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Time to get people back on the bus

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AS reported in the Free Press (“Advertising campaign aims to attract riders back to Transit,” March 22), Winnipeg Transit has started advertising to bring riders back. Renewing interest in public transit is an important first step, both locally and nationally. However, much more must be done to truly resurrect transit across Canada.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/04/2022 (235 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

AS reported in the Free Press (“Advertising campaign aims to attract riders back to Transit,” March 22), Winnipeg Transit has started advertising to bring riders back. Renewing interest in public transit is an important first step, both locally and nationally. However, much more must be done to truly resurrect transit across Canada.

As part of a study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Infrastructure Canada, we investigated impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on public transit and active transportation in Canadian municipalities.

Prior to COVID-19, as seen in the 2011 and 2016 census results, Winnipeg had been doing rather well in terms of transit ridership. But then the pandemic arrived in March 2020, causing a near-total collapse in monthly transit ridership and fare revenues both locally and across Canada.

The number of transit passenger trips fell from 161 million in February 2020 to 26 million in April, after the onset of the pandemic. Monthly ridership has since been inching upward, but only to about half of pre-pandemic levels.

We identified several reasons for the collapse. First, there were the shifts to remote work or telecommuting, and to online education, especially in post-secondary education. These shifts account for a fair amount of the decline in demand. Second, social-distancing requirements had the effect of reducing transit capacity, i.e. number of seats available.

Third, and perhaps most problematic, people were afraid to enter enclosed spaces, including buses and train cars. Countering the fear will require measures to increase safety, as well as promotional campaigns to rebuild public confidence.

Public transit has important implications for Canada, in terms of improving environmental performance and social equity. Thus, there is an urgent need to rethink and redirect public policies related to public transit, particularly at the federal level.

The government of Canada has invested heavily in shifting transit to zero-emission buses (ZEB), to the tune of $2.75 billion over five years. The purpose behind this large investment is achieving substantial reductions in emissions. While Canada could reach its 5,000 ZEB target by 2025, for the money to be well spent, people need to be riding these buses.

The federal government has also announced some funding to help municipalities cover transit losses. However, these funds are more limited ($750 million in total), and have more strings attached.

Modal shift remains the main mechanism for emission reductions by transit — in other words, getting folks out of cars and onto buses. Compared to a similar number of people operating private vehicles, a conventional diesel bus can reduce emissions by approximately 50 per cent. A ZEB can reduce emissions 100 per cent, but is more than twice as expensive to purchase.

Thus, for a given capital budget, a transit agency can achieve the same reductions by buying either one ZEB or two conventional buses. The conventional option also better addresses social equity, since lower-income people depend more on the availability of public transit. Further, on a fuel cost per passenger/kilometre basis, diesel buses are about half as sensitive to fuel price increases as private vehicles.

We recommend that public transit be exempted from the federal carbon tax. While municipalities have received some collected fuel taxes back from the government of Canada, all still must pay carbon tax. Winnipeg Transit is now paying close to $2.5 million annually. Transit agencies can either absorb the added cost or pass it on to riders. Carbon tax on transit makes little sense if the goal is to increase ridership.

Turning to active transportation, cycling has seen a surge of interest and activity, primarily driven by recreational pursuits, rather than commuting to work or school. But overall, active transportation has been slowly but steadily declining in Canada, led by less walking.

One emerging trend is multi-modal trips combining transit and cycling. This is something Winnipeg Transit has embraced, with bike racks on buses and lockers at transit stations. This combination addresses the distance limitation associated with cycling, and active transportation in general. Of course, it also depends on the availability of effective transit infrastructure and service.

The pandemic hit public transit hard. It has also had negative ripple effects on lower-income communities and active transportation. Restoring public transit ridership should be a clear policy priority. Practical policy changes at all levels are needed to make it happen.

Paul D. Larson is a professor of supply chain management and Robert Parsons is a sessional instructor at the I.H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba. Larson was applicant and principal investigator and Parsons was co-applicant for the recent Knowledge Synthesis Grant investigation entitled “Public Transit and Active Transportation: Activity, Structural and Energy Efficiency Effects on Mobility and the Environment.”

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