COVID-19 Delays Overcrowding Transit Equity

Letter to TTC Board – September 2021

Founded in March 2019, A Voice for Transit is led by Ryerson University and University of Toronto students and alumni. We take an evidence-based approach to addressing delays,overcrowding and transit inequity on Toronto’s transit systems like the GO and TTC. On August 30, 2021, we released our second report entitled “Taking the TTC during COVID-19” where we interviewed six essential workers, who were also regular TTC riders during the pandemic. This letter is relevant to the Agenda Item on September 15, 2021 for “Chief Executive Officer’s Report – September 2021 (For Information)” (CEO’s Report – September 2021).

We had six themes that we categorized riders’ concerns under: experience, cleanliness, overcrowding, immunocompromised, safety and emptiness. (Figure 1) The top concerns voiced by our interviewees were regarding: experience, cleanliness and overcrowding. Our comments are regarding the Ridership, On-Time-Performance Bus, Customer Experience and Hot Topics sections of the CEO’s Report – September 2021. We interviewed these individuals in May 2021.

Figure 1: Infographic from A Voice for Transit’s Taking the TTC During COVID-19 report

Credit: Sherwin Lau

Ridership & On-Time-Performance – Bus

According to pp. 7, 10-11 of the CEO’s Report – September 2021, ridership is expected to increase with the return to school and workplaces (in a hybrid fashion), riders voiced concerns about crowding on vehicles. A resident in East Scarborough told us the following: “Shuttle buses are another horrible story because you’re trying to get where you’re trying to go and the shuttle buses are more crowded than the regular busses.” This same participant says:  “My concern is simply vaccines are going out. More people who are working from home will maybe start to work in person again…Our buses will be more crowded, like, more crowded than they already are, which is unbelievable.”

To address this, there is academic literature that would be useful for the TTC regarding crowding and on-time performance on busses. TTC officials may consider implementing bus service variations that serve only a subset of stops by using short-turns or express routes, for instance. Gkiotsalits and Cats (2021) developed a model optimizing trade-offs between passenger and operational costs while accounting for reduced vehicle capacity and revenue losses. (1) TTC busses can skip certain stations or stops when they become overcrowded utilizing real-time data on passenger loads at the station or vehicle levels, helping to ensure service regularity and reducing delay risks. Overall, these ideas can help the TTC address delays and improve On-Time-Performance for Busses.

Customer Experience

The CEO’s Report – September 2021 states concerns regarding customer experience on Pages 15,16, 29, and 30 regarding crowding and mask usage. We heard from participants citing issues with enforcement of crowding on vehicles and mask usage. Multiple participants who took the TTC regularly brought up in our interviews that they have not seen a bus or streetcar driver decline service or prevent anyone not wearing a mask from entering. One participant noted: “In 2020, people would limit buses to 10 people before they waited for the next bus. People have become exhausted so the bus is always crowded now.” This is not to say that TTC employees do not ask customers to wear their masks properly – members of our team have seen these reminders occur. However, riders’ comments underscore the concern that customers have of the role employees can play in asking all customers to follow the rules.

Ventilation

We would like to know what priority exists for funding ventilation upgrades on the subway and bus platforms. Given the airborne transmission of COVID-19, opportunities exist for the TTC to mitigate this risk by investing in improved HVAC systems. We are concerned about the amount of time it has taken for the issue of subway air quality to be studied and to be prioritized by the TTC since it was initially tabled in May 2017. The Toronto Public Health study looked at short and potential long-term impacts of fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) on the subway, which have been linked to cardiovascular and respiratory risks. (2) Those with cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses are particularly sensitive to PM2.5. (3) 

At its December 2020 board meeting, the TTC board adopted the staff recommended 15-Year Capital  Investment Plan and 2019-2028 Capital Budget, which included $32 million for upgraded subway/bus platform air ventilation. (4) It is unclear how much of a priority this is for the agency and whether funding has been committed for this or not. We recommend that this capital cost should be prioritized on wishlists for the federal government. 

An alternative solution we have recommended in our report is to use City of Toronto bond proceeds to fund the capital expenses associated with HVAC/ventilation upgrades. This fits within the City of Toronto Act, which prohibits borrowing for operating expenses. We propose that the TTC request having the City dedicated general use of proceeds for funding these upgrades. These amounts should be a part of the agency’s 2022 capital budget.

We recognize the work and efforts made by TTC staff to address issues that have emerged as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our report provides on-the-ground insights from regular riders during the pandemic, which are valuable for the agency to take into account in its decision-making. While the current situation has its challenges, we also believe it provides an opportunity for the agency to boldly re-think how it operates and treats riders’ concerns.

Thank you for accepting our letter and considering its contents.

Sincerely,

Jean-François Obregón

Executive Director & Co-Founder

Sherwin Lau

Co-Founder and Director of Fundraising

1 Konstantinos Gkiotsalitis & Oded Cats (2021) Public transport planning adaption under the COVID-19 pandemic crisis: literature review of research needs and directions, DOI: 10.1080/01441647.2020.1857886

2 Toronto Medical Officer of Health . (2019). Subway Health Impacts Study HL13.8. Toronto: City of Toronto.https://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2020/hl/bgrd/backgroundfile-141357.pdf 

3 Ibid.

4 TTC Chief Financial Officer . (2019). TTC 15-Year Capital Investment Plan & 2019-2028 Capital Budget & Plan . Toronto: TTC Board. https://www.ttc.ca/About_the_TTC/Commission_reports_and_information/Commission_meetings/2019/January_24/Reports/10_TTC_15_Year_CIP_2019_2028_Capital_Budget.pdf 

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