How will commuting change after coronavirus? Experts weigh in

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While many Canadians continue to work from home amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the country has seen a dramatic drop in the number of people commuting and accessing public transit.

A survey released on Tuesday by found more Canadians intend to work from home and limit driving or taking public transit even after lockdown measures are eased.

The poll, conducted by Leger Marketing, found 28 per cent of respondents said they will continue to work from home — an increase up from nine per cent from when respondents were asked before the pandemic.

Moshe Lander, an economist at Concordia University, said the pandemic could be a catalyst for major changes in Canada.

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I think that this is one of those pivot points where the local economy, national economy, world economy changes direction,” he said.

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Lander said Canada is going to see “major changes in the way we commute.”

“And it’s going to have broader implications for urban planning and for residential and commercial design as well.”

Shauna Brail, an associate professor and director of the University of Toronto’s urban studies program, said the pandemic has already had “dramatic and devastating” effects on mobility and the ways in which people move from place to place.

Drop in public transit use

Many municipalities, Brail explained, have reported “huge losses” in revenue as public transit ridership declined.

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“In some cases over the 85 per cent mark,” she said.

Brail said it is estimated that $2.4 billion will be lost across Canadian municipalities as a result of the decline in ridership.

“Those revenues help to support public transit services across the country, which, of course, help to drive economic growth,” she said.

But, Brail said it’s too soon to make “long-term predictions” about how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact transportation patterns because things are shifting and changing “rapidly.”

My sense is that we will return to some version of what we had before, whether that’s normal, or a new normal or a weird normal, I think that remains to be seen,she said.

Automobile industry

One sector that is seeing a boom — at least for now — is the automobile industry.

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Actually, unfortunately, the pandemic and fear of public transit has transpired into increased attention and increased desire for people to own and use private automobiles, because there is a sense that private automobiles are a safer environment in which to travel,” Brail explained.

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She said auto traffic is rebounding “very quickly.”

“Evidence from China and from the U.S. shows that auto traffic rebounded the fastest [and] rebound back up to previous levels within the space of weeks or a month or two,” she said.

But the use of public transit has seen a more gradual increase as lockdowns ease — which Brail said is not a good thing.

“If you think about the overall impact of automobiles on our cities and on congestion and on the costs those entail, this is not a good outcome,” she said. “This is not the outcome we want to get to.”

Brail noted this could have “huge negative effects” on the environment.

“It seemed like some real change was being made both with respect to sort of emphasizing the role of public transit, of shared vehicle use, of active transportation, of investing in the pedestrian realm and investing in cycling infrastructure,” she said.

She said there is a “real risk of turning the clock backwards and going in the wrong direction.”

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But Lander said the resurgence in the auto industry is likely a short-term trend that is simply a reflection of people’s fears of the virus.

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He said it won’t last forever, adding that even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the car industry was “heading for its day of reckoning.”

There was a clear indication that there’s an entire generation coming up that don’t see car ownership as one of those life experiences that was so central to the generations before them Lander said.

And, Lander noted that there has been a shift towards electric or hybrid vehicles over the last several years.

In the long-run, he said we might see fewer cars on the road, or more electrical or hybrid vehicles, which would have a positive impact on the environment.

“I think that’s kind of the medium to long term outcome that we can expect,” he said.

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Shifting transportation planning

But, if commuting patterns do continue to shift considerably, Brail said changes could be made to transportation planning.

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“I think we need to be tracking travel behaviour and travel patterns very carefully,” she explained.

She said it’s important to understand why people are fearful about contracting the virus on public transit to determine how those concerns can be addressed at local, regional and national levels.

“And that’s going to require some investment,” she said.

Brail added its also important to understand that the pandemic has not affected public transit ridership equally in all areas.

And so we need to think about how do we improve the routes that are the highest use,” she said. “How do we improve the routes in which people travel perhaps long distances on busses? How do we alleviate overcrowding on some of those routes?”

The poll was conducted from June 5 to 7, 2020 by Leger Marketing, using Leger’s online panel and surveyed 817 working Canadians aged 18 years or older. The margin of error for this study is +/-3.4 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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