Many riders refraining from taking bus despite LTC’s return to near-normal service levels

A London Transit schedule and bus at the Argyle Plaza bus terminal on July 19, 2017. (Matthew Trevithick/AM980).
A London Transit schedule and bus at the Argyle Plaza bus terminal on July 19, 2017. (Matthew Trevithick/AM980). Matthew Trevithick/980 CFPL

Service on London’s transit system may be back to near-normal levels, but ridership levels amid the coronavirus pandemic are anything but, a report going before transit commissioners on Wednesday shows.

The report comes as the commission keeps a close eye on local coronavirus case counts, which have increased in recent weeks amid what the province has said is a second wave of the virus.

As many as 142 cases have been reported in London and Middlesex during the month of September, according to the health unit.

Read more: Latest COVID-19 modelling suggests Ontario could see around 1,000 cases a day in October

Early on in the pandemic, as ridership levels cratered amid widespread closures and fears about the virus, the London Transit Commission (LTC), like most transit agencies across Canada, slashed service, operating weekday buses on weekend-level service, and halted fare collection.

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While service has since bounced back — up to about 90 per cent of what would have been seen pre-pandemic — LTC figures show ridership levels have not increased at a similar rate.

In August, conventional ridership levels stood at 52 per cent during the week, with weekends seeing 66 per cent levels on Saturdays and 71 per cent on Sundays.

In comparison, ridership levels fell in April to 22 per cent during the week and between 30 and 33 per cent on weekends.

This month, ridership levels remain lower, and have actually declined some 10 per cent across the board compared to August. However, transit officials note the figures are being compared to a typical September with students.

“Part of this struggle with a situation like this is we don’t want to permanently lose riders,” said Kelly Paleczny, London Transit’s general manager, in an interview Wednesday.

So we need to make sure that the service that we’ve got out there is meeting the needs of the rider, while at the same time it’s not in excess of what the demand is. So that’s something that we’ve been constantly trying to balance.”

At the same time, if the LTC doesn’t have enough employees who can attend work and maintain that level of service, things also have to be adjusted accordingly, Paleczny says.

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“The 2021 budget that was tabled back at the August meeting assumed that we would be back to full service levels starting in January. Now, again, whether that happens and whether it’s even deemed that it’s required, we don’t know, but that was the approach that we took for the budget,” she said.

“As the report indicates, it’s really too soon to be able to guess what the actual demand is going to be from the students that are here in town.”

Read more: Coronavirus: Mobile test site in Dorchester, Ont., reaches capacity before open

With cases on the rise and with many students learning online at home, the dip in ridership means the LTC has not seen the typical overcrowding issues that are a familiar sight during the school year.

But where one problem disappears, another emerges.

LTC staff say there has been increased complaints from riders about others not following the rules, particularly when it comes to exiting the bus through the rear door.

There have also been reports of disagreements and arguments among riders over face masks, which are mandated on buses per the Section 22 Class Order issued by the health unit in July.

“There have been a number of occurrences of passengers getting into arguments on board, in some cases including the use of profanity and verbal harassment,” reads a staff report.

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One incident became physical and police became involved.

“It’s a challenge enforcing anything where there’s an exemption and that somebody is not required to demonstrate why or the fact that they have a valid exemption,” Paleczny said. “That’s really what we’re dealing with here.”

The incidents have led the LTC to change its approach to masks, encouraging riders to focus on what they’re doing and not what others are or aren’t doing.

Encouraging people, suggesting, you know what, we’re all in this together. Do your part, wear your mask. But you know what? Don’t worry about what somebody else is doing. They could very well have an exemption or a reason for not wearing that mask, and it’s not for you to debate.”

Read more: Man gets punched in face after confronting another man not wearing mask in Toronto

With the second wave of the pandemic now underway, there also remain concerns about the commission’s financial picture moving forward into 2021.

The pandemic has dealt a significant blow to the LTC’s bottom line, in large part due to the cessation of fares from March until mid-August.

As of Aug. 31, the LTC had reported more than $10 million in lost conventional service revenue due to the pandemic, and $320,000 in lost specialized service revenue.

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While savings from reduced facility, fuel, maintenance, and personnel costs helped offset some of that, the LTC’s budget was still about $7 million short of what it had planned for before the pandemic arrived.

Paleczny says despite the pandemic challenges, the LTC will be able to end the year without a deficit thanks to help from upper levels of government.

LTC is receiving about $18.5 million from the province as part of the Safe Restart Agreement, reached over the summer by Ottawa and the provinces and territories.

The funding, a first phase allocation, is set to cover budget pressures from April 1 to Sept. 30, with any funds not utilized to be placed in a reserve to cover COVID-19 shortfalls up to and including March 31.

Read more: St. Thomas, Woodstock among 11 municipalities to get $12M in transit funding from feds, province

As part of the agreement, the commission has until the end of October to outline to the province its budget impacts and its use of funds up to Sept. 30, as well as the LTC’s projected budget impacts through to March 31 when the transit funding expires.

“The final eligible expenditures have not been confirmed by the ministry, so as soon as they are, and the forms have gone out, we’ll be able to complete those forms and give the commission a better idea of how much of that funding we’ll utilize in 2020 and then how much will be left for the first three months of 2021,” Paleczny said.

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LTC is also receiving $433,025 from the province as part of the Municipal Transit Enhanced Cleaning Program to offset the costs of increased cleaning due to the pandemic.

It remains to be seen what the pandemic will look like six months from now, and how much revenue and ridership levels will differ compared to what was projected in the commission’s 2021 budget.

“Both the Ontario and the Canadian transit associations are continuing to advocate that this can’t be a one and done type of funding and all of us just assume that at the end of March, when this funding expires, that everything will all be good and back to normal,” Paleczny said.

Read more: Via Rail announces ‘biggest addition’ of trains to Ontario, Quebec service amid COVID-19

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At this point, however, she notes there is currently no additional funding programs in place from upper levels of government.

“It’s something that we need to obviously continue to work at and hopefully get something in place before March so that we have a better idea of our path forward,” she said.

“Or we could find ourselves in the same situation that we were for a number of months this year, wondering how we were going to make everything balance at the end of the year.”