Calgary Transit's ridership has plummeted, returning to levels the system hasn't seen in decades, falling $90 million short on revenue — thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, ridership reached approximately 52 million people, compared to 106.4 million in 2019 — a 51 per cent decrease overall.
It's a struggle systems across the globe are grappling with: how to get people back on public transit safely, and keep afloat with an uncertain year ahead.
Russell Davies is the acting director of Calgary Transit. He projects 2021 ridership will continue to sit at 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
"The pandemic has hit Calgary Transit probably harder than any other departments within the city," Davies said. "We have every responsibility to ensure that we have a safe, healthy and reliable transit service so those Canadians can get where they need to go."
Marco D'Angelo, Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) CEO, said at the beginning of the pandemic they saw a 90 per cent drop in ridership — and now, across the country, there are approximately 2.5 million people taking transit every day, down from more than 5 million.
"We've seen massive drops in ridership and obviously a revenue shortfall has resulted and we have a fiscal crisis for public transit," D'Angelo said.
Before the pandemic, most transit users were using the system to get to and from work, and after March those using transit for doctors appointments, errands, and shopping shot up.
Matthew Yeung is the former chair of the Calgary Transit Customer Advisory Group.
Yeung admits he hasn't been taking transit since the pandemic hit. But he underlines that the group's concern before the pandemic, and his own hope as the economy returns, is to ensure there are enough transit hours for people to comfortably and reliably travel.
"I was just on the phone with an individual transit [which] is indicating that they're operating at about 25 per cent of what they'd usually be operating at," Yeung said. "That obviously affects their ability to provide funding for the customer experience, primarily in the form of of the service you see on the ground."
According to a usage and attitudes survey conducted between the end of May and beginning of June, before the pandemic, 57 per cent of customers were using Calgary Transit to get to and from work. After March, that number dropped to 37 per cent.
'We need to do some serious rethinking'
Those using the bus or train for personal appointments shot up to 41 per cent during the pandemic. Before COVID, 25 per cent of transit users used the service for appointments.
The survey sampled 403 Calgarians using the Calgary Transit Panel and the Leger LEO (Leger Opinion) panel.
While 52 per cent of survey respondents said they'd return, 33 per cent said they would use transit less once the pandemic restrictions ease.
"If that downtown ridership doesn't return, we need to do some serious rethinking about what our transit model looks like," Davies said. "We need to reevaluate what we do and how we do it."
Davies said Calgary Transit has already done work to adjust. Express routes designed for downtown commuters and duplications have been suspended. And ridership is monitored continuously to ensure that there aren't bottlenecks due to cutbacks.
D'Angelo said transit operators plan to adapt and change as the economy returns. He said some agencies are expanding on-demand transit services, looking into apps that could help riders see how busy their bus might be, and more.
"I'm totally confident that we can win our riders back because we've been thinking about them all this time." D'Angelo said.
Matti Siemiatycki is the interim director of the University of Toronto School of Cities. He said right now, buses are driving ridership, instead of light rail.
"You're seeing the implementation of dedicated bus lanes or priority bus lanes in suburban areas to enable transit to operate more smoothly," Siemiatycki said.
The silver lining for Canadian Transit, Siemiatycki said, is that the federal government invested in funding to help networks through the pandemic.
"In Canada, the provincial and federal governments have continued to invest in transit to provide a bridge through the darkest days of the pandemic," Siemiatycki said. "The lowest, the most significant losses in revenue ... tend to give it a path back to sustainability and to keep it operational."
Last year, the federal government announced it would invest $2.3 billion to support transit operating costs across the country. Alberta's portion of those funds has been allocated to support 15 municipal transit systems to put toward operating costs, losses, and purchasing PPE and cleaning supplies.
D'Angelo said that money will help keep buses and trains operating. But funding needs to be renewed through 2021 as revenues and ridership will be slow to recover.
"We need that continued operating funding so we aren't rebuilding our network at the exact same time when our economy is going to be rebuilt," D'Angelo said.