Editorial: Transit a key driver of urban economies

The rapid rise of the work-from-home movement will have repercussions well beyond employee-employer relationships and individual company productivity. It has the potential to undermine the health of Canada’s urban economies.

That is not good news for wealth and employment creation in a post-vaccination economy that will need all the wealth and employment creation it can muster. 

While the reduced flow of people into downtown cores might ease commuter congestion, it also reduces the flow of human connectivity and commerce into city life. Call it urban economic anemia: a gradual thinning of the lifeblood that drives the collaboration, innovation and human engagement an urban environment cultivates. 

That disorder also weakens the economics of city life well beyond employers and employees of individual companies, as Vancouver’s downtown core will attest. 

Public transit is a key conduit of that urban lifeblood. It, too, is under immense financial pressure. Ridership in Metro Vancouver remains a fraction of what it was pre-pandemic. Investing in its expansion therefore would seem to be counterintuitive. 

Why sink more money into a system that appears to be permanently damaged by commuter fears of using transportation that packs large groups of people into enclosed spaces? 

The answer again goes back to the overall productivity benefit of urban endeavour and the value public transit provides in driving that productivity. For example, a recent C.D. Howe commentary on public transit’s future estimates that reduced mid-pandemic Metro Toronto transit ridership resulted in a $1.7 billion loss in the region’s wider economic benefits. Accounting for population differences, Metro Vancouver’s regional economic loss would have direct parallels to Metro Toronto’s. 

The questionable productivity gains of permanent widespread work-from-home employment therefore promise to result in long-term losses for city economies that have already been seriously damaged by the global pandemic.