Masked man on but

The future of sustainable urban environments after COVID-19

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill Times on November 16, 2020.

The pandemic has highlighted the role of public transit in sustainable urban centres, and two visions of the future are taking shape. The first sees increasing remote work, changing consumer behaviour, and continuing ambivalence towards crowds and public spaces. In short, a future of automobile-centric sprawl. The second leverages a post-pandemic recovery plan to support our renewed ambitions for low-carbon urban transformation.

Realizing this second vision will require a continued commitment to transit-supportive development, creating a national active transportation strategy, and supporting public transit agencies as they adapt to new and uncertain environments.

The time to support a vision for public transportation is now.

There are early warnings of the first vision coming true. Public transit ridership in Canada in June was almost 75 per cent lower than last year. Operating revenues were down by 77 per cent. Fortunately, this crisis has been acknowledged by federal, provincial and territorial governments. Public transit funding was prioritized through the Safe Restart Agreements and this infusion of funds is helping to stabilize transit operations.

However, commuting patterns during the pandemic are strongly favouring driving vehicles. Remote work and public health concerns have led to much sharper reductions in the use of public transit. Less than one-quarter of people who commuted to work by transit before the pandemic are still doing so. If this persists, public transit could be condemned to secular decline.

Where does this leave us? Over the last 15 years, governments have invested tens of billions of dollars in improving the quality of public transit. Combined with smart land use planning, these investments are encouraging more sustainable patterns of urban development and mobility. We should not turn our back on these hard-won gains. We should remain focused on creating cities that are environmentally sustainable and contributing to Canada’s low carbon transition. Sustainable cities are vibrant, foster opportunities for active civic engagement, are efficient, economically productive, equitable and inclusive.

Changes in recent months prompted by COVID-19 highlight the inequalities of living and working in a pandemic. Although three-quarters of transit commuters have made other arrangements, those who continue to rely on public transit tend to have lower incomes and are employed in front-line sectors where remote work is not an option. This reminds us of the critical role public transit plays in a sustainable vision for our cities.

These are uncertain times for urban transportation. The pandemic is magnifying the potential impacts of technological disruption. Innovations in shared mobility, micro-transit, and autonomous vehicles will continue posing deep questions about the future of sustainable transportation. It is here where we see the outlines of the second vision.

The resources of a post-pandemic recovery plan should support our renewed ambitions for low-carbon urban transformation. This vision affirms a commitment to sustainable mobility while adapting to new and uncertain conditions. First, it prioritizes the ongoing renewal of public transit by investing in both strategic capital projects and operations. These investments need to continue being tied to integrated planning and quality urban design.

Second, a recovery plan for sustainable cities can capitalize on the popularity of cycling and active transportation. During the pandemic, these modes have benefited from a decline in traffic and the unlocking of urban space. This is an opportune time to create a national active transportation strategy.

Finally, this recovery vision supports public transit agencies as they innovate and adapt. In a post-pandemic context, for example, agencies may focus less attention on the problem of peakhour commuting and evolve to become managers of more expansive shared-mobility ecosystems.

It is impossible to know exactly what the future holds for cities. Nevertheless, we should navigate this uncertainty guided by principles of sustainability. These are principles rooted in shared ideas about the kinds of cities we want to build and the kind of urban life we want to return to after the pandemic.