Canada's urban public transit ridership recovers to its highest levels since early 2020

Mar 16 2023, 1:18 am

Statistics Canada’s update today on overall public transit ridership in urban areas shows a steady recovery in the return to public transit since the pandemic began in early 2020.

Urban public transit ridership reached 118.4 million passenger trips in January 2023 — the highest level yet within the pandemic period. This is up from 2022’s high of 117.4 million in each of the months of September, October, and November, up from 64.8 million in January 2022, and up from 46.4 million in January 2021.

In contrast, there were 163.9 million passenger trips in January 2020 and 161.2 million in February 2020 — before the sudden steep dive starting in the middle of March 2020, and the subsequent pandemic-time low of 25.7 million in April 2020. Compared to January 2020’s normal volumes, urban public transit ridership is now hovering at 72% of pre-pandemic levels.

As of January 2023, total revenues (not including government subsidies) for Canada’s urban public transit systems reached $267.6 million — equivalent to 73% of January 2020’s $365.9 million. The pandemic-time high to date was achieved in November 2022 when $279.1 million was reached.

Statistics Canada suggests strong job growth — particularly in wholesale and retail trade, healthcare, social assistance, and educational services — may have fuelled more recent ridership growth.

But the ongoing practice of semi-remote work away from office spaces continues to impact ridership recover, especially in major city centres.

canada public transit ridership revenue recovery statistics

Urban public transit operating revenue and passenger trips, monthly, 2019 to 2023. (Statistics Canada)

Public transit authorities across the country have noted that the recovery in demand-driven fare revenue is falling behind the pace of ridership regrowth.

Last month, Metro Vancouver’s TransLink said while its public transit services are hovering at 94% of pre-pandemic 2019 levels, fare revenues have rebound to just over 70%. They suggested a larger portion of passengers are now using less expensive fare products leading to lower fare revenues.

Other public transit authorities across the country have also been scaling back services substantially over the past year, but TransLink has been an exception.

Earlier today, the Government of British Columbia announced it will provide TransLink with $479 million in additional provincial funding to maintain current service levels through 2025 — rescinding any threats of major service cuts — and expand bus services.

TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn suggests cuts in public transit services leads to a vicious cycle of lower ridership as a result of the reduced capacity, which in turns generates less fare revenue to support the cost of more frequent services.

“[The new provincial funding] will allow us to maintain current service levels, and it means we can continue our operations as planned until the end of 2025,” said TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn today.

“This comes at a time when other transit agencies across the country are forced to make massive service cuts. Such devastating cuts can quickly lead to that transit death spiral with underinvestment with less service, which comes with lower ridership and even lower revenue.”

In January 2023, TransLink shared it is the first major public transit system in Canada and the United States to reach and sustain a ridership recovery of 80% normal. It now ranks fifth in Canada and the US for boardings and 24th for population, and boardings are now 60% higher than the public transit systems of Seattle and Portland combined. As well, Metro Vancouver boardings are now more than the entire Chicago area, which has three times more population.

Edmonton Transit Service also reported that as of January 2023, it saw 100% pre-pandemic ridership levels on its bus services, and 60% to 70% on the LRT system.

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