Steering clear of the car on the road to economic recovery

Streetcar in Toronto
Streetcar in Toronto

Patricia Wood, a professor of geography at and co-founder of the City Institute at York University, is worried about growing fear that density is a factor in the spread of COVID-19 and that riding public transit increases the risk of community spread.

“There’s nothing to indicate anywhere that it is unsafe if other precautions are in place,” Wood explains, noting that many transit systems around the world are seeing large ridership numbers as masks, soon to be mandatory on the TTC [Toronto Transit Commission], are provided and distancing measures are put in place.

“But if people think it’s an issue,” says Wood, “If we demonize or fear monger around riding transit, we’re in real trouble.”

Patricia Wood
Patricia Wood

She says significant urban mobility and economic issues will arise if current levels of service funding – reduced to meet decreasing ridership and the financial impacts of the pandemic – are maintained over the long term if commuters are hesitant to ride transit.

“We need to shift our thinking and recognize how essential transit is.”

COVID-19 has altered transportation patterns for individuals, families and entire cities as fewer people are using cars or public transit, leading to reduced service levels and layoffs in transit systems across Canada.

Although exacerbated by the pandemic, many of the challenges facing Toronto’s system predate COVID-19.

The TTC, unlike several other major transit systems around the world, relies heavily on fare box revenue to fund its operating budget, meaning Toronto has been hit especially hard by the significant drop in ridership brought by the pandemic.

Crucially, as a public agency, the TTC isn’t eligible for the federal wage subsidy program, they have faced additional challenges keeping drivers and in buses as the pandemic progresses.

Wood says that continuing with reduced service levels as people return to work will lead to a mess on the roads and ultimately less mobility if more people opt to drive.

“We can’t afford it, because mobility is what fuels an urban economy.”

While the amount of traffic-related pollution in the atmosphere decreased as fewer people were on the roads during the lock-down, Stefan Kipfer, an associate professor of environmental studies at York University, says that there is real danger of a significant spike in automobile use as economies reopen.

Like Wood, he is concerned about fear and misinformation around transit and pandemic spread. “There is a danger that we will have an increase of the rate of car transportation compared to the pre-pandemic levels,” Kipfer says. “We need to avoid this at all costs.”

Stefan Kipfer
Stefan Kipfer

Kipfer is involved with an emerging coalition of transit advocacy organizations across the country that are calling for fare elimination, federal funding for transit authorities and a national public transportation strategy that includes inter-city and inter-regional train and bus service.

“We’re asking for a new role of the federal government to build transit capacities across the country and to use this crisis as an opportunity to shift priorities to just and sustainable mobilities,” Kipfer explains. “In any moment like this, we have an opportunity to do things right.”

A significant public investment in mass transit and active transportation would kickstart the recovery by increasing economic participation, says Wood, and cities must invest to ensure that workers who can’t or don’t drive can get to jobs that are essential to keeping the city running.

“We have to step away from the way we privilege space for the automobile,” says Wood.

“Almost two million people in normal times ride the TTC every day, we cannot accommodate that in smaller scale vehicles. We have to think about maximizing what public transit can deliver.”

While the transit system struggles to adapt to a new normal, Wood argues that the old normal, in terms of funding and service levels, wasn’t sufficient. She expects that even with mask use and cleaning provisions in place, past levels of overcrowding – “packed in like sardines” – are less likely to be tolerated in a pandemic world.

Kipfer agrees that current and even past levels of transit service won’t be adequate, estimating that service levels may need to be dramatically increased to provide capacity for physical distancing.

He believes that expanding service, in addition to strong public health messaging about how people are kept safe on transit, will be critical moving forward.

Ultimately, most peoples’ transportation choices come down to what they are able to afford. However, Wood says research has demonstrated that even those with access to a car can often be incentivised to ride transit if the service is frequent and comfortable. She adds that investing in active transportation such as walking and cycling will make a huge difference, given that typical commutes in Toronto are less than ten kilometres.

However, Wood wonders whether public and political appetite will still exist for spending on large transportation infrastructure projects as cities manage an ongoing pandemic that could impact the economy for years.

Costly subway investments that lack a strong business case, such as proposed TTC extensions to Scarborough or Markham, may be particularly vulnerable, Wood explains, noting that a highway extension like the planned widening of Highway 401 may not be subject to the same level of scrutiny and debate as transit projects typically have.

Whether or not funding is increased, or ridership numbers rebound in the future, Wood maintains major gaps faced by the TTC and other systems across the country will ultimately still need to be addressed.

“Public transit, especially in a city like Toronto, is absolutely essential,” says Wood. “There is no economic recovery without public transit.”

She says municipalities need to step up with positive messaging to counter fear around public transit, noting the issue impacts the University community as well, given York’s role as a major transportation hub. “Campuses can’t accommodate a huge uptick in automobility, and we don’t want to see it.”

By Aaron Manton, communications officer, YFile