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Fighting for transit in a world on fire

An interview with advocacy group TTCriders about transit organizing in Toronto and beyond

Canadian PoliticsEnvironmentSocial Movements

Vincent Puhakka, a supporter of the transit advocacy group TTCriders, canvassing commuters at Warden Station, calling for better funding of the TTC. Photo by Justin Greaves/Metroland.

Canadian leaders have been flaunting their climate plans in the lead-up to COP26, proudly boasting of policies like higher carbon pricing, clean energy standards, subsidizing electric vehicles, banning the sale of gas-powered automobiles, and caps on oil and gas emissions.

There are several glaring and interlinked problems with these plans: there is little apparent sense of urgency, with such half-measures to be implemented over the course of many years, if not decades. What’s more, new fossil fuel infrastructure like the Coastal GasLink pipeline-LNG Canada export facility-Site C dam nexus and the nationalized Trans Mountain Expansion remain untouched; industry buzzwords like “net-zero emissions” hinge on technological moonshots like carbon capture and storage (CCS) that prop up fossil fuel production; and the proposed transition is capitalist to the core, with no public ownership in sight (other than what subsidizes fossil capital).

These major issues have been well-documented and organized against by Indigenous land and water defenders and by climate justice organizations.

But as usual, these supposedly progressive climate plans fail to even acknowledge the ongoing collapse of public transit systems throughout the country, and the conditions that have been long present due to government austerity and privatization but greatly worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At last count, transit ridership in Canada is only 40 percent of what it was pre-pandemic, an unprecedented decline that has resulted in a huge loss of fare revenue and, in turn, service cuts and layoffs (these already dire circumstances may worsen still with implementation of vaccine mandates in some cities).

This collapse of transit service matters for many reasons including economic and racial justice, accessibility for people with disabilities, and unionized labour. It’s also a major climate issue, with high-quality transit greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. In contrast, poor transit means that even more people opt to drive personal automobiles, further increasing the burning of gasoline and diesel and entrenching built infrastructure like ring roads and highways. Politicians are knowingly abandoning one of the most important and immediately deployable climate solutions on the table.

Conditions are dire, but transit riders and workers continue to fight for change. Canadian Dimension spoke with two organizers with TTCriders—a grassroots, membership-based advocacy group in Toronto—about their current campaigns, organizing during the pandemic, the relationship between transit politics and climate justice, and advice for people who want to get involved in transit organizing in their own communities.

Canadian Dimension: What’s your involvement in TTCriders and why do you care about public transit?

Shelagh Pizey-Allen (SPA): I’m Shelagh Pizey-Allen and I coordinate TTCriders. I think public transit matters because it unlocks our ability to access everything: other public services, school, getting to work—and it’s a climate solution.

Derek Song (DS): I’m Derek Song. I’m a high school student and joined TTCriders back in July. I think transit is a real need for lower-income, marginalized, and racialized people to rely on to get to school and to get to work. We need to fund transit to solve the underlying problem of climate change.

I joined TTCriders in July 2021, just because I found out about it on the internet. For myself, I was passionate about transit and love the TTC: it’s a great transit system compared to the United States, but compared to Europe and Asia we could do much better. I mainly host and plan outreaches and hosted my first campaign committee meeting back in October—it was a great success. Friends who rely on transit to go downtown, to volunteer, or travel to their workplaces have been a huge help on that front.

CD: What is TTCriders focusing on these days?

DS: TTCriders is a voice for public transit around Toronto. One of the two campaigns we’ve been focusing on in the past year is the Scarborough Rapid Transit (SRT) campaign. The SRT is a transit line similar to the Vancouver SkyTrain, but really small by comparison, and it’s been using the same trains from the 1980s. It’s falling apart. The TTC plans to close it down in two years and replace it with the Bloor–Danforth extension. But that’s going to result in shuttle buses for the next seven years because the subway extension won’t open until 2030 at the earliest. That will be chaotic to every Scarborough resident who relies on transit to go to the downtown and might not be able to afford to take the GO Transit line. It will result in longer transit commute times, long transfers, and will be more chaotic in general.

The other campaign we’ve been focusing on is the fare campaign. Because of the pandemic, the TTC has lost a lot of fare revenue. We think they will propose increasing the fares to make up for the shortfall. But the pandemic has led to a lot of people losing their jobs and incomes, and increasing the fares will result in a lot of people becoming poorer, forcing them to skip meals. The thing is, however, the three tiers of government can easily fund the TTC and drive it to success, resulting in more people being able to eat food because they don’t have to factor in the cost of TTC.

It’s been a really hectic year but we’ve been getting a lot of things done.

SPA: Like Derek said, we are worried about fare increases because of the funding crisis—but because the TTC is creating a 5-Year Fare Policy, we have a chance to put bold changes on the table. We need to lower fares to win back transit riders, and other cities are doing it. Derek’s been involved in organizing high school students and meeting with school board trustees: they will be debating a motion this week about expressing their support for free transit for high school students and submitting that recommendation to the TTC as they create this fare plan.

Like Derek mentioned, the Scarborough RT is really an explosive issue. For people who don’t live in Toronto, this line was opened in 1985 and it’s the only rapid transit in Scarborough, which is a highly racialized area of Toronto. But it’s really underinvested in. Around 35,000 people take the RT every day. When TTC first announced in February that the RT would close in 2023, they hadn’t proposed any solution except on-street shuttle buses for those seven years. We mobilized hundreds of people to take action and convinced the TTC Board to direct staff to look at reusing the corridor for bus rapid transit. And lo and behold, it’s actually technically possible. So we are close to a victory there, which is really exciting. Derek and others have been surveying community members all summer about what they want to see when the RT closes, which is really important work. About half of the people we talk to don’t know it’s shutting down. Of course, one reason we’re in this situation is that Rob Ford scrapped plans for a light rail transit network in Scarborough that would have been up and running today, including an RT replacement.

The other issue is paratransit changes that are coming. We don’t know yet to what extent this will affect agencies all across Ontario but there’s legislation called AODA—the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act—and more people will become eligible for paratransit. That’s good news. But instead of providing more funding to paratransit to expand service, the TTC is screening out current users from full door-to-door service. And they may re-register up to 50 percent of people and screen them out of full door-to-door service.

Of course, the most urgent issue right now is operating funding to keep transit moving. Our goal is to change the whole transit funding model and see ongoing support for federal and provincial governments.

TTCRiders is a grassroots, membership-based advocacy group in Toronto. It was founded in 2010 by a coalition of organizations, including the Toronto Environmental Alliance, Social Planning Toronto, Toronto & York Region Labour Council, ACORN, and the Canadian Federation of Students. Photo courtesy Progress Toronto.

CD: How has that particular struggle been going? It’s involved a cross-Canadian coalition of transit organizations pushing for this collective demand.

SPA: That’s right, and there are other organizations that support seeing an extension of federal operating support too like the Canadian Urban Transit Association and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). TTCriders has organized with a coalition called the Keep Transit Moving coalition: we have transit groups, environmental groups, and transit workers across Canada. We organized a debate with federal candidates and the mayor of Toronto also included ongoing transit funding as a key demand for federal party leaders. But commitments weren’t made by the Liberal Party before the election. As they’re preparing for their budget, that’s really our key priority: to see transit operating funding extended as soon as possible. That initial emergency Safe Restart Agreement funding has now expired and so municipalities across Canada are in trouble because ridership has not recovered and the funding model was broken to begin with and relied too much on rider fares. Without operations funding extended, we could see dramatic service reductions and fare increases, and that creates a vicious downward spiral of ridership decline.

CD: What are the logistics or strategies of organizing in the second year of COVID-19? How have outreach efforts been going?

DS: We’ve followed safety protocols of wearing masks and getting vaccinated. We’ve hosted a lot of events at intersections and outdoors, so we can both outreach and prevent the spread of COVID-19. We need to fund transit so that people can get to work effectively and safely without getting COVID and feeling unsafe. I’ve seen a lot of photos and I’ve experienced it myself where a bus is packed because they’re not running enough buses or shuttle buses don’t carry enough people. The TTC needs to improve on that and get more buses and better planning to ensure that Torontonians get the safe transit they deserve. On the note of bus planning, we need to improve planning between other transit agencies. I have a friend who works near Richmond Hill and he needs to take various TTC and YRT buses, forcing him to dedicate $5 per trip to get to work. The YRT bus also comes infrequently, forcing him to plan for that inconvenience. We need more fare integration and bus planning in both the TTC and YRT to ensure cheaper and frequent trips.

SPA: Derek has been doing amazing work organizing other high school students. One of the outcomes of that is that high school students are going to be speaking at an online school board meeting next week. We also created a report with fare policy recommendations as the TTC creates its long-term plan. We trained dozens of volunteer facilitators to have conversations one-on-one or in small groups—we called them “transit story circles”—and we talked to over 300 people online in multiple languages about the changes that they wanted to see. This collective process of setting demands has brought new people into our organizing.

Another cool thing we did last year was set-up a transit organizer school, modeled on the Workers Action Center’s “Feet On the Ground” training, where 10 organizers in inner suburban neighbourhoods participated in six months of training and organizing in their own communities and own languages. We’ve been able to do a lot of events online but that’s created some barriers to participation, and like Derek said, we’ve been doing more outreach events and some actions in person at transit stops which is really nice. We’re always trying to experiment with ways to connect with transit riders and bring more people into our movement. We’ve just launched a book club and Derek has created a Discord server.

Buses parked at the Toronto Transit Commision’s Queensway Garage. Photo by Boris T/Flickr.

CD: We’re coming up on this global climate summit, which a lot of people probably don’t have a ton of expectation of, unfortunately. How do you see transit organizing intersecting with climate justice movements?

DS: Transit is essential for beating climate change. Consider a bus that carries 30 people, on average. If that bus didn’t exist, there would be 30 people in cars: polluting, making traffic, and hindering our progress on climate change. With those 30 cars, there would have to be built infrastructure like highways and roads that will create greenhouse gases. When you take the bus, and update that to a train, that provides cheaper, more economical, and greener transit and ways to get around.

But when you do transit wrong, that hinders climate change. Consider the Bloomington GO station. It was built in the middle of nowhere. It features a big concrete parking lot that fits 300 cars but only provides service six times a day, which is not great. The nearest residential zone is a high-class area where you need a car to go anywhere. That’s a way that city planners can hinder progress on climate change because you still need a car to get anywhere. It wastes a lot of money and materials that could have been used to fund transit in Scarborough and Etobicoke, which are highly marginalized and low-income neighbourhoods. I can’t go from one side of Scarborough to the other side of Scarborough without taking like five buses: it’s ridiculous, honestly.

SPA: Electric vehicles are not the answer to solving climate change. The same is true of electric buses. It’s really about will there be enough bus service. When transit isn’t frequent enough and isn’t prioritized on streets so it’s reliable, it’s just not an option for people to take. We really need a massive expansion of public transit that everyone can afford to ride, that takes people where they need to go, and is frequent and reliable for people to shift away from private vehicles. That’s why it’s such an important part of the fight against climate change. That’s true of intercity bus service as well.

CD: What recommendations or advice would you have for people who want to get involved in transit organizing?

DS: Join a transit organization. Work with others, like high school students, marginalized communities, low-income workers who depend on transit the most, as opposed to businesspeople who take their cars everywhere. Host events, engage with people, and ask them why we should fund transit because transit is a really effective way to fight climate change. Any change is a change. When I was volunteering, I got asked a lot of questions about why I was doing this and whether a petition would do anything. Consider it like running—running a kilometer is far better than doing nothing. Likewise, anything is better than nothing and a petition could actually influence decisions and funding. It’s really beneficial to engage people on transit issues.

SPA: It’s thinking about who uses transit in your city. It could be high school students, or healthcare workers. When you bring people together who have an interest in improving and expanding transit, you can build a really powerful and broad coalition. Derek spoke about which transit users to prioritize. One of our values at TTCriders is to prioritize improvements for people who depend on transit the most and people who are racialized, disabled, or low-income. Not everyone has the same access to transit in our cities and it’s a racial justice and equity issue.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.


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