To keep transit from failing, ongoing operating support is needed

There’s been much talk lately about public transit’s place in Ottawa’s $100 billion plan to help the economy recover and lower emissions. Building transit is an excellent way to do both and transit systems welcome the permanent federal funding that is coming. But excitement about new projects and better funding mechanisms cannot detract from transit’s top priority: keeping today’s service running safely and conveniently.

Over the spring and early summer, Ottawa and the provinces provided $4.6 billion in unheard of operating support to transit systems whose revenue streams were decimated by steep ridership declines. Before the pandemic, the farebox covered just over half their operating costs. When ridership suddenly fell by about 85 per cent, budgets were turned upside down. It’s recovered somewhat since, but only to 42 per cent of pre-Covid levels, meaning large revenue holes remain.

Today, the emergency relief governments delivered is helping to fill these holes and we are grateful. Transit is running at about 87 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. That helps buses and trains allow for as much distancing as they can—while arriving as frequently as possible for the more than 2.5 million Canadians who take them every day.

But this funding will soon expire. And should it not be extended by the prime minister and premiers, it’s easy to envision what will follow.

Let’s begin with the inequality that significantly reduced transit service will induce. For many workers or students, who live too far from work or school to walk or cycle but whose income is too low to travel by car, public transit is their only mobility option. These workers are mostly women and are disproportionately Black or brown. It is unconscionable to force them to endure long waits, only to be crowded onto what vehicles are left in service.

They won’t be alone. For many seniors and people living with disabilities, public transit is essential to daily life. Yet without ongoing operating support, they, too, will wait longer and take more crowded trips. As vaccines roll out, governments recognize that some in our society are at more risk than others. The same is true in urban mobility and for millions, public transit is literally a lifeline.

If it is allowed to fail, riders won’t be the only ones to suffer. Our cities will become more congested and drivers will grow more frustrated. We saw this over the summer, when four-in-five people who left transit for other modes of transport chose private cars. Most didn’t walk or cycle. They drove. And as service becomes less convenient and more crowded, everyone who can afford to drive probably will, leading to even greater revenue losses, and further service reductions.

This in turn will lead to higher emissions directly at odds with the environmental urgency behind Ottawa’s recovery strategy. Impacts will also likely be long-lasting. Without ongoing support, transit systems’ and municipal budgets will be so impaired, they won’t be able to just resume service as usual when the pandemic ends. Travel patterns will also have shifted, making an overnight return to transit even more unlikely still.

One of the world’s most urban countries cannot allow this to happen. We can’t abandon millions of people to endless waits and packed vehicles. For many people, public transit is the difference between a job or unemployment. And as important as continuing to build new transit is for the climate, our cities, and the economic recovery ahead, keeping existing service running safely and conveniently is more important and time is running out.

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