COVID-19: Transit ridership recovery uneven across Metro Vancouver

Kevin Desmond says some areas were hit hard by university classes going online, while others saw more people returning to work.

RICHMOND, BC., January 21, 2020 - TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond speaks at a media event to announce the launch of increased service on the Canada Line in Richmond, BC., January 21, 2020. (NICK PROCAYLO/PNG) 00060109A ORG XMIT: 00060109A [PNG Merlin Archive]

These days, those who ride the bus in Maple Ridge are likely encountering more people on their daily commute than transit-users in Downtown Vancouver. That’s because after devastating drops in transit use as a result of COVID-19, ridership in the various areas of Metro Vancouver is recovering at different rates.

“The return of ridership is not exactly uniform, which is kind of interesting,” TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond said at a Mayors Council meeting Thursday.

For instance, in Vancouver and Burnaby, bus ridership is at 39 and 37 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels, respectively. One major reason for that is that these areas were more seriously affected by universities not conducting in-person instruction this fall.

The R5 bus that travels between Downtown Vancouver and Simon Fraser University is running at 30-per-cent-of-normal weekday volume, while the 145 bus that runs between Production Way and SFU is at 10 per cent of weekday volume.

At the same time, Surrey, Langley, Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows have seen ridership levels at 51-to-55-per-cent-of-normal on weekdays.

Desmond said ridership to industrial parks and non-university trips has been more robust. The 310 bus between Scottsdale and Ladner is seeing 64-per-cent- of-normal weekday ridership levels, and sometimes 90-per-cent-of-normal weekend ridership, while the 319 between Scott Road and Newton exchanges is at 53-per-cent-of-normal weekday ridership.

“It just goes to show … that workers — essential workers — either by choice or because they really don’t have any other way to get to work or get to their other needs, need the bus,” said Desmond.

As of last week, boardings across the system were at about 41 or 42 per cent of pre-COVID levels, a number that has been relatively consistent since August. Bus ridership is highest, at about 43 per cent of normal, followed by Expo and Millennium SkyTrain lines (38), HandyDart (35), Canada Line (31), SeaBus (27) and West Coast Express (17).

According to the International Association of Public Transport, which has been tracking ridership in cities across the globe, multimodal transit systems in Europe and Asia have generally seen a stronger ridership recovery than in Canada and the U.S. Desmond said the reasons for that are related to culture, land use and historic use of transit versus automobiles.

TransLink is at the higher end of North American systems when it comes to speed of recovery.

“Our objective is we need to see ridership return, but we know it needs to return slowly and gradually. We’re still in the midst of the pandemic — a lot of people are still working remotely, working from home, and we’re still a ways away from a cure from a vaccine,” Desmond said. “That said, we are beginning to focus on how we can encourage our customers to come back.”

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