How Calgarians are moving around during the COVID-19 pandemic

A new report from city hall shows traffic is picking up on Calgary streets, but transit is still struggling with ridership amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Adam MacVicar reports.

After strict lockdown measures in March forced much of Calgary to stay home to help limit the spread of COVID-19, traffic on streets and pathways has picked up again.

According to a mobility trends report from the City of Calgary, vehicle volume on city streets just nine per cent shy of what they were on March 2, weeks before lockdown measures came into effect.

“We’re definitely seeing an overall reduction in travel. We definitely saw it throughout the summer with people commuting to downtown,” City of Calgary transportation planning director Ryan Vanderputten said Tuesday.

“But as the pandemic goes on, people are getting back into their daily routines.”

Vanderputten said the report didn’t reveal any big surprises in transportation behaviour, but recovery has looked different across several modes of transportation the city uses for its data tracking.

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The report noted on-street parking is 62 per cent of the level recorded on March 2, up from a low of 18 per cent in April.

Taxi and rideshare trips reached 52 per cent of normal levels, but the cancellation of the Calgary Stampede contributed to a 70 per cent decline in rides compared to the same time period last year.

Despite the pandemic, e-scooters remain a popular choice with Calgarians as 228,300 trips were recorded between their reintroduction in May and July 12. The city averaged 4,500 e-scooter trips per day, according to the report.

The report also monitored traffic on the Memorial Drive adapted roadway.

The City of Calgary launched temporary lane closures on Memorial Drive between Centre Street and 10 Street N.W. in March as part of a pilot project that saw lane reductions on several roads as vehicle traffic dropped amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The closed lanes remained popular among cyclists, with 66 per cent of them using the closed lanes between April 4 and July 5.

Pedestrians tended to use the path south of Memorial Drive 69 per cent of the time in the same time period.

“We were seeing Calgarians definitely get out and be active during the summer,” Vanderputten said. “We were seeing an increased demand on our pathways and cycle network this year, even compared to previous years.”

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Another transportation mobility report is expected in late September, Vanderputten said, and that update will provide more insights into transportation behaviour because it will include impacts of students returning to school.

Transit bounce back to take ‘a while longer’

Calgary Transit saw ridership plummet by 90 per cent in the first two weeks of COVID-19 lockdown orders.

The reduced ridership also forced Calgary Transit to claw back the frequency of buses on 61 of its routes in May.

According to the city, ridership improved in July but remains 75 per cent lower than normal levels, and the service is currently operating at 60 per cent of its capacity.

“Transit is going to take a while longer,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said. “So much of transit is people working downtown. A lot of folks are still working from home, but I’ll be really interested to see the next report on transit now that schools have reopened to see how that’s going.”

With fewer people using Calgary Transit this year, city officials are expecting a $105 million drop in projected revenues this year — that’s only if the provincial relaunch strategy continues at the same rate.

“It’s certainly the biggest dent in our revenues that we’ve had to go through at any point in the history that we’ve been able to draw on,” Calgary Transit service design manager Chris Jordan said.

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The city is set to receive about $72 million from the federal and provincial governments as part of the Safe Restart Agreement, which will be used to help cover revenue shortfalls for transit.

Nenshi said the money will help ease his concerns about funding transit this year, but he remains worried about covering the cost of transit next year.

“The real question is how do we right-size the system for the number of people that are going to be using it going forward?” Nenshi said.

“You don’t want to overshoot. You don’t want to undershoot. You don’t want massively overcrowded vehicles, especially not in COVID times, but at the same time, you don’t want buses running completely empty either.”

Despite the stark impact on revenues, Jordan said Calgary Transit is able to make restrained service investments including an increase in service levels to meet demand related to students returning to school.

To help mitigate the decline in ridership and the revenue shortfall, transit officials plan to expand options on its MyFare mobile payment system as well as introduce on-demand service to some neighbourhoods in the city’s southwest where ridership was deeply impacted by the pandemic.

However, council documents show that on-demand service isn’t expected to save money in the short to medium term due to costs associated with starting a new line of service and the uncertainty of regular ridership.

Transit officials are expecting ridership levels to improve once post-secondary students return to in-class learning and more offices in the downtown core reopen to employees after months of working from home.

“When post-secondary institutions begin to use in-person attendance as their prominent form of service delivery, that’s when we’ll start to see ridership get back to normal,” Jordan said. “We still haven’t seen a bounce back in the office employment that has really driven our ridership levels in the past, particularly on the CTrain.”

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