Most British Columbians followed public health advice to stay home in 2020, but numbers obtained by CTV News Vancouver seem to indicate that people were most enthusiastic about staying away from work.
Routes used specifically for commuting saw a steep drop in trips, according to figures on trips made by bicycle and transit, a sign that people whose jobs allowed them to work from home embraced doing so, a trend that could well continue well after the pandemic.
“Not only can we work from home, we’re being directed to work from home,” said former Vancouver chief planner Brent Toderian, adding this trend could have long-reaching impacts. “It’s not a matter of, 'Will there be more work from home?' Of course there will be, but how much more? And what will that look like?”
While transit ridership has dropped to about 41 per cent of pre-pandemic levels as a whole, according to the most recent TransLink figures, some parts of the system are bouncing back faster than others.
Buses are now the fastest to recover, at 45 per cent of pre-pandemic usage, possibly because they are used for shorter, more local trips. The Expo and Millennium Lines, used more for longer trips, are recovering at 38 and 32 per cent, respectively.
The slowest to recover has been the West Coast Express, which is primarily a commuter train from Mission into downtown Vancouver. Ridership there is just 15 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
“Very long commutes never appealed to the average commuter. It has given a real motivation to work from home and you’re definitely seeing that on the West Coast Express,” said Gord Price, former director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University.
The pattern can also be seen in Vancouver’s bike lane counts. Usage of typical commuting routes like the Dunsmuir Viaduct has plunged by roughly 40 per cent, to around 1,500 riders a day, the figures show. Counters on the Lions Gate Bridge show numbers have dropped some 50 per cent to around 1,100 riders a day.
But trips taken on recreational bike routes soared in 2020, especially in the summer. Bicycle trips were up by more than 30 per cent at Point Grey Road and the seawall at Creekside Community Centre, and up some 50 per cent along the seawall at HMCS Discovery at Stanley Park.
“If you’re on Beach Avenue, you can see a huge increase, way beyond what I anticipated. We’re up there with the northern Europeans – Copenhagen or Amsterdam,” Price said.
On average, trips on recreational routes were up around 18 per cent, while commuter routes were down around 31 per cent, a city spokesperson told CTV News. One explanation could be that bicycle commuters have replaced their commuting trips with recreational trips to get exercise in, although only some of them have managed to ride as often.
Provincial motor vehicle counts are often only done for major highways, and those figures show a decline of around 10 per cent.
For example, the Second Narrows bridge logged about 133,000 vehicles in both directions on an average Wednesday in August 2019. That dropped to just over 124,000 vehicles on an average Wednesday in August 2020, the most recent month for which figures are easily available.
It’s possible that more working from home could mean spreading out the peak traffic over the course of the day, one reason traffic feels lighter. But we shouldn’t take from these numbers that it’s time to go back to building more roads, Toderian said.
“If we end up driving more, sprawling more, emitting more, the irony is not only will we have all the other consequences of climate change, but one of the main consequences of climate change is more and worse pandemics,” he said.