As city and provincial officials begin to loosen the COVID-19 restrictions that have kept residents close to home for much of the past two months, transit users are expected to start trickling back to the TTC to work, shop, and get around. But the transit network they return to will look very different than the one they left before the lockdown.
Preventing the spread of the virus on the TTC, which before the pandemic carried about 1.8 million people a day on crowded vehicles and packed platforms, will be a tremendous challenge if transit demand returns to anything approaching normal levels before a vaccine for the disease is widely available.
Experts and other jurisdictions have pursued ideas like directing all passengers to wear masks, modifying stations to allow for social distancing, and asking employers to stagger shifts in order to push travel demand outside of traditional rush hours.
“Every single one of those things, and more, are on the table and under active discussion,” said Mayor John Tory at a press conference Tuesday.
TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said the agency’s plans have yet to be finalized, but are being drafted in co-operation with Toronto Public Health and the city’s Office of Recovery and Rebuild. Green said the agency is looking for strategies “that allow for a safe, gradual or phased return of our customers.”
Here’s what riders can expect as the TTC gears up for the recovery.
Extending existing measures
The TTC has already instituted policies to keep riders and employees safe during the pandemic, including closing off some seats on vehicles, cleaning vehicles and stations more frequently, and implementing rear-door boarding on buses.
For at least the early stages of the recovery, transit agencies will need to continue those type of measures in order to give the public “a comfort level that they can ride the system,” said Paul Skoutelas, president of the American Public Transit Association, a non-profit that represents North American transit organizations.
Green said that as ridership returns the TTC will “assess all the measures we have put in place and determine when it is safe to change practices.”
Officials in New York state and Quebec have issued recommendations for riders to wear masks while on public transit, while hard-hit Spain has made face coverings mandatory for passengers.
The TTC has not directed its riders to wear masks, and Green said any directive to do so “would have to come from government or public health officials,” not the transit agency.
Skoutelas said instructions for passengers to wear masks should be strong recommendations rather than mandatory rules, which would be hard for agencies to enforce. “I don’t think we want to create more friction between an operator and a rider,” he said.
Phil Verster, president of Metrolinx, the provincial agency that oversees GO, said the organization will be installing “a huge number of markings and decals” at its stations in the coming weeks — especially the normally busy hub of Union Station — to aid with social distancing. Extra staff will be deployed to help “marshal people to spread out throughout the station,” he said.
Green said the TTC has deployed floor markings on Union Station subway platforms, as well as interchange stations and stops at the end of lines.
Changing travel patterns
Get more of what matters in your inbox
Start your morning with everything you need to know, and nothing you don’t. Sign up for First Up, the Star’s new daily email newsletter.
Just as wider society needs to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infections, transit agencies “need to flatten the peak period curve” to prevent crowding during the busiest times of day, said Amer Shalaby, a University of Toronto professor who studies transportation modelling.
He cited a recent, non-peer reviewed study about Washington, D.C.’s Metro system that found that each one of the 270,000 people who use the subway during a normal morning rush hour has the potential to interact with about 1,200 other people, creating perfect conditions to rapidly spread the virus throughout the riding population.
Shalaby said pushing transit demand away from traditional rush hours would need to be a “collaborative effort” between employers and government, which could change shift times or ask employees to work from home, as well as transit agencies, which could lower fares in less busy times of day.
Green said the TTC is in discussion with municipal officials about strategies to shift demand away from rush hour, but requests for employers to alter work hours would have to come from the city.
The crisis has caused TTC ridership to plunge to 15 per cent of normal volumes, but the agency has continued to operate about 85 per cent of its regular service, a level its planners calculate is slightly more than required to allow passengers to practice social distancing.
Marco D’Angelo, president of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, a non-profit advocacy group for the nation’s transit systems, said it will be crucial for agencies to ramp up service as economic activity resumes and people start riding again.
Financial constraints could make that difficult, however. The TTC has estimated it’s losing $90 million a month during the crisis, and plans to layoff 1,200 employees.
With Canadian cities facing crippling economic shortfalls as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, D’Angelo said the TTC and other agencies “urgently need federal support to maintain adequate service levels, so what vehicles do run are not crowded.”
The TTC expects to operate on its new reduced schedules until at least the end of August, but Green said the agency has “planned service in a flexible way so that we can scale up service on short notice, if required, over the summer.”
The TTC has not instituted hard passenger caps on vehicles, but Green said the agency is trying to allow no more than 10 to 15 people on its buses at a time. If passenger loads exceed that, drivers may switch to “drop off only” mode.
According to Green, for the moment the subway and streetcar networks still have enough room to accommodate more riders while allowing for social distancing.
But the TTC’s ability to add enough service to keep crowding at safe levels is limited, and normal service simply won’t be possible while the virus remains a threat. “Our normal planning standards envision full vehicles. Obviously, that is not possible in the immediate or medium terms,” Green said.
The city is preparing for the TTC to operate at reduced capacity during the recovery. The ActiveTO plan the mayor unveiled Wednesday includes a proposal to install bike lanes that “mirror” major TTC routes, in order to create a “safety valve” for the transit system.