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Where have all the transit riders gone?

Cities across Canada are reporting stagnation and even declines in public transit ridership and officials candidly admit they aren't exactly sure what's going on. Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Saskatoon, Calgary and Vancouver are among the cities to report a levelling-off of ridership.

The Toronto Transit Commission – which, like many other transit systems, had been on a steady ridership climb for years – recently reported that 2015 numbers fell short of expectations and 2016 may show a year-over-year decline. The commission is warning of a potential $30-million budget shortfall.

The challenging ridership numbers come at an unprecedented moment for public transit in Canada. Cities are trying to cover the operating costs of existing transit systems at the same time as they rush to prepare ambitious expansion plans to capture the billions now on offer from federal and provincial infrastructure programs.

The federal government has said it will take a hands-off approach to doling out its infrastructure cash, transferring it to cities based on ridership and largely leaving it up to cities and provinces to decide on priority projects.

While the federal government is now willing to cover up to 50 per cent of the cost to build new transit lines and extensions, it will ultimately be up to municipalities to produce reasonable ridership forecasts or risk having to cover the operating shortfall for years to come.

"The overall trend we're seeing in Canada and in the U.S. is ridership is stagnating or [showing] modest growth. That's the trend," said Patrick Leclerc, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, which is made up of transit operators from across the country. The association recently held its annual general meeting in Halifax, where ridership issues were discussed.

"The growth is not as strong as it was about five or six years ago. The last decade was major growth. Now it's slowing down. We are doing the analysis to understand what is happening in each region," he said.

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London, ON, Canada

©2018 by London Transportation Alliance.                   Photography Credit Scott Webb