COVID-19 has Changed the Way We Get Around: What could our ‘new normal’ look like?

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By Claire Kumagai, volunteer writer

Transit ridership has seen drastic declines over the past few months due to COVID-19, with the TTC reporting a ridership decline of 80% in April. With fewer riders and reduced fare revenue, some transit agencies, including the TTC, have temporarily decreased the frequency of bus, streetcar and subway services. Reduced service, and limits to the number of people allowed on board TTC buses, has made it even more difficult for people who rely on transit to get around.

As we adjust to the “new normal,” of travelling in the era of COVID-19, cities and transit agencies must rethink how people travel, especially as more people may choose to drive alone once more restrictions are lifted. How can cities reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 while also reducing the number of single occupant vehicles on our roads?

More flexible transit

Transit agencies face the challenge of having to cut service to reduce their costs but must continue to serve the people who rely on transit. Unfortunately, more infrequent service means that certain routes will become more crowded and make it very difficult for riders to practice physical distancing.

On-demand transit could solve some of these problems by providing flexible routing and/or flexible scheduling, where passengers can request a ride through an app or over the phone. By providing transit only when it’s needed, transit agencies are able to provide transit service for less money than running traditional fixed-route buses. While this model wouldn’t work for routes that have consistently high ridership, it could help reduce costs for less busy routes.  

For example, Belleville, Ontario implemented on-demand transit for its night bus service in 2018, and switched its services to on-demand transit in response to COVID-19. On-demand transit keeps operations efficient and allows for each bus to carry a limited number of people to ensure proper physical distancing.

On-demand transit service can also help connect low density communities to transit stations, making transit a more convenient choice instead of driving alone.

York Region Transit offers on-demand transit to connect people in surrounding suburbs to the Aurora GO station. pointA has also conducted a study to gauge interest in a similar pilot project at Rutherford and Maple GO stations and found that 67% of respondents who currently drive alone to the station would be likely to use an on-demand transit service to travel to the GO station.

We are still in the early days of adjusting to life with COVID-19, but on-demand transit could be part of the long-term solution to keep transit a viable option for those who rely on it, as well as an attractive option to keep people from choosing to drive alone.

Active transportation developments

Toronto, along with many cities around the world, has made more space for active travel by closing roads to vehicular traffic and building more bike lanes. Toronto’s ActiveTO initiative includes approximately 25 kilometres of new bikeways for a total of 40 kilometres of cycling lanes approved for accelerated installation in 2020, over 50 kilometres of quiet roadways, and major road closures on weekends.

Improving the active transportation network not only encourages more people to use active modes of travel, it also makes streets safer for all road users. A study of 12 cities by researchers at University of Colorado Denver and University of New Mexico found that cities with separated bike lanes had 44 percent fewer deaths than the average city.

A recent surge in bike sales shows that active transportation is becoming more popular. Cities should respond to this by building a safer network of bike lanes that connect people to employment areas and essential services, not just for recreation on the weekends.

The 15-Minute city

A longer term solution to encouraging more sustainable forms of travel involves reorganizing our cities so that services are just a short walk or bike ride away.

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, announced her plan for the “15-Minute City” where residents’ needs would be met within their own communities, eliminating the need to travel long distances. These self-sufficient communities would include grocery shops, parks, health centers, schools and workplaces. Car lanes would be trimmed down or removed, and more road space would be allocated to bikes and pedestrians. By reinventing the city’s urban space, everyone would also have access to a nearby medical center, reducing the risk of overcrowding central hospitals.

Responsibility for change

The pandemic has not eliminated the need for travel. However, it has forced cities to rethink and reconsider how people move. This is the time to prioritize maximizing the number of available travel options from active travel to public transit to decrease the incidences of driving alone, which contribute to congestion and poorer health outcomes – costs that will be borne by all in the future.

This is not just the responsibility of governments, but also of businesses as they start to reopen, and of individuals as they make their travel decisions. After all, the experience of COVID-19 has shown us that we are all in this together and it is through all of our efforts that we can keep each other safe and healthy. Some of these changes will be easier and quicker to implement than others, but all of these options will help make cities more equitable and environmentally friendly.

Through the Smart Commute program and in partnership with York Region, Smart Commute Central York, and Smart Commute Markham, Richmond Hill, we’re offering a series of webinars and a contest to help those who live or work in York Region explore active travel and share their vision for how they hope to travel.

Learn more about our Design the New Normal campaign.

Photo by Kate Trifo from Pexels

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