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McGill study finds urgent need to fund Montreal bus network

The STM is eliminating seven bus routes. (CTV News) The STM is eliminating seven bus routes. (CTV News)
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When it comes to public transit in Montreal, the snake has been biting its own tail since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, a McGill University study found.

The case study analyzed ridership and operation data for 169 bus routes submitted by the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) in 2018 and 2022 to compare changes before and after the pandemic.

McGill University School of Urban Planning professor Ahmed El-Geneidy carried out the study with research assistant Paul Redelmeier and published it in the journal "Transportation Research Record".

The first finding is that STM bus ridership is not the same as it was before COVID-19. The STM's most recent data for 2023 reveals that ridership for its entire system is close to 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

Telecommuting and the use of individual modes of transport, such as cars and bicycles, were the main reasons why the researchers decided to look into the subject, said Meredith Alousi-Jones, who is part of the research team.

"We knew it was going to have an impact on the way people use public transit, especially to get to work," she said.

The study showed that elasticity, or the way riders respond to bus service, has changed since the pandemic.

"The same level of service, with the same budget, is not going to attract the same number of riders," said Alousi-Jones. "You're going to have to increase the budget and improve the service to attract the same number of riders."

According to the researcher, COVID-19's impact on daily transport in major cities should not be underestimated as it led to a cultural change among users. The latter are also more sensitive to service cuts than they were before the pandemic.

"People are demanding better service," said Alousi-Jones.

Doing more... with less

The researchers conclude that more investment is needed to ensure that people make the bus their preferred means of transport on the island of Montreal.

More funds and quickly to break out of the vicious circle since the researchers believe that cuts "could set off a downward spiral and ultimately lead to the collapse of the transport system," while those cuts, caused by budget deficits, generate a drop in ridership, which then leads to further cuts.

Alousi-Jones believes that the collapse is not imminent, but that it is important to keep it in mind in order to find other sources of funding that can lead to an increase in service, rather than a decrease.

The STM has been in financial crisis for several years.

Last March, it announced an $85.6 million reduction in its expenses, claiming that this would have no impact on its service offering.

In a news release issued after the announcement of the 2024-2025 provincial budget, the public corporation criticized the government's lack of commitment to the public transit funding crisis and warned the Coalition Avenir Quebec that "it will not be possible to repeat this exercise of budget cuts on such a large scale in 2025."

In this sense, the researchers claim that their study constitutes a kind of call to action for political decision-makers with regard to public transit so that they invest more to ensure its sustainability, in addition to promoting long-term equity.

They also suggest that the STM not cut back on frequent routes.

"Positioning certain routes as offering frequent service is a good way for transit companies to make their system more user-friendly. Users know that these routes are reliable and that they won't have to consult the timetable," said Ahmed El-Geneidy, on the McGill University website.

In its 2023 report, the STM said that the 31 frequent lines alone account for more than 50 per cent of total current ridership.

The researchers sent the results of their analysis to the STM but claim to have received no response.

For its part, the transit company was unavailable this weekend to respond to a request for comment from The Canadian Press.

The McGill University research team is now working on a long-term study of the impacts of the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) on the health and well-being of Montrealers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on June 16, 2024. 

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