In the fall of 2021, Thai Dillon Higashihara had been waiting for a streetcar in the East York area of Toronto where he lived. But, despite Higashihara’s long-time transit usage and expertise on trip planning, he had been unaware of the specific service cuts done to transit all over Toronto with this specific street car service being one of many to be discontinued.
With no signage or posted information on the route closure, Higashihara had waited almost an hour at the stop for streetcar service that never came. In the middle of the night, a stranger walking by is who told Higashihara of the discontinued service.
“There was no explanation of why they were doing this, but that they were not servicing that line anymore.” Frustrated, Higashihara says he had to go somewhere else “in a completely different spot, without informing the public.”
As a fourth-year student at the University of Toronto, Higashihara is only one of many who are impacted by the service cuts and poor infrastructure of Canada’s different transit systems.
Many students and low-income citizens depend on transit in their daily lives. But, those who need it most continue to be affected by Canada’s struggle to provide equitable service. Now, experts in the field are saying that COVID-19 is a time where cities could rethink the transit system entirely.
While it may seem like Higashihara’s experience-e was a one-off situation, other affected transit users have voiced similar issues in the transit system structure. Blake Johanson, a long-time transit user in Calgary, also had a similar story to Higashihara with the lack of communication towards closures and delays.
“They [will] communicate if there’s a C-train stop in service, but when it comes to buses there’s no communication at all,” he says.
“I had one time where I was working at Boys and Girls Club, and my bus was supposed to come in 15 minutes, it didn’t come until an hour and a half later, with no communication at all.”
Johanson has also lived and worked in almost all quadrants of Calgary and was able to compare his transit experiences over the years. Having grown up in the community of Falconridge, Johanson grew accustomed to the poor transit service in the northeast of Calgary. But, after moving to the downtown core in his adult years, he noticed the difference in service right away.
“The C-trains routes they have only run through popular areas, [whereas] in-between areas have nothing and no one should have to take a 45 minute bus to get to a C-train station,” he says. “Especially with areas like Falconridge and Forest Lawn.”
Johanson noted that while the lack of service was mostly due to poor bus routes, he also felt there was a lack of care for BIPOC communities.
“[Falconridge] is a community that’s very full of people of colour. Most of the families in my area were immigrants,” he says. “And I feel like that’s also why they don’t see those communities as a priority, either.”
Stories of transit inequities can be found all across North America, however most news reports on the issue have been focused primarily in the United States. For example, an article done in 2020 by the Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research in Houston, looks at how racism has shaped public transit.
The article touches on a specific structure found in most transit systems where there are two types of riders and thus, two types of systems, the “choice” riders who have the privilege to choose transit as an option, and the “dependent” riders who don’t have the luxury of another choice.
“It’s a transit planning and operations strategy,” state the article’s authors, “built around the idea that there are two types of riders, one (assumed to be white) who needs (and deserves) great service because they have a choice, and another (largely Black) who doesn’t need anything beyond the bare minimum. This is obvious in how transit is funded and built. We can see it in infrastructure. We can see it in where cities invest their resources.”
It was also obvious to Higashihara, who now advocates for TTC Riders, a grassroots movement made up of transit users in the Toronto area. He says that an ongoing issue with service in Toronto is the need to expand the service before repairing or improving the service that exists, prioritizing the focus on those dependent riders versus trying to please choice riders.
“There’s an issue where the decision-makers around transit seem to, instead of focusing on fixing and maintaining service, they want to expand it or make unnecessary changes that don’t seem to service anyone.” He also says that because of these decisions, it makes transit feel more like a trend than a genuine service for those who need it most.
“It seems it’s very flashy, and the service is not for everyone. It’s really tailored to specific urban residents that take transit for a little bit, but they have the ability to fill the service gaps with other modes of transportation. This leaves transit users, who need it like front line workers, left with an incomplete service that is often delayed and has huge cuts to it and that’s unreliable, which is wholly unjust.”
Willem Klumpenhouwer, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s analytics lab, looks at data analysis in order to create mapping of transit access. Klumpenhouwer is also a member of Calgarians for Transit, having grown up in Calgary and finished his PhD in transportation engineering at the University of Calgary.
“I think that there is lots of research that shows that there has been, in North America for sure, a sort of systemic [structure],” he says. “The larger decisions that get made, and the overall trends of how transit is designed, has not been focused on improving access for equity deserving groups.”
One of the issues with how transit is set up can be seen by comparing North America’s system to other transit systems in the world, specifically in the UK.
Dominic Tran, a third-year student at the University of Saskatchewan studying Regional Urban Planning, noticed the way systems in North America were built in relation to other systems in Europe. Tran has also been a transit rider for just over 13 years.
“I conduct research in many European cities and they have pretty straightforward transit with the grid line allowing for very good connectivity and transfer and they have really decent frequency,” he says. But it seems like in the U.S. and Canadian cities, they did not consider that.”
Tran says the issue with our systems is that they are built differently, looking at bringing people from the outer areas of the city to the downtown core and vice versa, instead of bringing people from one place to another, regardless of location.
“The routes are not linear. So it’s really hard to commute from one end of the city to another without having to transfer, usually collect[ing] people from a neighborhood and bring[ing] them to downtown,” he says. “They still design transit as if it was in the 1970s or 1980s, where people go to work in downtown and go back to their homes in the suburban areas.”
Klumpenhouwer agrees, noting the same findings in his own studies when comparing systems from Europe to North America.
“So a lot of transportation, not just transit systems, in North America are designed in what we call radially, which is this design to bring people into and out of the downtown and it’s often very peak focused as well.”
Johanson also notices this in his daily commutes with transit in Calgary, having to go inwards towards the city, before being able to come back out, adding hours to his travel time.
“I work ten minutes from where I live now, but it takes an hour and a half to get there by transit,” he says. “And then there’s still a 20 minute walk.”
But, there is more to be done than just looking at the structures of these systems. Another article done by Bloomberg City Lab says that Black Lives Matter protests can show city leaders just how important reprioritizing infrastructure investments for transit are.
According to the article, “More than 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. called urban public transportation ‘a genuine civil rights issue.’ But as the recent wave of protests against racial inequality illustrate, the U.S. has so far failed to address the implications of racist transportation investment and policies.”
This lack of investment is apparent in Canada as well. A map made by Jeff Allen in 2018 looks at access to employment in Canadian cities. Using Mapbox, OpenStreetMap and Statistics Canada, Allen was able to graph the number of jobs reachable within 30, 45, and 60 minute travel times in relation to that area of the city. The map also shows the difference in comparison to using a car or having to take transit.
The data shows that in almost all cases, transit decreases the amount of jobs accessible to you within the 30 and 45 minute travel times, with the internals of cities having the most access and areas such as Falconridge in Calgary being affected the most. Further, a study funded by a group of McGill University and Polytechnique Montreal researchers focused on measuring “the relationship between accessibility and mode choice for low- and higher-income groups in eleven Canadian metropolitan regions.”
The research shows that in cities across Canada, high income earners have better access to better paying jobs than those in low income areas, “illustrat[ing] the effect of segmenting the population into low- and higher income groups.”
The research also shows that when using public transit, the low-income groups are more sensitive to changes in accessibility than those in the higher-income areas. Because of this, policies that would improve the accessibility of those lower-income populations would actually bring about a greater increase in public transport use overall.
One of the co-authors of this paper, Ahmed El-Geneidy, speaks on the constant inequity loop many cities find themselves in terms of fares and ridership percentages, which impacts how accessible transit systems are in Canada.
“We saw that when we take money from the bus operations, and we keep increasing the fares, you go into an infinite loop, where you keep losing ridership,” he says.
El-Geneidy is also currently the Co-editor-in-Chief of the journal Transport Reviews and is serving on the board of directors for the regional public transport authority in Montreal. He is also a professor at McGill University in the School of Urban Planning.
Higashihara would agree, saying that when relying on transit fares as the main source of income for the funding of new infrastructure, it allows for an infinite loop of poor service and angry riders.
“[The problem is that] there’s no permanent funding. So the service cuts and frequent service delays can be really rooted on people not taking transit and that’s only because there’s a downward spiral of people seeing transit as not reliable, so they don’t want to take transit,” he says. “[Then] the TTC will have a loss of income, so they take it out on the transit users by cutting service and that’s a huge issue for me.”
Klumpenhouwer agrees, noting the big questions we should be asking ourselves when we think of how to improve these transit systems.
“There’s this conversation of, is transit supposed to be a business, you know, run a bit like a business, or an efficient service? Is it a utility, or is it something that is vital and needs to be provided?”
While the problems with transit systems include structural inequities and the lack of funds to fix it, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that shone a spotlight on the solution — the possibility to remove fares as the main source of income and push for a more permanent funding solution.
Both researchers and news organizations have addressed COVID-19 as the pause our world needed in order to rethink the way we go about structural changes to transportation systems.
An article from GreenBiz Group says that COVID-19 has helped to reconsider the conversation around transportation structures.
“The COVID-19 crisis has compelled cities all over the world to reconsider — and, in many cases, to reimagine — their previously held ideas about our transportation systems.”
El-Geneidy agrees, saying that he first noticed the possibility for change during the pandemic, due to the extreme decrease in ridership but no change in service.
“After COVID we had a major shift in the way we’re thinking. In the past we were dependent on 30 to 40 percent of the revenues coming [in], from the fares,” he says. “A big part of the fare pays for the operation and then the rest comes from either municipal taxes or provincial taxes.”
But because of the pandemic, many riders stopped using transit altogether. El-Geneidy noticed that instead of stopping transit service altogether, government bodies provided different funding in order to keep the service going for essential workers, something that could have been implemented all along.
“So now what has happened when COVID hit, ridership declined dramatically. So when that major source of revenue declined, provinces had to step in and [the] federal government had to step in. But the main thing is we see a little bit of a shift, that ridership is not the goal anymore, and it shouldn’t be ridership and then we’re seeing transit as an essential service that we have to keep running. It is not just about ridership, it’s about what service we are providing and who we are providing it for.”
This same realization came to the TTC Riders grassroots group in Toronto, where their website states that “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for a new public transit funding model that depends less on the farebox.”
The group also emphasizes the need for increased and stable transit operations funding from all levels of government, while also making transit more affordable.
“I agree [that] the pandemic has exposed weaknesses within the transit system and the glaring needs within the system and where we can start to work to fix that,” says Higashihara. “You can see that it doesn’t have to be tied to ridership so much that frequency can be there despite a lack of ridership and, you know, that I think is something really revealing.”
Klumpenhouwer also noticed how COVID-19 shifted the expectations of transit, noting that equitable transit systems can’t just come from the efforts of one particular city alone, but the need for provincial and federal funding.
“I would hope that you didn’t need a demonstration like COVID to make the point. But in one way or another, it has made that point, which is that there are other ways to fund transit besides fares, or besides just using municipalities resources and that the benefit transit provides on a day to day level is more than just to the city itself.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been the centre of disaster and suffering for our world these past two years, it has also allowed for the reflection of how we ran things prior. Moving forward from this pandemic, the hope is to begin asking important questions around necessary systems, such as public transit in North America, and trying to discover the most equitable ways they can operate.