Soaring prices at the pump could help fuel COVID-19 recovery in public transit

Chris Bellissimo and his family ride the TTC a lot more these days, and you don’t have to be a math whiz to figure out why.

It costs him and his wife $3.20 each to get on a bus near the bungalow they rent in Scarborough and travel to any part of the TTC network, while their two children, both from under 8, are young enough to travel for free.

“So if the four of us wanted to go anywhere in town, we were looking for less than $7,” he says.

On the other hand, record gas prices mean it now costs Bellissimo, who works from home as a marketing professional, more than $75 every time he picks up his Toyota. SUV at the pump. And that does not take into account the price of parking.

TTC is the cheapest option and “it’s not even close,” says Bellissimo. “Now that gas prices are really skyrocketing, we are much more inclined to take public transport.”

The Bellissimo family aren’t the only ones experiencing a renewed interest in the TTC. With the average gas price in the GTA topping $1.84 a liter this week and war-aggravated supply issues in Ukraine set to push it even higher, drivers are looking for cheaper alternatives to get around . It could give a boost to the TTC and other transit agencies struggling to win back customers after COVID-19 devastated their ridership.

“As (petrol) prices rise and our cities reopen, it is highly likely that more people will return to public transport,” said Matti Siemiatycki, associate professor of geography and urban planning at the University. of Toronto.

He predicted that the change won’t happen overnight, but the longer gas prices drag on, the more likely people will be to start driving more or take other actions like swapping their fuel consumption. petrol versus an electric car.

“People are changing their behaviors dramatically because transportation is one of the biggest costs in a household’s budget,” Siemiatycki said.

Prior to the pandemic, the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) reported that for every 10% increase in gas prices, transit use increased by 1.4%. According to online price tracker GasBuddy, gas prices in Toronto have risen more than 40% since the start of December, which, in theory, should result in thousands of additional customers for the TTC.

“We expect this historic relationship between rising gas prices and increased ridership demand to continue,” said CUTA President Marco D’Angelo, noting that other factors such as the frequency and quality of service have a greater influence on the attraction of users.

TTC spokesman Stuart Green said in an email that “public transit will certainly become a more attractive alternative” as gas prices rise.

But he said the extent to which ridership returns will largely depend on the main factors behind the dramatic decline in public transit use two years ago, including the large number of residents. who started working from home when the pandemic hit. The TTC estimated that the rise of telecommuting was responsible for more than a third of the total drop in ridership during COVID-19.

As of Monday, TTC ridership had still recovered to only about 51% of pre-pandemic levels, and the agency predicts the continued impact of COVID-19 will cost it $487.2 million. in lost fare revenue this year.

Green said “continued uncertainty around hybrid labor arrangements” means the effect of rising gas prices “will only be known over time.”

Ridership on regional GO Transit commuter service has steadily increased over the past few weeks, from around 11% of pre-COVID-19 volumes the week of January 10 to around 26% the week of February 28. The increase coincided with both rising fuel prices and the lifting of provincial pandemic restrictions, however, and Metrolinx, the agency that oversees GO, would not attribute the growth to just one factor.

Shauna Brail, an associate professor at the Institute of Management and Innovation at the University of Toronto in Mississauga, said the number of people who start commuting and making other trips again when the city reopens will have a greater impact on the use of public transport than gasoline prices.

The fact that fuel costs are rising just as restrictions are being lifted means “it will be really hard to tell” how many people the rise in gas prices has trickled down to public transit.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter who covers transportation for the Star. Contact him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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