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Metro Vancouver transit use rebound from COVID-19 drop slower than vehicle traffic

Last Updated Sep 4, 2020 at 5:30 am PDT

Traffic crosses over the Lions Gate Bridge from North Vancouver into Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday July 2, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Summary

Traffic on major roads has rebounded to nearly pre-pandemic levels in Metro Vancouver

Transit is increasing but is still much lower than previous years

Mobility pricing could cut congestion, pollution and bolster transit ridership

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Metro Vancouver’s roads are steadily refilling with commuter traffic, following a steep drop off in traffic triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But transit ridership isn’t rebounding as quickly, leading some to worry the region may be missing an opportunity to make positive, lasting change to transportation habits.

Data from B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure show how roads cleared up in mid-March as public health officials urged British Columbians to work from home and many businesses shut down.

During the first week of March, an average of 98,415 vehicles crossed the section of Highway 1 near the 152 Street overpass in Surrey (just east of the Port Mann Bridge) each weekday. Three weeks later, that number dropped by more than 40 per cent to 56,650.

Similar drops in ridership were observed on other major roadways in the region, including the George Massey Tunnel, and the Iron Workers Memorial, Alex Fraser, and Lions Gate bridges.

Traffic continued to drop in April, but began increasing in May as B.C. entered Phase 2 of its Restart Plan and many businesses began reopening. By June, traffic had returned to nearly pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, transit ridership saw an even steeper drop off. Monthly TransLink boardings fell from 35.1 million in February to 23 million in March and only 6.4 million in April – less than a fifth the number of boardings in April 2019.

While commuters began returning to the transit system in May, TransLink only recorded 16 million boardings in July – 40 per cent of the ridership from the same month last year.

Transportation economist Robin Lindsey said the dramatic drop in transit use can be attributed to more people working from home or choosing to commute by walking or biking.

But, he said, it also suggests people are worried about catching the coronavirus on a bus, SkyTrain or SeaBus and are increasingly using their own vehicles to get around.

The UBC Sauder School professor said a drop in gas prices, added comfort, lower risk of contracting COVID-19, and a lack of need to wear a mask can all make driving more appealing – and could cause commuters to turn away from transit permanently.

“People are forced to change their behaviour in the short-term, then they may find that the alternative is better, so they don’t go back,” Lindsay said.

Policymakers can make driving less appealing, and push commuters toward more sustainable public transit options, by introducing mobility pricing, he said.

Lindsey cited a 2018 report on the potential for road tolls and distance-based driver fees to reduce congestion in Metro Vancouver. The Mobility Pricing Independent Commission found such a scheme could cost drivers up to $1,920 a year.

“The idea of road pricing has a lot of enthusiastic backers among transportation economists like me,” he said. “The public, as you might expect, is much less keen.”

He said mobility pricing costs could be offset by a reduction in gas taxes.

Michael Brauer, a UBC professor of population and public health who studies air pollution, also suggested mobility pricing as a potential tool in the effort to reduce traffic congestion.

He said the drop in transit ridership is concerning for both environmental and social reasons.

Brauer said transit is “much more equitable” than other transportation modes, as many Metro Vancouver residents can’t afford to own and drive a private car.

If ridership remains low, so too will TransLink’s fare revenue. That could lead to long-term service cuts that would hit the region’s poor and most vulnerable the hardest, he said.

“If we don’t all support something like transit, then it’s not going to be available, or it’s going to be less available for the people who really need it the most,” he said.

Studies show the coronavirus does not spread easily on public transit when riders are following public health guidelines, Brauer said. He said officials need to reassure the public that transit is “quite a safe way to get around” to encourage a return to pre-pandemic ridership and beyond.