Commuters’ willingness to jump on the bus, light-rail car or subway is expected to be a driving factor in repopulating office space in some major North American markets, including Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Public transit wariness emerged as a common sentiment among respondents to JLL’s survey of COVID-19-related workplace concerns earlier this spring, prompting the firm’s newly released examination of potential ripple effects for employers, businesses, parking demand, traffic congestion and the urban environment.
“While at first it may appear that only a small number of North American cities have a heavy reliance on public transportation for their workforces, in reality, a considerable portion of the office market is concentrated in such cities,” the report observes. “This concentration of office space and office-using employment in transit-oriented markets highlights the challenge that may accompany a return to work in North America’s largest cities.”
Recent studies in various major world cities have found little evidence to link public transit to COVID-19 clusters. Decline in ridership is apparent, however, with a new report from the International Energy Agency citing a 50 to 90 per cent drop globally, translating to an estimated €40 billion (CAD $60.8 billion) revenue loss for transit authorities in the European Union alone. The perception of risk poses yet one more challenge for Canadian commercial landlords.
Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa and Calgary are listed among 12 markets deemed to be transit-oriented and where approximately one third of the North American office inventory is concentrated. Notably, Toronto and Montreal rank in the top five of the 25 metropolises JLL scrutinizes for the sheer numbers and the percentage of employees reliant on public transit.
More than 13 per cent of the labour force in both urban regions are transit users, or nearly 740,000 workers in Toronto and nearly 468,000 in Montreal. Toronto registers the third highest average tally (after New York and Chicago) of weekday transit trips, at 1.66 million; Montreal has the fifth busiest system with an average of 1.34 million weekday trips recorded.
“People must continue to exercise caution when on public transit because physical distancing will be a challenge,” Christine Elliott, Ontario’s Minister of Health, acknowledged last week as the Province released a new guidance document for transit authorities. “I urge everyone to follow our public health guidelines. They may seem simple, but they are effective in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Strategies to reassure and welcome consumers
A coalition of Canadian business organizations, including the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Canada, is similarly emphasizing the oft-repeated mantra of social distancing, hand-washing, vigilant disinfection of frequently touched surfaces and collective obligation for mitigating risks to others. They’ve joined forces to endorse the POST Promise — an acronym for People Outside Safely Together — a voluntary pledge with an accompanying illustrative logo, which businesses serving the public are invited to take to reinforce and signal their commitment to public health.
To do so, they can register online by affirming they will adhere to five principles to safeguard the health of staff and customers, and will make formal efforts to convey supporting information to all users of the venues they oversee. In turn, POST promise declarants will receive confirmatory signage to alert their customers.
“The idea is to create POST Promise as a touchstone. It’s an indication that businesses are aware of their responsibilities, and that applies as much on main street as on Bay Street,” explains Benjamin Shinewald, president and chief executive officer of BOMA Canada, who sits on the board of directors of the new not-for-profit initiative. “It’s not a certification and it’s not a BOMA Canada program. It’s a reassurance to customers, but the logo could also be a reminder to customers that they’ve got an equal role to play in public health.”
Other participating organizations include the Business Council of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Canadian Global Cities Council, the Retail Council of Canada and Restaurants Canada. “Public confidence is essential to a successful economic restart,” reiterates Goldy Hyder, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada.
Shinewald notes transit authorities would also be welcome to participate since they are literally delivery agents for key players of the post-pandemic recovery.
“The economy has been on pause,” he reflects. “Now, as we draw close to restarting the economy, it’s time to think about how we welcome people back to commerce.”
Accordingly, Ontario’s newly released guidance document outlines how transit authorities can support: smoothly flowing passenger traffic through stations and on and off vehicles; onboard social distancing; heightened sanitation; and ongoing communications with commuters. “This guidance for transit agencies will provide consistent, clear and practical information that transit agencies can use to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and keep Ontarians moving safely,” suggests Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney.
Ottawa’s public transit authority, OC Transpo, will require passengers, with some exceptions, to wear face masks beginning June 15. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) will invoke a similar policy as of July 2.
“Our customers and our employees all need to see and feel that everything is being done to make the TTC as safe as possible and to protect them during this pandemic. Making face coverings mandatory is one more way we can do that,” notes Jaye Robinson, chair of the TTC.
Meanwhile, Société de transport de Montréal (STM) “strongly recommends” the practice and plans to distribute 300,000 complimentary reusable masks from its subway stations before the end of June. The STM website also features video instructions on how to wear and how to make face masks.
Anticipating more personal vehicles and active commuting
Along with Toronto and Montreal, the JLL report ranks Vancouver and Ottawa among the 10 major North American urban regions with the highest share of habitual transit riders in their workforces — equating to 11.7 per cent in Vancouver and 11 per cent in Ottawa. That drops off to 8.8 per cent of the workforce in Calgary and 7.2 per cent of workers in Edmonton. However, less than 5 per cent of the workforce relies on public transit in 10 of the surveyed metropolises, all in the United States.
Traffic congestion gives Toronto and Montreal less flattering standing in the top 10 cities where commuters lose the most time during their annual travels — pegged at 135 hours per year in Toronto and 117 in Montreal. JLL analysts point to potential tightening of that gridlock if more workers switch from transit to personal vehicles. “Even in cities with lower percentages of transit ridership, any shift in commute patterns toward cars could further exacerbate previously existing challenges with congestion and traffic,” they conclude.
This is not the first crisis-triggered decline in transit use during the 21st century, but it is arguably the most universal and long-lasting. JLL analysts foresee an eventual rebound like those following the September 2001 terrorist attacks and outbreaks of other infectious diseases like SARS and H1N1 influenza, and that transit-oriented development will continue to hold sway in the market.
In the shorter term, they predict dual-locations or even wider networks of dispersed office nodes, employer-sponsored shuttle services, ride-sharing initiatives and cycling infrastructure investment could all be on the rise. Demand for parking may not subside to the extent that transit-oriented development plans have envisioned, but competing demands for space are expected at street level.
“Owners and developers should review existing parking capacity and take into consideration commuters who may want to take advantage of bike and scooter share programs to avoid trains and buses,” JLL analysts advise. “Changes to the pedestrian path could encourage more walking if sidewalks are widened or cleared of obstructions, converted to pedestrian-only traffic or made safer through better sanitation and sidewalk lighting to take advantage of alleyways.”
The International Energy Agency likewise tallies a number of major global cities that are reassigning space previously reserved for vehicle traffic.
“As the COVID-19 crisis disrupts mobility routines, some regional governments and cities are seizing what they perceive as a unique opportunity to promote potentially lasting new mobility behaviours that favour active mobility,” the IEA report states. “Policies being pursued include speed limits and car-free zones in city centres, making road reallocation permanent and investing in new infrastructure such as bicycle lanes, bicycle parking and expanded walkways. Cities are also providing rental services and subsidies for the purchase and maintenance of traditional and electric bicycles.”