By Nick Grover

COVID has no doubt posed a challenge to Ottawa’s public transit. Those the system was designed around — federal government commuters — have been working from home while other riders feel unsafe being boxed up on packed buses. But the pandemic has also been a giant missed opportunity to address multiple public health issues through an expansion of service

Transit regulators seem to think there is a set pool of bus riders that can only shrink, never grow. But even during low ridership periods, there are still people traveling — it’s just by car. These are potential bus riders who have deemed the service too poor or unsafe to use. Simply put, public transit cannot just be a commuter service. It must be a public service that works for everyone

Cities designed for cars are neither affordable or accessible — our public health is compromised as a result. Quality public transit means a service that, pandemic wave or not, people can use instead of a car to get around safely. 

Omicron, Flu Season, and the Next Wave

The very measures transit agencies should, frankly, already have in place to improve service quality and accessibility would also enable better distancing and less exposure risk to COVID for riders and drivers. 

Faster bus rides, made possible with dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority for buses, would mean shorter trips and less time spent in close quarters. Making trips more frequent, by adding buses to high demand and underserved routes, would avoid “sardine machines” — packed buses where social distancing is out of the question. Eliminating fares would speed up routes by reducing boarding times and how long people wait inside and crowded outside buses. All-door boarding would do the same, while improving airflow. These are not hard to implement, and their success can be furthered with free N-95 masks for all bus riders and drivers. 

Fare-based transit systems wait until ridership increases before expanding service. This is completely backwards. People choose whether or not to ride the bus based on the existing quality of service.

This is a lens we should have had even before the pandemic, but no one seemed to care about cold and flu season as we rode around on our morning commutes. We cannot keep reacting to airborne viruses as they pop up. Instead, there must be a baseline infrastructure that makes it possible to achieve limited exposure. 

Packed buses with no social distancing. Illustration: Crystal Yung

Climate Crisis

Better transit tackles the parallel public health crisis of climate change by offering a viable alternative to driving. This is essential to reduce the cardiovascular effects of pollution and curb the intensity of the climate disasters (wildfires, heatwaves, flooding, droughts) that we’re seeing more and more. More remote working has meant lower bus ridership, but transit agencies can attract those who still drive to work, school, errands, and appointments by making the bus safe and reliable enough for them to make the switch. 

We are expected to stomach the heavy social costs and personal expenses of driving when it’s the only real way to get around quickly and on time. Making transit free, reliable, and easy to use is an investment in choice, access, and healthier cities. 

But won’t attracting more people onto buses make them crowded all over again? It doesn’t have to. Say a route has a bus every 20 minutes and fifty people are packed in it at any given time as it crawls through traffic. If service frequency was increased so buses came every 4-5 minutes, you could triple the user pool over that 20 minute window and still have fewer people per bus (about 38 on each now). With a dedicated lane, the time spent together on the bus would also be shortened by at least 20%. It is absolutely possible to transport more people, better served, in a safer way. 

Difficult to give up the ol’ reliable for public transit. Illustration: Crystal Yung

Road Safety

Fewer people go out when COVID cases spike, but others simply opt to drive and ride hail rather than risk public transit. This is unfortunate because more cars on the road is hardly a public health solution. Cars are actually quite adept at sending people to the hospital too, between poor air quality (Health Canada estimates pollution causes 15,300 premature deaths per year in Canada) and road accidents in Canada (2,000 annual deaths, and 130,000 injuries — 9,000 of them “serious”). 

It also ignores the safety of Uber and Lyft drivers asked to bear higher contact risk with more passengers, while receiving no employment benefits. We can prioritize good unionized jobs and affordable, low carbon transport by expanding and improving transit service. 

A Better Funding Model

The pandemic has exposed the folly of relying on fare box revenue to maintain a public service. Fare-based transit systems have always been a liability: they make us wait until ridership and revenue increase before making investments in better or expanded service. This is completely backwards. People choose whether or not to ride the bus based on the existing quality of service. During the pandemic, declining farebox revenues have been used to justify service cuts. 

We can invest in the success of public transit with stable operational funding from upper levels of government and reallocation of existing local budget items. Cities and provinces spend billions of public dollars supporting cars through road and highway expansion, parking complexes, urban sprawl, and policing traffic. They can and must redirect these funds towards robust public transit systems that work for everyone. 

COVID, climate crisis, and inaccessibility are the public health challenges of our time — political priorities must reflect that. 

People choose whether or not to ride the bus based on the existing quality of service. Illustration: Crystal Yung

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