COVID-19 Future of Transit Transit Equity

A Voice for Transit releases report on TTC riders’ experiences during COVID-19

Regular riders voice concerns about crowding, cleanliness and their experience

Pioneer Village Station

Credit: Jean-François Obregón Murillo

Martina is a cleaning and maintenance worker in Toronto’s northwest, who works in downtown Toronto. A new Canadian, she went to work while others stayed home during the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders over the past 18 months. She relied on the TTC to get to and from work even while white-collar workers telecommuted.

Transit was and continues to be vital for essential workers like Martina. We wrote this report to make the case for transit funding to be maintained and focused on the needs of essential workers like her. Addressing their needs also means addressing everyone’s needs as TTC ridership is likely to increase with students, schoolchildren and white-collar workers returning to their regular routines after Labour Day.

The TTC’s issues are similar to those of transit systems globally with overcrowding, drops in transit ridership as well as hygiene and disinfection concerns. TTC ridership in 2021 saw a 72% drop in June 2021 compared with pre-COVID-19 figures. Our report answered the question: What does transit in Toronto look like during and after COVID-19? This report is the culmination of a nearly year-long project by the A Voice for Transit team.

We interviewed six essential workers who lived in the City of Toronto and who were regular riders during the pandemic to provide an unvarnished view of their experiences. We identified them after screening 72 respondents from different points of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

We combined this with strong research on the TTC’s budget and a literature review looking at the relationship between transit and COVID-19. This led to us providing the following recommendations:

  • Continue prioritizing cleanliness: This makes riders more comfortable regarding the spread of COVID-19. It can also help to reduce infections related to other illnesses. Cleanliness was a top issue for interviewees, who were supportive of disinfection actions.
  • Prioritize subway system ventilation upgrades: A motion on TTC subway air quality was first tabled in 2017. It took over 2.5 years for a study by the TTC and Toronto Public Health to be completed and the recommendations to be adopted by the TTC. The TTC’s 15-Year Capital Investment Plan and 2019-2028 Capital Budget included $32 million for upgraded subway/bus platform air ventilation. We recommend prioritizing this investment immediately, especially given that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness.
  • Apply COVID-19-related crowding and on-time bus performance practices: We recommend that the TTC trial models optimizing trade-offs between passenger and operational costs while accounting for reduced vehicle capacity and revenue losses. The TTC can decide to have busses skip certain stations or stops when they become overcrowded utilizing real-time data.
  • Maintaining public subsidies: The silver lining to the Safe Restart Agreement is that it allows us to see how the system can function with a federal subsidy. This funding arrangement should be considered on a permanent basis. However, the system should still be incentivized to run efficiently.
  • Improving enforcement of public health measures: We heard multiple participants express frustration at times when masks were not worn by passengers or employees and such actions not being penalized. We ask that TTC management works with employees’ unions on actions to address vehicle crowding and masking.
  • Using bond proceeds to fund disinfection capital expenses: The City of Toronto can issue debt for capital projects, but is prohibited from borrowing for operating expenses under the The City of Toronto Act. Given the drop in fare revenues, investments in capital equipment can be made using proceeds from City of Toronto bonds. We propose that the TTC request being able to dedicate general use of proceeds for this. These amounts should be a part of the agency’s 2022 capital budget.

The current public health crisis exposes the weaknesses of the TTC’s business model with its reliance on farebox revenues, which have declined due to significant decreases in ridership. Essential workers like Martina relied on the service to keep the city going during its stay-at-home orders. We owe it to essential workers like her and those returning to their regular in-person routines to invest in the service. The pandemic presents an opportunity for the agency to be less reactive and more proactive in re-thinking its business model. We call on the TTC to implement these recommendations and for the public to ask the agency to do so.

Faizan Ahmed, Ozora Amin, Austin Devaraj, Sherwin Lau, Devan Moura and Jean-François Obregón Murillo

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