This article was originally published in the 2020 Summer digital issue of Invest In Style Magazine.
The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is the major conduit for providing commuter convenience. It is also the embodiment of Toronto’s values: a place where people from all walks of life gather to descend upon the city’s eclectic streets, explore some of the world’s best restaurants, work in some of the world’s most imposing towers and live in the world’s most varied neighbourhoods. But COVID-19 has hurt and continues to threaten this bastion of Toronto’s values, not to mention the mobility, convenience and environmental consciousness that comes with a robust public transit system.
When COVID-19 struck, the city continued to run the TTC. It had to. Many Torontonians, especially the elderly and those who are economically stressed or have mobility issues, rely upon public transit to get to work, to access food and healthcare and to care for sick or elderly family and friends. Despite the strong need for the TTC, the restrictions needed to ensure social distancing and the concern we felt for our health resulted in a decline in ridership by 86%. This decline equalled $20 million per week in lost revenue, making the service cost prohibitive.
The logical solutions that any private business would employ to avoid bankruptcy would be to cut service and hike up fares. These solutions are a non-starter for public service providers because doing so would hurt the very people who need it most – the poor and elderly who cannot afford a car, who don’t live close to subway lines and/or who cannot afford expensive ride share services that require a smartphone. In fact, a recent study conducted by the University of Toronto concluded that a reduction in TTC services would negatively affect the most marginalized of our population, not to mention other studies which prove a variety of other financial and environmental benefits derived from maintaining a robust public transit system: properties close to high-frequency transit are 42% more valuable which reaps greater tax revenues for cities; public transit reduces 865,000,000 hours of travel time and reduces the use of 450,000,000 gallons of gas; and taking public transit reduces exposure to noxious fumes.
To encourage ridership, the TTC is handing out free Presto cards this summer. But this, according to a University of Toronto study, will not encourage the return of old TTC riding habits. Rather, the solution is more expensive and more difficult to manage – personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks and gloves, for all commuters and enforcing strict limits on riders per vehicle. Another misguided solution would be to partner with or simply force Torontonians to rely upon privately run companies such as Lyft, Uber and Uber Pool, to fill in the gaps of the public system. Just ask Ford Motor Company why this wouldn’t work. Ford invested in the now defunct Chariot, an app-based shuttle service that intended to fill in the gaps of the public transit system, only to learn that one simply cannot make a profit providing service to places that public transit does (i.e., low ridership areas) and competing with other options such as walking, driving or cycling. As such, private companies may start with good intentions, but will likely end with pulling unprofitable routes and hiking fares, leaving riders in the lurch. Private partnerships with companies that have ubiquitous reach, such as Uber, are also precarious because they’re not stable. Uber, for example, faces various political-legal issues, and it continues to burn through millions without making a profit. It’s clear the TTC faces a crippling paradox – it cannot afford to function as it has and it cannot afford to not function as it has – with no credible solution.
Given the complexity of creating a viable transit system that is accessible both physically and financially, I have very little by way of viable solutions except for an appeal to our federal government to provide public transit riders with PPE and to fill in the financial losses of our public transit systems until the world has shaken off this virus. If we let public transit fail, we will also fail our biggest cities– which is risky given that our cities kick off significant tax revenue due to their comparatively higher real estate values and because heavy-hitting companies that sell to and employ Canadians, establish themselves in major cities. The TTC is simply too big to fail.