Political Will is Needed to Help Public Transit Bounce Back
From the Nest, Issue 1
by Ian Borsuk
You’ve certainly read the headlines already about public transit and the pandemic. You’ve likely heard about how the global spread of COVID-19 has been responsible for obliterating ridership, interrupting service, and pushing us even closer to the privatized mobility future that rideshare companies openly dream about.
You could be forgiven for believing this narrative—though, in reality, the future of public transit continues to be reliant on the same thing it was well before the global pandemic: political will.
We’ve already seen a positive push for this political will in the form of federal and provincial governments listening to the grassroots demand for emergency funding from community groups, non-profits, unions, business groups, and more—thanks to this investment transit has operated safely with ridership at 87% of pre-pandemic levels. Locally, in Hamilton, we’ve seen reduced service (that has slowly been increased) to accommodate roughly half of our usual ridership. It’s worth noting that prior to the pandemic, the Hamilton Street Railway (HSR) was exceeding ridership projections—with maintained improvements to service to thank.
Losing half of our local ridership may sound alarming, and may be cause for long term concern for the health of the HSR if that ridership does not return, but it’s important to look at this in another way. Half of those who took the HSR prior to the pandemic, those who have continued to use the HSR, are essential workers. They are the very same workers we collectively call heroes and they rely on our buses to do the jobs we’ve deemed too important to forgo.
So when politicians and pundits talk about transit and speculate about the permanent impacts on ridership that the pandemic may lead to (which ultimately means eventual cuts to service), it’s important we remember that we’re talking about making the commutes and the lives of essential workers harder or, in some cases, impossible. For many, employment is contingent on the mobility afforded by public transit.
In addition to continuing to provide a vital service to essential workers—staying the course with public transit investment also means that Hamilton will be ready for a true just recovery. Nationally, other services are expanding and making investments in service with the understanding that the trends we have seen in other countries with better and more swift pandemic responses can and will be replicated here.
While we’ve certainly seen a greater shift towards active transportation options, like cycling, the reality is that as it becomes safer to do so, people will get back on the bus as they need to. What will also motivate people to start retaking the HSR as their lives return to normal is new routes.
The HSR’s (Re)envision project is wisely continuing, albeit with delayed timelines. Prior to the pandemic the HSR was conducting extensive community outreach and research—all of which is going to feed into a new proposed network reconfiguration, which if successful, will have bus routes going to and from where riders need to go today—not where they needed to go decades ago.
With this proposed network reconfiguration currently planned for Fall 2021, now is precisely when we need our City Council to promote this effort to ensure that we not only envision the best possible scenario for our recovery, but that we deliver on it.
What does that look like? An updated bus network that factors in the first and last miles of trips, the needs of essential workers, and helps Hamilton ensure mobility for all, while at the same time ensuring that our response to the climate emergency is impactful and long lasting.
Ian Borsuk is a Climate Campaign Coordinator with Environment Hamilton and a Ward 1 resident