Rapid transit pandemic hit could take ‘multiple years’ to rebound

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Completing the southwest rapid transitway was meant to drive up Winnipeg Transit ridership, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to plummet instead.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/03/2022 (281 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Completing the southwest rapid transitway was meant to drive up Winnipeg Transit ridership, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to plummet instead.

A new report gauging the “value for money” of the $467-million second phase of the transitway, which is also known as the blue line, was originally expected to attract many new riders.

Then COVID-19 began spreading in the city in March 2020, forcing bus ridership to plummet just a month before the line opened.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES “We had a dream of buses full and ridership up… and that future didn’t materialize the way it was expected,” said Coun. Matt Allard, who leads council’s public works committee.

“We had a dream of buses full and ridership up… and that future didn’t materialize the way it was expected,” Coun. Matt Allard, who leads council’s public works committee, said Wednesday.

Over much of the last two years, public health orders meant to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus forced University of Manitoba students and staff off campus for extended periods and kept many downtown workers home. Those factors thwarted ridership growth for the transitway that stretches from downtown to the U of M main campus (with its $138-million first phase included), as well as the rest of the city.

“With COVID-19 in 2020 (and beyond), Transit has seen significant impacts to almost all areas of operation. This has been primarily seen by a significant reduction in ridership starting in March 2020,” the report notes.

Local bus ridership plummeted to 30 per cent of pre-pandemic levels at one point in 2020, and remained at just 45 per cent in January 2022. The report notes transit demand could take “multiple years” to fully rebound, a timeline potential permanent changes in work and learning habits could extend.

“Transit ridership may never recover to pre-pandemic levels without additional incentives or service enhancements to attract new riders when the pandemic eases,” the report notes, noting some Transit agencies now expect long-term ridership losses of 10 to 45 per cent.

Before the pandemic, the city expected the new rapid route would spark a 12 to 15 per cent hike in ridership “in the initial years following construction.”

Since the blue line opened just a few weeks after the pandemic reached Winnipeg, Transit says it also lacks a proper baseline ridership level to compare to future growth.

The transitway was also initially expected to reduce emissions, shorten ride times, cut other traffic congestion, make buses more reliable, entice high-density transit-oriented development and support downtown revitalization (by making the city centre easier to reach).

Since COVID-19 rules and recommendations kept many Winnipeggers at home much more often, it’s also tough to gauge rapid transit’s impact on traffic congestion and downtown revitalization, the report notes.

There does appear to be some good news.

City staff say rapid transit rides tend to be an average of 10 minutes shorter per trip between the downtown and southwest Winnipeg in the dedicated corridor.

Multiple transit-oriented developments have been approved in close proximity to the rapid line, including the Yards at Fort Rouge, Osborne Place (a mixed-use high rise), a former Southwood Golf Course development, and the Fulton Grove housing initiative (at the former Parker lands). True North Square and 300 Main are also near the transitway.

“I think rapid transit will continue to encourage development along the rapid transit line. I think that will continue to happen and we’ll continue to see buildings that can be built more efficiently because they need less parking,” said Allard.

The councillor said the blue line should also help entice a greater shift from single-passenger vehicles to buses and help the city meet its emission reduction targets.

Kyle Owens, president of Functional Transit Winnipeg, said it is disappointing the “overwhelming disruption” of COVID-19 prevented the city from reaping many of the expected benefits from its rapid transitway.

However, Owens agreed the expectations show how beneficial rapid transit infrastructure will be in the future.

“With more buses on the road, you can really see huge advantages,” he said, urging the city to boost operating resources for its rapid transit line.

joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga
Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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