Access to public transportation in Toronto has long been inequitable. Low-income, Black and other racialized populations, older adults, women and newcomers are among those who rely on public transit the most to connect them with their places of work and education, health services, recreational and cultural activities and friends and family. Yet they face significant barriers to transit due to infrequent service, unaffordable fares and a lack of conveniently accessible transit stops.
Improving access to transit by ensuring equity in transit service and affordability is critical for individual and community health and well-being.
Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow recently announced that service cuts to the TTC would, in part, be rolled back to pre-pandemic levels. While this is a good first step that will improve access in some areas, many people living in Toronto’s inner suburbs continue to face longer commutes due to a low number of transit stops and less frequent service. These areas are largely home to low-income people in precarious employment, Black and other racialized people and newcomers who often do not have the resources or means to own or access private transportation such as cars.
Prior to the pandemic, disparities in service levels across Toronto were evident through long wait times and overcrowding on certain TTC routes going through low-income and Black and other racialized neighbourhoods. During the emergency phase of the pandemic, these issues were highlighted when transit ridership fell in the downtown core, yet overcrowding remained an issue on some bus routes used by lower-income, essential workers who did not have the ability to follow public health guidance and maintain a safe level of physical distancing or work from home. These groups consistently had a much higher rate of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
Despite the abandonment of most COVID-19 public health measures, low-income, Black and other equity-deserving groups continue to have a greater risk of becoming sick and contracting COVID-19 as well as developing long COVID. Poor access to public transit also heightens commute-related stress and reduces people’s ability to access health-promoting resources and services and participate in their communities.
Ensuring sufficient and reliable service in high-risk areas is essential for minimizing health disparities.
Affordability is another key issue impacting the ability of people to use public transit. In April 2023, a 10-cent fare increase was announced to help offset revenue losses due to falling ridership. This will result in difficult choices from some people between paying the fare or paying for other necessary costs such as food.
The decision to move away from tokens and cash fares in favour of the digital PRESTO system poses further barriers for those most marginalized. Research shows these cashless payment methods can isolate those who are not connected to a bank and those who struggle with digital literacy, including the lowest-income populations, older adults and newcomers.
While cash payments continue to be allowed, they are five cents more expensive per ride than PRESTO fares and require paper transfers as proof of payment to fare inspectors. This increases the risk of being fined for fare evasion.
The TTC currently relies heavily on passenger fares for funding, generally accounting for about 60 per cent of the annual TTC budget. This is significantly higher than comparable North American cities. Over the years, this has led to more frequent fare hikes and increased efforts to catch and fine fare evaders.
While the TTC temporarily suspended fare enforcement in favour of educating riders during the pandemic, it has now resumed ticketing for fare evasion to capture lost revenue. Data shows that racialized riders, particularly those who are Black and Indigenous, are over-represented in transit enforcement incidents. This resulted in the development of an Anti-Racism Strategy to combat reports of racial profiling and anti-Black racism by fare enforcement officers.
During a time when the cost of living has skyrocketed and many are struggling to meet their basic needs, service cuts, fare increases and fare enforcement are not the answer. Access to good and affordable public transit is important for improving health and health equity.
In the short- and medium-term, the City of Toronto must prioritize increasing service levels in high-priority areas to address wait times and overcrowding, significantly expanding the Fair Pass Transit Discount Program, and identifying options for new revenue streams to support municipal transit operating costs. They can immediately work towards implementing actions in the Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy that aim to make transit more affordable for low-income residents, including evaluating a demand model that includes fare-geared-to-income criteria.
Although public transit in Toronto is largely the responsibility of the municipal and provincial government, the federal government has played a large role in providing and advancing sustainable practices, such as fleet electrification.
Long-term solutions will require that each level of government commit to paying its share of sustainable and adequate funding towards operational costs and the expansion of public transit infrastructure in underserved transit areas.
Ongoing collaboration between the federal and provincial government, the city and other municipalities, transit agencies and community members is needed to ensure that the funding is being equitably distributed and used to deliver reliable and affordable service to those most in need.