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British Columbia

BC COVID-19: 94% return of TransLink customers but fewer trips

Transportation Planner Sarah Ross: “I came into this office five days a week and now I come in two to three days a week.”

Almost 100 percent of people who relied on public transit before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020 have returned to the system, although many commuters are making fewer trips and working from home part of the week.

So Sarah Ross, vice president of transportation planning and policy at TransLink, told the region’s mayors at a meeting Jan. 26, when she announced that 94 percent of the system’s customer base was back using the service.

“I take transit to work, and before the pandemic, I came into this office five days a week, and now I come in two to three days a week and work from home the other days,” Ross told the regional council of transport during a meeting at TransLink’s New Westminster office.

Still, 380,000 people used transit on an average weekday in fall 2022, a 15 percent increase from August. Rider numbers hit 4.5 million weekly journeys in October and services like the West Coast Express commuter rail line have seen big gains over the past two weeks, with journeys hitting nearly 25,000 a week.

Ross said the region’s bus service is leading the return of customers, followed by the Expo and Millennium SkyTrain lines, SeaBus, Canada Line, HandyDart and the West Coast Express.

Motorists are returning via the region

At the same time, vehicle volumes measured on the Knight Street Bridge, Pattullo Bridge, Golden Ears Bridge and the intersection of Lougheed and Orchid show a 108 percent return in motorists.

Surrey and the South East sector have seen the greatest returns in bus drivers with a 98 per cent recovery rate on weekdays. On the weekends, it’s even higher at 104 percent.

Similar data stories have surfaced on the North Shore, Richmond, Tsawwassen, White Rock, the Tri-Cities, Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge. But Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster’s recovery rates aren’t above 74 percent on weekdays.

In fact, Vancouver’s central business district, Mount Pleasant and Fairview have recovered the slowest, with rates at 65 percent or less of pre-COVID levels. But Ross pointed out that the business district remains busy for transit users.

“It’s really important to know that the central business district — while lower in terms of recovery rate — has by far the highest total ridership,” she said. “So there are still a lot of transit trips.”

transit overcrowding
Transit system congestion is returning to some areas of the region, according to TransLink’s Sarah Ross. File Photo Dan Toulgoet

“Something we really want to avoid”

Before the pandemic, system overcrowding was rampant on buses and trains. Ross said some areas of the region are experiencing this again, but not at the pre-pandemic rate.

Despite this, TransLink has reassigned bus routes and continues to make adjustments to timetables to organize additional trips to accommodate customers. But Ross warned that without expanding the system, it may not be sustainable.

“If our ridership recovery remains relatively stable in 2023, we expect to be able to minimize these overcrowding conditions for the most part,” she said.

“But if our ridership growth exceeds expectations and the region continues to grow over the next few years – which we know it will – we won’t be able to address this through reallocations. So overcrowding will increase.”

Ross added, “Without the expansion of the service, this will limit growth as the experience of taking transit will be significantly degraded as it becomes more crowded and obviously that’s something we’re keen to avoid.”

“Service Reliability” should be the focus of TransLink

Coquitlam Councilman Brent Asmundson, a retired bus driver, said the public transport system had to be reliable for customers, otherwise people would give up and look for other alternatives to get around.

“If we make cuts or adjustments, I’d like to see more stats on service reliability,” Asmundson told Ross. “One of the biggest things that puts people off transit is service, especially on the bus system when a bus isn’t reliably there.”

Asmundson said it’s “very difficult to get people back on the service” — sometimes for up to five years — with TransLink removing the service from lower-volume areas and returning it at a later date.

“We can talk about increasing ridership… but our biggest point to focus on is the reliability of the service,” he said. “Transit is a bit more of a hassle than just getting in the car and having the freedom to drive. So people need to know that the service is reliable.”

Ross agreed with Asmundson, saying that over the next few months, TransLink will provide mayors with a bus speed reliability report that will include an analysis of the bus system and how it operates in the area.

“You Miss a Class”

West Vancouver Mayor Mark Sager raised concerns about the cancellation of an express bus service from Dundarave to the University of BC in the early days of the pandemic. Sager said many students relied on the service.

He acknowledged that other routes are now available but require connections to downtown Vancouver.

“I’ve heard from so many students that they’ve tried, but the connections don’t always work, they miss a class, they give up and get back in the vehicle and that’s what we’re trying to get out,” he said.

Ross said about 90 riders per day were using the bus service from West Vancouver to UBC before it was canceled. She pointed out that the service would only take passengers to the university, but would return to West Vancouver empty.

“We have several ways to connect downtown with an express bus that departs from downtown Vancouver and runs very frequently, and we’ve increased the frequency to improve the timing of this connection in relation to the North Shore,” she said, noting that rapid transit to the North Shore is part of the mayors’ 10-year plan.

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