Rapid transit pandemic could take ‘several years’ to rebound
The completion of the Southwest Expressway was supposed to boost ridership on Winnipeg Transit, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to drop instead.
A new report assessing the “value for money” of the $467 million second phase of the Transitway, also known as the Blue Line, was originally expected to attract many new riders.
Then COVID-19 began spreading through the city in March 2020, forcing bus ridership to plummet just a month before the line opened.
“We dreamed of full buses and increasing ridership…and that future didn’t materialize as expected,” the councilor said. Matt Allard, who heads the council’s public works committee, said Wednesday.
For most of the past two years, public health orders aimed at reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus have forced University of Manitoba students and staff off campus for extended periods and kept many downtown workers at home. These factors have thwarted ridership growth for the Transitway that stretches from downtown to the main U of M campus (with its $138 million first phase included), as well as for the rest of the town.
“With COVID-19 in 2020 (and beyond), Transit has seen significant impacts across nearly every area of business. This has primarily been seen through a significant reduction in ridership beginning in March 2020,” notes the report.
Local bus ridership dropped to 30% of pre-pandemic levels at one point in 2020, and remained at just 45% in January 2022. The report notes that transit demand could take ‘several years’ to rebound fully, a potential timeline of permanent changes in work and learning habits could expand.
“Transit ridership may never return to pre-pandemic levels without additional incentives or service improvements to attract new riders when the pandemic subsides,” the report notes, noting that some transit agencies in now expect long-term ridership losses of 10 to 45%.
Before the pandemic, the city expected the new fast road to trigger a 12-15% increase in ridership “in the first few years after construction.”
Given that the blue line opened just weeks after the pandemic hit Winnipeg, Transit says it also lacks an appropriate baseline level of ridership to benchmark against future growth.
The Transitway was also expected to reduce emissions, shorten travel times, reduce other traffic congestion, make buses more reliable, attract high-density transit-oriented development and support downtown revitalization. -city (by making the city center easier to access).
With COVID-19 rules and recommendations keeping many Winnipeggers at home much more often, it is also difficult to assess the impact of rapid transit on traffic congestion and downtown revitalization. -city, notes the report.
There seems to be good news.
City staff say rapid transit trips tend to be 10 minutes shorter on average per trip between downtown and southwest Winnipeg in the dedicated corridor.
Several transit-oriented developments have been approved near the rapid line, including the Yards at Fort Rouge, Osborne Place (a mixed-use skyscraper), a former Southwood Golf Course development and the Fulton Grove housing initiative (at former Parker Lands). True North Square and 300 Main are also near the Transitway.
“I think rapid transit will continue to encourage development along the rapid transit line. I think that will continue to happen and we will continue to see buildings that can be built more efficiently because they need less parking,” Allard said.
The councilor said the Blue Line should also help incentivize a greater shift from single-passenger vehicles to buses and help the city meet its emissions reduction targets.
Kyle Owens, president of Functional Transit Winnipeg, said it’s disappointing that the “crushing disruption” of COVID-19 has prevented the city from reaping many of the benefits expected from its rapid transit.
However, Owens agreed that expectations show how beneficial rapid transit infrastructure will be in the future.
“With more buses on the road, you can really see huge benefits,” he said, urging the city to increase resources to operate its rapid transit line.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves telling the stories of this city, especially when it comes to politics. Joyanne became a reporter at City Hall for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.
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