Colours of the TTC

Vinson Zhang
Jul 8 · 7 min read
By Donna Lay via Unsplash

The familiar rattle of the bus driving on splintered roads is all that punctuates the cabin. The vehicle is mostly empty, save for the few passengers quietly making their way across the city. A quick glance around reveals a trend that shatters Toronto’s mirage of boundless diversity. Most of the passengers on that bus were people of colour. White people make up half of Toronto’s population,¹ so their marked lack of representation on the bus pointed to something bigger. Of course, to make sweeping generalizations about the racial mosaic of Toronto from two anecdotes taken in the dead of night would be irresponsible. However, the collection of census data and research studies create an equally grim outlook: in a divided Toronto, more must be done to support the poorer and often racialized communities that need transit most.

We Torontonians pride ourselves on the diversity of our city, and for good reason. Toronto is home to over two hundred distinct ethnic groups, with hundreds of languages other than English being spoken within its bounds.² But observing our perceived diversity on a city-wide scale obscures the finer details within our borders. Instead of being a cosmopolitan soup of people from around the world, our city looks a lot more like granola — clumps of ethnicities separated into geographically separate communities. Perhaps the most granular visualization of this is a dot map created by Jeff Clark.³ It pulls data from Canada’s 2011 census and represents each person as a coloured dot based on their reported race.

Dot map created by Jeff Clark.

The patterns are striking. White people are most densely clustered in an inverted “T” along Yonge Street and the waterfront. The greatest concentrations of visible minorities are in the outer boroughs: Black Torontonians in the northwest around Humber River and Weston, and an Asian concentration around northern Scarborough. These patterns closely resemble the structure of Toronto’s wealth distribution, illustrated by the second map. The blocks of wealth along Yonge Street and the waterfront give way to lower-income swathes further out.

Image obtained from The Star⁴

Although it is incorrect to assume that every person of colour struggles financially, to ignore the past and present impacts of race on wealth creation would be to extinguish any hope of meaningful reform. According to the 2019/20 Vital Signs report for Toronto, the average income of white residents has increased over sixty percent in the past thirty-five years, compared to just one percent for racialized populations.⁵ Worse still, nearly half of all newcomer children in the city are classified as “low income,” which in Toronto, equates to $44 266 for a four-person household.⁶

The reasons behind such glaring disparities are extensive, interconnected, and difficult to reverse. But on a surface level, it is not difficult to see where problems begin to arise. A newcomer family, settling in present-day Toronto, is faced with an oppressively hot housing market, with stratospheric prices making homeownership a privilege exclusive to the wealthiest citizens. Since 2004, housing prices have increased over three hundred percent in some areas,⁷ and not even a pandemic could rein in this pressure cooker system. Mix in the discrimination that many renters and buyers of colour face and you have yourself a cocktail of wealth inequity.

A disappointing manifestation of this wealth and racial inequity is visible in the Toronto transit system. Transit is largely clustered in the whiter, richer Old Toronto, with an abundance of higher-order transit (light rail, subways, GO Transit, etc.). The more racialized and often poorer suburbs, including North York, northern Etobicoke, and Scarborough are largely left with buses to serve their transit needs. And as far as the transit preference hierarchy goes, buses rank at the very bottom. In these suburbs, a systemic lack of higher-order transit has created areas with a high population of transit-dependent residents, but a lack of adequate transit infrastructure to serve them, known as “transit deserts”.⁸ Research from the Martin Prosperity Institute showed that Scarborough’s transit access was three times worse compared to the city average.⁹ But for many residents, it’s the only option — a lifeline no matter how bad it gets.

For captive transit riders (riders who due to mobility impairments, age, or cost, rely on transit as their sole means of mobility) in transit deserts, a commute may entail an arduous journey involving numerous transfers. Many of us are familiar with crossing eight-lane mega roads with cars travelling at 401-esque speeds and waiting at a windswept bus stop for a vehicle that may never come. The negative impacts caused by poor transit are multifold. With commute times in northeast and northwest corners of the city approaching three hours daily, such commuting patterns are becoming untenable for families with other commitments such as childcare or a second job. The same study from the Martin Prosperity Institute showed that poor transit connectivity disproportionately affects low-income women, cutting off access to jobs, social services, and recreation.

Good transit has been proven time and time again to be instrumental to upward mobility and the fight against poverty. By providing people with access to the city, they are able to seek out better employment prospects and receive the services they require. What’s more, robust transit infrastructure such as light rail, bus rapid transit (BRT), and subways have been shown to drive local investment into new housing and commercial ventures. Developers are comforted by the permanency of transit infrastructure. We’ve seen this in York Region where new subways and BRTs have caused explosive growth. Given the potential benefits, it is clear that areas such as Scarborough are long overdue for transit expansion.

So, why hasn’t it happened? In part, the sprawl of Toronto’s suburbs makes it infeasible to achieve the same density of high-order transit as seen in the downtown core. However, the less-than-optimal layout of these communities does not absolve the TTC of its responsibility to serve these communities. More must be done to improve service levels and expand access in such communities. Since the Scarborough Rapid Transit (SRT) line opened in 1985, there has not been any higher-order transit expansion in the entire borough. Nearly forty years later, the SRT is approaching the end of its lifespan and being held together with nothing more than prayers from City Council. During this time, the TTC has tossed around transit plan after transit plan like a hot potato — a one-stop extension here, a three-stop extension there, and so forth ad nauseam. With time running out for the failing SRT, politicians are faced with three options,¹⁰ each more disappointing than the last.

  1. Spend half a billion dollars refurbishing the SRT to squeeze a couple more years of life, before replacing it all with existing buses.
  2. Replace it all with existing buses immediately.
  3. Replace it all with new buses.

The first option would be throwing money into a fire. The second would further deplete service in the mostly bus-served suburbs. The last would incur a significant cost and still leave Scarborough residents without any higher-order transit whatsoever. In short, the borough loses no matter which option you pick. This, after forty years of forewarning.

What this unfortunate fiasco illustrates is that for whatever reason, the TTC and provincial government have not provided quality transit where it is needed the most. By neglecting an entire borough, and one that is home to a comparatively disadvantaged population no less, the TTC inadvertently perpetuates a divide that prevents Toronto from being truly diverse and equitable for all.

There are solutions being piloted for areas like Scarborough. As part of the RapidTO project, bus-only lanes were painted on major routes which aim to speed up buses and create a service similar to dedicated light rail. Discussions are also underway to extend Line 4 (the Sheppard subway) with light rail to complement the Eglinton Crosstown. While these improvements may be a breath of fresh air for east-end commuters, they do not solve Scarborough’s transit woes. You can help by voicing your concerns to those at the helm of Toronto’s transit bureaucracy. Phone or write letters to your city councillor, attend deputations at City Hall or reach out to advocacy groups like TTCRiders. It is only by raising our voice that the TTC and provincial legislature may hear our concerns. Until significant investment is made to bolster transit in the most underserved communities, the TTC will remain “the better way” for none but a select few. ∎

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