We need a new pass for the COVID era

Public transport use fell sharply when the pandemic hit as many people stayed at home. And over a year and a half later, as fall approaches, vaccination rates are on the rise and ‘normalcy’ seems within reach, it is important to reflect on the evolution of commuting. and how we will need to adapt the way we plan public transport.

As people have moved to cars and non-motorized transport for fear of getting infected with what some have called “forced unit“, transit agencies fear that it will take years to find lost users – up to 10 years in the case of Montreal.

Sharp declines in public transport and all other travel were recorded at the start of the pandemic. Public transit has since regained some of its ridership, but not all. Note: Baseline is the median across Canada, for the corresponding day of the week, during the 5-week period January 3 to February 6, 2020 (Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports), author provided

That’s because people have changed their ways, and changing habits takes time: Research suggests it can go from 60 to 250 days. The pandemic was long enough for habits to change; avoiding public transport, using a car and working from home are likely to stay.

With fewer riders funding the system, agencies and governments will need to rethink the promotion, funding, operation and expansion of transit.

As researchers examining telecommuting and travel, travel disparities and the savings in the financing of public transport projects, the past year has called into question much of our understanding of how these issues will interact in the future.

Getting essential workers where they need to be

Throughout the pandemic, public transit played an important role in getting essential workers where they needed to be. At the end of 2020, 34% of Americans were using public transport as much as before the pandemic.

Those who still use public transport were probably users “dependent on transport”, or people with no other alternative available to access the workplace – such as grocery store clerks with jobs deemed essential.

Transit operators have had to adapt to maintain services. In England, some operators have actually increased the service to prevent crowded trains and allow social distancing, resulting in additional expense while receive less income. other operators, like in Winnipeg and Toronto, had to reduce the service in view of the reduced revenues.

In March 2020, Montreal operators have asked users traveling for COVID-19 testing not to use public transit.

Passengers wear face masks on a Halifax Transit ferry.  The ferry is seen with a dozen passengers on the upper deck, with the Port of Halifax peaking in the background.
Passengers wear face masks on a Halifax Transit ferry upon arrival in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in July 2020. Via Canadian Press / Andrew Vaughan

A new world with an increase in remote working

One of the goals of public transit has always been to get people to work. For those who cannot work from home the situation remains the same, but for the hundreds of thousands of people who can, it will be crucial to fully understand the economics of transit fares.

A recent virtual conference of Quebec transport operators raised the question of reconciling public transport and teleworking.

Monthly transit fares have been the tool to keep users sticking to public transit for decades. But the “new” weekly route – now expected by Statistics Canada and some recruitment firms between two and five days – can make a monthly pass hardly worth it. It remains to be seen how long remote working will last, but Statistics Canada suggests that 41 percent would prefer to spend half of their work week at home.

One way to weigh this decision would be to assess how much cheaper a pass is than single tickets. By dividing the cost of a monthly ticket by the single fare or bundle discount, we can estimate the number of trips needed before users actually save money.

Depending on the city, it is currently cost effective to own a pass for as little as 15 working days in Montreal (one round trip per day), or up to 26 in Toronto.

Table showing the cost ratio of collecting standard monthly adult passes for selected agencies
Standard Adult Monthly Pass Collection Cost Ratio for selected agencies. (Société de transport de Montréal (STM), Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), Calgary Transit, Vancouver Translink), Author provided

According to Statistics Canada estimates, transit agencies may need to respond to constant commuters, as well as commuters with 12 work days per month (three per week) and eight working days per month (two per week). Through this account, only workers who use public transit extensively for other activities will be encouraged to continue purchasing transit passes.

People sit in a Montreal metro with face masks
Many transit users wear face masks in a metro in Montreal in July 2020. Canadian Press / Graham Hughes

What to do, or at least consider

Runners will have to recalculate the value of purchasing monthly passes and many may abandon their use. Transit agencies should consider adjusting fares to meet the needs of commuters and be imaginative as to what will work for a variety of work weeks.

In Britain, a flexible tap-in-output system and automatic price caps can provide better deals for frequent users. An increasing reduction as transit passes are used more frequently could reward frequent users and allow for lower fares during off-peak hours. In the United States, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority began selling three-day transit pass, while New Jersey Transit announced a pilot program that will include a rewards program sponsored by local businesses.

The challenges of public transport in the years to come will be multiple: win back users, adapt fares, compete with and complement other modes. The impact of remote work on downtown parking prices is another unknown. If property owners reduce parking fees, it could make public transit even less attractive.

Some transit agencies now describe themselves as mobility managers, focusing not on using public transport, but rather on how to avoid driving. The potential for additional government funding given growing mistrust of climate change may motivate other agencies to follow suit.

Perhaps the only good that emerges from this pandemic is that it has made the essential nature of public transport more visible.The conversation

This article originally appeared on The conversation and is republished with permission.

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