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Public transit and active transportation: Activity, structural and energy efficiency effects on mobility and the environment

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About the project

In 2016, 15.9 million Canadians commuted to work. While 74% of them drove alone, 6% rode as car passengers. The car is the clear mode of choice for most Canadian commuters. Passenger vehicles account for about half of Canada’s transportation-related emissions. Two ways to reduce dependence on cars are to: (1) increase public transit ridership; and (2) promote active transportation, including integrated transit/active commuting. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a dramatic collapse in public transit ridership and revenue. Commuting across all modes fell during COVID-19 and working from home (i.e. telecommuting) increased sharply.

The work is inspired by the “three effects” (activity, structural and energy efficiency) model. According to this model, there are three ways to reduce energy use and emissions: reduce the amount of activity; facilitate modal (structural) shifts, e.g., from car to bus; and implement energy-efficient solutions, e.g., zero-emission buses. Given the obsession with population and economic growth, activity levels are likely to keep increasing. Thus, structural and energy efficiency solutions are needed.

This project is guided by four primary objectives: (1) to review and synthesize the literature on public transit and active transportation, with special focus on studies that integrate these travel alternatives; (2) to benchmark a set of Canadian municipalities in terms of public transit and active transportation infrastructure, policies and practices; (3) to determine implications for public policy and practice from the current state of knowledge; and (4) to identify gaps in the literature and propose opportunities for future research.

Key findings

  1. COVID-19 caused a collapse in public transit ridership across Canada. From April 2020 to May 2021, monthly ridership sat at one-third of the monthly average for the 30 months prior to the pandemic. From June to September 2021, ridership edged upward, to about half of pre-COVID levels. Research is required to identify policies and practices that support transit recovery and to develop strategies for capturing the true total cost of private vehicle use to commuters (e.g., gasoline, parking, mobility pricing, public health costs, etc.).
  2. There has been a long-term decline in walking to work across Canada, going back to at least 2001. As cities grow, distance becomes an inhibiting factor in active transportation. More research is needed to understand causes of the decline and identify approaches to increase active commuting, especially by pedestrians. Less walking and cycling are linked to higher rates of obesity and public health costs.
  3. Cycling has been increasing slowly in many Canadian municipalities. Indeed, the pandemic has given rise to a cycling renaissance across Canada. However, much of this new cycling activity is recreational rather than for commuting. While this is helpful from a public health perspective, it makes little if any contribution to emissions reductions. If the goal is to reduce emissions, then cycling needs to replace private vehicle commuting. Research is needed to identify barriers and potential facilitators to cycling as a commuter mode of choice.
  4. Multimodal commuting in Canada is a largely untapped opportunity. The literature notes benefits of multimodal, whereby commuters combine public transit and active transportation. This type of travel would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve public health. Unfortunately, available data on multimodal commuting is inadequate. Statistics Canada currently considers only single modes in classifying and analyzing commuting. More detailed data are required to understand the nature and scope of multimodal commuting and to determine appropriate policies and practices to increase uptake.
  5. Statistical modeling is useful for evaluating active transportation and public transit within and across municipalities. Census metropolitan area (CMA) population appears to be a significant predictor of public transit ridership. Weather (e.g., outdoor temperature) is a predictor of active transportation. More research is required to identify and incorporate additional predictors of transit ridership and active commuting in such models. Other potential predictors include: commuter perceptions about safety; availability of infrastructure and services; commute distance; car ownership; regional culture; commuter location; and demographics.

Policy implications

  • Policy is required to support recovery of public transit to prepandemic levels and beyond. Relevant policies should include incentives to ride transit buses and trains, e.g., fare discounts or even free rides. There is also a need for disincentives to driving, such as higher parking rates and fuel taxes. In addition, investments in infrastructure and service are required to offer commuters safe, convenient rides. While certain policies might work well in many municipalities, there is a need for jurisdiction-specific policies based on local conditions. For instance, smaller CMAs, which have low levels of transit ridership, call for a special policy approach.
  • Thinking longer-term, there is a need for policies to support the transition of public transit to zero-emission buses, such as subsidizing transit authorities in the purchase of battery electric or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.
  • There is an important policy role in making active transportation (cycling and walking) safer and more convenient. A good first step is to facilitate availability of safety-related data. Further, investments in infrastructure are needed. Another policy opportunity is to assist in developing online routing tools for cyclists. Finally, it would be useful to study the benefits of active transportation, e.g., its impact on public health and emissions.

Further information

Contact the researchers

Paul D. Larson, PhD, University of Manitoba:

Robert V. Parsons, PhD, University of Manitoba:

Arne Elias, PhD, Elias Consulting:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, Infrastructure Canada or the Government of Canada.

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