Cuts to public transit will have dire consequences on health outcomes and discourage transit ridership across the city. Those without options will risk becoming sick on crowded buses, while others will face additional barriers in accessing necessary services.
Access to affordable, accessible, and reliable public transportation is critical for the good health of individuals and communities. The cuts to TTC services listed in the new budget will decrease the frequency of services and increase crowding in already underserved areas. This will have a disproportionate impact on the health of women as well as low income, racialized, and newcomer populations. An urgent health equity impact assessment of the proposals is needed along with the development of a mitigation strategy to ensure that the cuts do not lead to further health inequities.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) depend on public transit to connect them to their places of work and education, to their families and friends, and to services and supports. It provides social, health, and environmental benefits and is fundamental to building strong communities.
Evidence shows that members of structurally disadvantaged groups – including low-income and racialized residents—make up a large proportion of public transit riders in Toronto. The availability of public transit can improve social equity by improving the ability of people to access health care, food, recreation, education, and employment.
Wellesley Institute’s Thriving in the City for Families framework for income and health estimated in 2018 that a family of four in the GTA spends between $11,706 to $16,099 on transportation per year, depending on the number of vehicles and location. These numbers are certain to be even higher now when adjusted for inflation. A good public transit system would eliminate the need to own a car for many low-income households and decrease living costs associated with transportation. This would move people closer to a thriving wage and allow them to direct more resources to health-promoting costs like nutritious food and social and recreational activities.
Decreasing the reliance on cars by ensuring a reliable and affordable public transit system will also mitigate adverse effects of climate change by potentially reducing traffic-related air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The risks of climate change disproportionately affect low-income, racialized, and other marginalized communities. Further, air pollution is strongly associated with numerous health problems including the incidence and severity of asthma, impaired lung function, and cardiovascular diseases.
Older people, young children, and those with pre-existing health conditions are particularly vulnerable to pollution-relation health challenges. Marginalized groups are also disproportionately suffer from pre-existing conditions and have increased health risks due to having poorer social determinants of health. Good public transit has the potential to reduce hospital visits, premature deaths, and the incidence of chronic diseases by decreasing air pollution and the stress associated with travelling.
Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic further demonstrated the importance of public transit for some of the city’s most essential workers—who are disproportionately low-income, racialized women, and newcomers. While others were able to follow public health guidelines and stay home to avoid infection, essential workers endured long commutes on overcrowded buses despite provincial guidance to maintain appropriate physical distancing.
The City of Toronto’s proposed 2023 operating budget sets out a 10 per cent fare hike for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) along with service cuts that will bring overall service levels to 9 per cent below what they were pre-pandemic.
These cuts will not be equally felt across the city. They will likely result in reduced service in already underserved neighbourhoods, longer wait times during off-peak hours, and overcrowding – all for a higher cost. A lack of attention to equity in the proposed budget seeks to further marginalize equity-deserving communities and exacerbate structural barriers that limit their opportunities and ability to participate in society.
This will particularly impact residents living in predominately racialized and low-income neighbourhoods which bore the brunt of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Although society is transitioning out of the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic the lapsing of public health measures and increasing return to in-person work and events means the risk of contracting COVID-19—and possible long-term impacts—is far from over.
In addition to service cuts and a fare hike the TTC plans to resume pre-COVID vehicle crowding standards in peak periods and increase them at off-peak periods. These standards were previously suspended over the last two years to allow for more physical distancing. Now, the standards will permit 1100 customers per train, 130 customers per streetcar, and 50 customers per bus during the busiest commuting periods.
Despite this, the TTC’s crowding standards have not always been met. Even prior to the pandemic, data from the city’s transit agency reported that around 25 per cent of TTC bus and streetcar routes exceeded their crowding targets. While the TTC pointed to a lack of resources at the time, concerns about overcrowding have continued, particularly on routes servicing low-income, underserviced neighbourhoods outside of the downtown core.
Less service during off-peak hours will have a profound impact on low-wage workers, who rely on public transit for shift work in industrial employment areas. Analysis shows that bus routes in these areas are clustered in the city’s northwest, the location of many warehouses and processing plants, and run through city-identified “Neighbourhood Improvement Areas,” which face issues including poor access to services and supports and being home to primarily low-income households.
The city must ensure that next year’s budget recognizes the needs of its most marginalized residents. Cuts to public transit will have dire consequences on health outcomes and discourage transit ridership across the city. Those without options will risk becoming sick on crowded buses, while others will face additional barriers in accessing necessary services. Council should explore in-year funding to address this issue, and provincial and federal levels of government should step in to improve transit service and address equity.
We also urge the city to immediately conduct a Health Equity Impact Assessment on the health impacts of this year’s budget in all areas, including transit, to ensure that they will not worsen health, social, and economic inequities. Among other actions, investing into improving service for Toronto’s marginalized communities and identifying policies to create an equitable transit system is critical to improve health equity in Toronto.