnson, president of the Transport Action Canada advocacy group, said several transit agencies across Canada are improving air filtration, cleaning surfaces and opening windows more often — though that last measure has led to some complaints this winter.
He added that drivers and operators need to feel safe, too, and suggested hiring more on-site security trained in mental health and first aid to better assist distressed commuters.
"We are seeing people's frustration after two years [of the pandemic] boil over. And drivers shouldn't have to deal with that. Other passengers shouldn't have to deal with that," he said.
Who needs transit the most?
Another key to getting riders back, Byford said, is putting buses where people need them.
"A lot of bus networks are actually based upon old streetcar routes of decades ago, you know, many, many years ago. And over time, they are not serving the new areas that have popped up," he explained.
Transit commissions need to respond to demographic changes — moving to where people are choosing to live, and working "hand in hand" with city planners to better learn where those places are.
Johnson said some systems are doing that already. Ontario's GO Transit, he said, has been adjusting its routes and schedules to better serve commuters all day, instead of prioritizing "the nine-to-five crowd heading to downtown Toronto."
He also noted that some cities had begun to launch on-demand transit services: something like a cross between a bus route and taxi service. One such pilot in Edmonton launched earlier this year with 57 accessible shuttles designed to connect major transit hubs to certain neighbourhoods and seniors' residences.
Learning which on-demand routes are most used, Johnson argued, can be a "very powerful" tool to identify which areas might be good candidates for future permanent routes.
Byford stressed that transit is often a critical service for people with no other transportation options, usually because they neither have nor can afford a car.
"It's a fact that a lot of people, a lot of ridership is made up of… people from disadvantaged backgrounds, lower-income backgrounds," he added.
Shelagh Pizey-Allen, executive director of the TTC Riders advocacy group in Toronto, said many of those people who need transit more than most have ended up on the short end of service reductions.
Some of those reductions, including bus routes along Keele Street and Markham Road, "saw the worst crowding early in the pandemic," she said.
"These are neighbourhoods with essential workers, and all the research has shown that people with lower incomes, racialized people, women, essential workers, were relying on transit," she added.
In late 2020, the TTC pledged increased support for those routes and several others as part of Toronto's wider COVID action plan, in what the city called a "massive effort to support Toronto's most vulnerable residents during a time of crisis."
But a year later, those same routes were among those where service was reduced, as a result of labour shortages stemming from the TTC's vaccine mandate for workers.
CBC Radio reached out to the TTC for comment on the status of these routes, but have not yet received a response.
Federal funding announced
Most public transit commissions in North America operate on a mixed system of government funding and fare box revenue at about a 60-40 ratio, Byford said, with governments shouldering the greater portion. Those fare boxes have been pretty empty of late.
The TTC suffered losses from the pandemic that will leave a $74 million shortfall in the city's 2022 budget. In Montreal, the Société de transport de Montréal is facing a $62-million shortfall for 2022.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged $14.9 billion of federal funding over the next eight years on public transport – including $5.9 billion in short-term funding that will be disbursed on a project-by-project basis, starting this year.
WATCH | Trudeau responds to questions about supporting large transit projects when people are working from home
While he appreciates the pandemic-era bailouts for transit, Byford said more long-term planning is needed — with the mindset that it's a service that must also be run like a business.
"You can't be completely cavalier and just throw money at it. You've got to be businesslike and make sure you're making best use of taxpayers' dollars," he said.
To that end, Byford's advice to federal governments like Canada's is to be mindful about where to put the funds they invest.
"Divvy out the available funds across the country so that you don't end up with a postcode lottery, whereby rich areas get great transit and poor areas get the scraps," he said.
Such a situation would lead to a "downward spiral" where an underfunded transit system spends most of its time serving communities who don't need or want it — leading to a further drop in fares.
All that would be left is "hopeless gridlock, worsening air quality, worsening quality of life and … more adverse impact on people who are least able to break out from that downward spiral," he warned.
Written by Jonathan Ore and Stephanie Hogan. Interview with Andy Byford produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.