The Fight to Save Public Transit

COVID-19 has accelerated an already dire transit crisis. Why can’t we make ridership free?

Illustration of a public transit bus on a pedestal. The color scheme is blue, yellow, and orange.

It was 2 a.m. on a cold mid-February night in Edmonton, and Laura Kruse had just finished writing her speech. Eight hours later, she was standing before a press conference assembled at city hall, alongside representatives from a disability advocacy organization and the head of the local transit union, and Free Transit Edmonton officially launched.

“Our goal is simple: good and free transit,” Kruse told the reporters and activists gathered. “We want to stop collecting user fees to subsidize our public transportation system. We want to see public transit funded like our libraries, schools, hospitals, and other public services—open and accepting of all, regardless of their ability to pay. And we want to see our transit service expanded and improved, with a system that is so safe, accessible, and reliable that it is the preferred method of transportation for every Edmontonian.”

The frigid weather didn’t stop members of the new advocacy group from immediately heading out in pairs after the press conference, petition in hand, to gather signatures in support of the campaign. Their demands of city council included eliminating bus fares, improving service, and keeping transit publicly owned and operated—all measures to improve ridership, accessibility, and driver safety. Yet, in a car culture like Alberta’s, it was sure to be an uphill battle.

Transit spending in the province’s capital has flatlined, with the city’s support for the system’s operating budget increasing by only 7.87 percent between 2015 and 2019—barely keeping up with inflation, let alone population growth. Over the same period, fares have crept up to $3.50, and the city recently proposed increasing them to $4 by 2021, which would mean a 25 percent spike since 2015. (Many factors affect transit usage, but a report this year from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute indicates that every fare increase results in fewer riders.)

Meanwhile, the percentage of Edmontonians regularly riding transit is stagnating at 9 percent, according to the CBC, while total ridership—especially on buses—has declined by millions of rides per year. Lack of affordability, reliability, frequency, and accessibility on transit means that private vehicles, including ride-hailing services like Uber, continue to dominate transportation. Meanwhile, bad transit service disproportionately affects riders who are poor, racialized, and/or have mobility limitations. All told, it’s no wonder residents wanted a change.

“It was freezing cold, but we still managed to get 150-plus signatures that first day, when nobody was really out,” recalls Kruse, who missed the first round of petitioning but planned to join her fellow activists on future outings. “I was really excited to hit the streets all summer.”

Then, the following month, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO, radically changing the landscape for transit advocacy, public transit, and pretty much everything else. According to the Canadian Urban Transit Association, ridership plummeted by approximately 80 percent, on average, nationwide, and transit systems lost a combined $400 million per month in fare revenue. In response, transit agencies across the country implemented drastic measures, slashing services and laying off thousands of workers.

At the same time, ideas long dismissed as radical, like fare-free transit, were suddenly mainstreamed in the name of public health. Transit authorities across the country made snap decisions around fare collection and requiring riders to board at the middle or back doors to protect drivers from potential transmission. But, as with so many early pandemic precautions, this was highly ad hoc: some municipalities, prioritizing public health over revenue, did away with fares temporarily, while others implemented various half measures. Winnipeg functionally refused to even acknowledge the concept of fare abolishment, while the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) came under fire for continuing to send around fare-enforcement officers while public health officials were stressing the importance of physical distancing.

In less than a month, the Overton window had dramatically shifted, with all the existing weaknesses of Canadian public transit suddenly in plain view. As a result, the work of groups like Free Transit Edmonton had moved to the foreground of a national conversation. Their challenge will be to keep public focus on the state of transit as we return to some semblance of normalcy, and the possibilities exemplified by this forced, fleeting shift to fare-free transit will be top of mind.

“It’s of the utmost importance that people are organizing now,” says Kruse. “If we’re not consciously thinking about how it is that we’re building power in this moment, we could really see a situation where the city is trying to kill transit entirely.”

The transit crisis triggered by COVID-19, while unprecedented, has been decades in the making. Following the Second World War, Canadian cities were overwhelmingly constructed for the owners of private automobiles and suburban homes. While organized resistance managed to stop some of the most destructive incarnations of American-style road building—such as Toronto’s proposed Spadina Expressway, which would have cleaved the downtown core in two—Canada mirrored many associated shifts, including white flight to the ever-expanding suburbs and the organized abandonment of inner cities.

As it had in the US, the construction of new infrastructure bisecting existing neighbourhoods destroyed and dispossessed many Black and Indigenous communities, including Halifax’s Africville and Winnipeg’s Rooster Town. Road- and highway-focused urban planning increasingly made car ownership a prerequisite for participation in society and public transit a political afterthought. Today, our cities remain car-centric: Toronto shovels billions into repairing the perennially crumbling Gardiner Expressway while, in Alberta, over $1 billion is being spent on the Southwest Calgary Ring Road.

“Calgary is a pretty sprawling city, and it continues to sprawl,” says Romy Garrido, a member of the advocacy group Calgarians for Transit. “For some reason, our city officials think that developing farther out is a good thing. But, in reality, what it does is it spreads our public infrastructure and our public services farther and farther apart and makes them low quality.”

The self-fulfilling prophecy of car culture means that, in cities not designed for public transit, ridership remains woefully low. Canadian transit usage peaks in Toronto, with about 25 percent of the city’s commuters reporting the TTC as their primary mode of transportation in the 2016 census. But, that same year, the national average was less than half that. In 2018, even in the supposed transit utopia of Vancouver, only 17 percent of total trips were taken by transit, while almost half were by car.

Urban transportation is also something of a zero-sum game: every additional car on the road slows down all other modes of transportation, from buses to bikes. Yet, instead of prioritizing transit and active transportation, most governments are content to further incentivize driving by spending huge amounts on roads and highways. This is especially heinous when one considers who depends on public transit—often lower-income, racialized, and disabled people—and the ways in which the deterioration of public transit disproportionately harms these groups. And this is all without even mentioning the damage car culture has wrought on the environment.

While federal and provincial governments often kick in money for big developments in transit infrastructure, like a new subway line, municipalities have to shoulder much of the day-to-day operation of these systems—a responsibility they have steadily downloaded to riders. As a transit system becomes more and more dependent on its riders’ fares to operate, it tends to enforce those fares with increasing militancy.

The policing around transit fares also disproportionately harms racialized people. Last year, an investigation by the Edmonton Journal found that Indigenous people had received 43.8 percent of transit tickets issued by the city’s law enforcement since 2009 despite making up only 6 percent of the city’s population, while a Toronto Star analysis found that Black people, who make up 8.9 percent of the city, received 18.5 percent of transit tickets issued between 2008 and 2018 for which race information was recorded. Vancouver’s dedicated transit police, who are armed, shot and killed an Indigenous man in 2014, tackled and brutally beat another man in 2011, and, in 2013, handed over an undocumented hotel worker to the Canada Border Services Agency. The worker later hanged herself while in government custody.

Despite this, some transit agencies have doubled down on fare enforcement, an effort that has included increasing the number of enforcement officers and, in Toronto, a widely reviled series of TTC ads that essentially accused the entire ridership of fare evasion. At the exact moment when far greater transit usage is needed to confront many interlocking issues—climate change, racial and economic justice, pedestrian and cyclist safety, accessibility for seniors and people with disabilities—cities have chosen to shame and surveil riders rather than invest in improving services and reducing fares.

As the pandemic loomed, transit workers began speaking out about unsafe conditions. In early March, about a dozen cleaners at a TTC streetcar facility refused to work due to concerns that the transit agency wasn’t doing enough to protect them from COVID-19. Though, according to the Toronto Star, some changes were made following the job action—such as hand-washing units being installed at the facility—another stoppage was organized only a month later, on April 15, by thirty-eight Toronto bus drivers incensed by their employer’s failure to provide them with medical-grade masks.

Other cities avoided job action—but that doesn’t mean there weren’t major workplace issues. John Di Nino, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Canada, says that “a lot of agencies fell short” during the pandemic by neglecting to provide personal protective equipment and Plexiglas shields. Worker morale was cratered by the constant fear of getting sick and the apparent indifference of management. In an interview granted on the condition of anonymity, a bus driver for Winnipeg Transit tells me that the city’s transit agency didn’t supply hand sanitizer for workers until weeks into the pandemic and never provided reusable masks as promised. The driver adds that there were even fewer opportunities to wash their hands along their route, as all the usual stops, such as 7/11 or McDonald’s, had closed their bathrooms.

“The anxiety comes from not feeling like I’m being protected by my employer,” the driver says. “Just being left out there to fend for myself, where the responsibility has been passed off to the passengers and the bus drivers, saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to social distance. Oh, you didn’t? Well, that’s your fault.’ At the height of this stuff, that’s where the anxiety came from for me—just not feeling taken care of.”

Across the country, overcrowding is now a constant concern. Despite heavily reduced ridership, hundreds of thousands of people continue to rely on transit for basic necessities. A survey of almost 3,000 frequent riders in Toronto found that, for 43 percent of those who continued to use transit during COVID-19, groceries were the most important destination, followed by pharmacies (18 percent) and friends and family in need of support (15 percent). Of those continuing to ride, 70 percent said that giving up transit would be too expensive, and 55 percent said doing so would mean putting off or rescheduling medical appointments. Mapping conducted by Toronto transit advocate Sean Marshall found that TTC overcrowding was concentrated in the city’s northwest, where many warehouses and factories are located—including industrial bakery Fiera Foods, the subject of a 2017 Toronto Star investigation for its dismal health-and-safety record, where, according to the Star, a worker tested positive for COVID-19 in April.

“We’re all depending on transit right now, even if we’re not using it,” says Shelagh Pizey-Allen, executive director of the Toronto grassroots transit organization TTCriders, “because it’s moving essential workers, personal support workers, nurses, people working in grocery stores.”

The Winnipeg Transit driver describes a new agency rule: if a driver has more than fifteen riders on a standard forty-foot bus (or more than twenty-five riders on an articulated bus), they are to call the control centre and request another bus. “It never, never works,” the driver says. Often, a backup bus never shows up at all, and even if one does, it typically just ends up driving behind the first bus, which remains over capacity. “I’ve driven buses up and down Selkirk Avenue with thirty or forty people on them during all this. That’s not safe for anybody.”

In the survey of frequent TTC riders, 82 percent of those who stopped taking transit during the pandemic said enforcing limits on the number of passengers per vehicle would make them more likely to return. This has been a central paradox of transit during the pandemic: physical distancing requires putting more vehicles into service, which would require greater numbers of workers to drive, maintain, and clean them—but cities are veering in the opposite direction. In mid-May, Toronto mayor John Tory warned of a 50 percent service cut to the TTC, and Edmonton mayor Don Iveson speculated about shutting down transit for the entire summer. Plans for improved service are also being sidelined: Ian Borsuk, who works for climate nonprofit Environment Hamilton, says he fears COVID-19 will worsen the city council’s “culture of cuts” and blunt the effectiveness of its long-anticipated transit-revitalization plan. (In mid-June, Hamilton’s public-works committee recommended delaying the hiring of new drivers and the purchasing of new buses.)

If ridership ever returns to prepandemic levels, it will likely do so slowly. The severe funding losses that transit agencies are facing may deepen as temporary changes, like working or taking classes from home, are extended or even made permanent. Public health advisories warning against transit usage—like the CDC recommendations in favour of biking, walking, or driving—may deter riders from returning. This leaves public transit in an extremely precarious position despite new research indicating that buses and subways aren’t the COVID-19 hotspots some feared.

“Every transit agency is being starved,” says Di Nino. “We’re fearful—and we’ve seen it far too often—that it’s going to result in long-term service cuts, reduced transit across the nation, and municipalities getting out of the transit business.”

The effects of COVID-19 on transit have been unprecedented, enormous, and wide-ranging, but they have also proven one point in particular that transit advocates had been arguing for years. “The funding model for transit, depending on rider fares for the majority of transit operating budgets, wasn’t working before the pandemic,” says Pizey-Allen, referring to the TTC. “Fares were unaffordable and service levels were stagnating. But now it’s so clearly a broken funding model.”

On May 12, over fifty organizations across the country responded to this situation by petitioning the federal government for emergency and permanent transit funding. Later that month, these efforts culminated in a national day of action, under the banner #KeepTransitMoving, to inundate politicians at all levels of government with letters and phone calls. The Canadian Urban Transit Association and Federation of Canadian Municipalities have been calling for $400 million per month in emergency federal funding, while ATU Canada has recommended reallocating $5 billion from the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund—which was meant to be used to build transit infrastructure via public-private partnerships—into funding daily transit operation.

“We cannot worry about building new transit infrastructure if we can’t maintain the current one,” says Di Nino. “What’s the point of building a new bus line or subway line when we can’t even service the riders?”

In early June, shortly after the #KeepTransitMoving push, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the accelerated release of $2.2 billion in gas-tax revenue. However, it could only be used for infrastructure projects and did little to assuage municipalities’ concerns about running transit operations on a daily basis. A few days later, the federal government transferred an additional $14 billion to help provinces and territories “reopen.” This infusion was received more positively, but it still didn’t contain dedicated transit funding, meaning that agencies would have to compete with other city departments also in desperate need of cash.

Failing to salvage public transit would have disastrous downstream effects: greater private-automobile usage would lead to increased air pollution, congestion, and crashes, and what transit services remain would be left open to privatization and fragmentation. It’s a bleak future—and it’s one transit-advocacy groups are working to avoid.

Adrian Crook, a cofounder of Abundant Transit BC, says that the group’s petition for governments to fund transit as an essential service has been signed by nearly 8,000 people, over 1,000 of whom have sent letters to their elected representatives. “It’s been, in a weird way, good for us—but it comes at a really apocalyptic time for transit,” he says. “That’s probably why it’s good: people are motivated to action.”

In mid-July, following months of organizing, the federal government announced up to $1.8 billion in a dedicated bailout for public transit, to be matched by provinces and municipalities. It was a far cry from permanent federal operating funding but was nevertheless welcomed by ATU Canada as a “window of opportunity to increase the safety, affordability, and reliability of public transit.” Last week, Ontario announced that it and the federal government would be allocating up to $2 billion to support transit in the province.

The various reforms sought by Canadian transit organizations are coalescing into a coherent movement. Across the country, groups are calling for public transit to be funded and prioritized like the essential public service it is. As for completely fare-free transit, not every organization is on board, but the idea is certainly rising in profile. “The primary thing that I want to say, as a bus driver to everyone else, is let’s get on board for waiving the fare,” says the Winnipeg Transit driver. “There should be free transit nationwide.” And even groups not advocating explicitly for free transit are demanding long-term funding from higher levels of government (a prerequisite for fare abolition) along with hiring more workers, running more vehicles, implementing dedicated bus lanes, and providing intercity transportation options for rural and northern communities.

Adaptations to the pandemic have also helped break down what Stuart MacKay, a cofounder of Ottawa Transit Riders, calls “transit silos, which have been the case for the past twenty years.” Webinars on Zoom have replaced in-person meetings—meaning activists can tune in from across the country and beyond to share experiences and insights—and organizations routinely boost each other’s efforts on social media. It’s no longer a campaign of petitioners heading out into icy streets: COVID-19 has thrown every city’s transit system into the same crisis for the same reasons, and activists are forging new approaches and alliances, including with Black and Indigenous organizations fighting carceral violence.

On June 15, the same day that Edmonton’s transit service reintroduced fare collection, Free Transit Edmonton launched its new campaign, Fare Free Forever, including a new petition that demanded the city “go beyond a temporary, reactive emergency response and make the Edmonton Transit System permanently fare free.” The campaign also boosted calls by the local Black Lives Matter chapter to defund the police and reinvest that money into transit. The following evening, in Calgary, city council approved the first stage of the Green Line light-rail project after dedicated organizing fought to protect it from cancellation. According to Romy Garrido of Calgarians for Transit, several city councillors said they had never received so many personalized emails about a single issue.

“It shows that, even during a pandemic,” Garrido says, “just doing the simple act of speaking out and telling your personal story of why you need this makes a difference.”

James Wilt
James Wilt is a Winnipeg-based freelance journalist and the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk.
Natalie Vineberg
Natalie Vineberg is a designer at the Washington Post and a former designer for The Walrus.