For many years, Luis Virla boarded 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 put the brakes on using transit.
Even now that pandemic restrictions are almost gone and his worries about catching the virus are easing, the 36-year-old is still not closing in on transit through Calgary for his job at a technology startup. Instead, he spends most of the work day at home.
If he has to go to the office, he will either drive or catch a ride.
“I have taken very little transit since the pandemic,” Virla said.
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As part of a family of four, including two young children, he realizes that he will eventually have to get used to using the bus and train because of his one-car family.
“I’ll definitely take Transit again, but I probably don’t want to come everyday,” he said, preferring more flexibility.
Transit ridership is still quite low nationwide compared to pre-pandemic levels, even as more people return to the office and gas prices hit record-setting highs.
long recovery ahead
Observers said vehicle use and air travel have almost completely recovered from the pandemic, but it may still take a few years to return to normal levels.
The most recent ridership figures from Statistics Canada come from March 2022. It was the twelfth straight month of year-over-year growth in urban transit. Still, the number of riders at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 is only 52 percent.
“The nature of work and work-related travel has changed significantly since the pandemic,” said Raktim Mitra, an associate professor in Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.
More people are walking and biking when they can, and breaking a driving habit can be difficult. Some travelers are still space-conscious and concerned about COVID-19 after being told to maintain physical distance over the past two years, he said.
“My impression is that if we ever go back, it will take at least two, three, four years for us to go back.”
The most recent employment numbers show that about 19 percent of employed Canadians are still working from home, compared to 30 percent during the pandemic. About five percent have a hybrid arrangement where they split their time between office and working from home.
Downtown has experienced the week’s highest recovery of foot traffic compared to pre-pandemic levels in North America, according to an index by commercial real estate services firm Avison Young, which uses composite cellphone location data.
Nevertheless, the influx of workers into the main part of the city is mainly driven by car and truck. Calgary Transit’s total ridership has increased recently, reaching nearly 55 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
“Calgary is heavily influenced by people who love to drive. And there are a lot of people in our downtown market who have historically always wanted to drive. So it has allowed people to feel more comfortable in that regard. That’s how they go back to the office,” said Todd Thrandson, managing director of Avison Young in Calgary.
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The city is seeing many passenger trains and buses can be long on Mondays and Fridays, while full on other days of the week; Many companies only require employees to be in the office Tuesday through Thursday.
Calgary Transit spokesman Stephen Toro said: “Some interesting things are happening with riders in terms of their return to office.” “We are in a transition.”
Ridership in the city is growing slowly and is expected to increase gradually over the summer, Touro said, with a anticipated jump in September with the return of school and more people back to the office. Still, he is unsure when ridership will fully recover.
Transit use varies across the country, with ridership in some Ontario cities such as Brampton and London recovering more than 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels. However, ridership is 80 per cent lower in some smaller cities compared to 2019 levels.
“I think a lot of people are going back to work and because of that, it’s getting busier and busier by the day,” said Zayn Mazhar on the bus as part of his commute from Mississauga to Ajax, Ont. Said before climbing.
For most of last year, Tina Huang usually had empty seats next to her on the bus in Toronto, but “now it’s packed there.”
Fewer riderships have meant a sharp drop in transit revenue over the past few years, which was offset by billions of dollars in temporary government aid. Many transit agencies are still trying to offer more routes and services to lure customers back, while trying to keep costs under control.
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Some in the industry are optimistic about rapid ridership across the country, especially in major cities.
This is the time when transit agencies should plan for increasing demand, said Josippa Petrunic, president of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium, a Toronto-based non-profit group.
She anticipates hitting an inflection point as more and more people continue to return to office, combined with rising immigration and population levels.
“All of a sudden people are going to get really upset about a transit service that isn’t fast, isn’t convenient, isn’t on time, isn’t where they need to be,” she said. “Meanwhile, the price of gasoline is through the roof and it’s breaking the bank.”
Overall, Petrunic expects it will take two years for transit ridership across the country to recover from the pandemic and return to 2019 ridership levels.