Ultra Vires


Falling Recklessly Into the “Death Spiral”

The TTC’s budget ignores the far-reaching and severe impacts of service cuts

In 2017, I was a somewhat regular user of Line 2 of the TTC. I distinctly remember the day we suddenly found Line 1 cars adorned with stickers proclaiming their newly won “Transit of the Year” award. By 2018, a UK-based survey found that the TTC was the sixth worst for average commute time globally. A study in 2022 found that TTC commuters have some of the longest—and farthest—commutes among large cities in North America. 

The stickers from 2017 were removed within a year, but you can still see their traces on train cars today. Bad service remains a consistent and very public complaint among riders of the TTC. The situation demands an explanation for the TTC’s 2023 budget, including service cuts of nine percent and a 10-cent increase in subway fare. The City Council approved this budget on Wednesday, February 15. 

In the 1990s, Toronto found itself in the midst of a devastating recession. Unemployment rose, and fewer people had a workday commute. In response, ridership and fare revenue dropped. The City cut TTC service out of desperation. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that it took nearly two decades for the TTC to recover its  ridership. Transit experts call this a “death spiral,” and the lesson was clear: reducing service in response to decreasing ridership irreversibly compromises the public’s trust in transit.

Accessible and safe transit means so much to people in this city. At the City Council meeting on February 15, TTC staff said that they would only make minor reductions to service in the form of increasing waiting time without eliminating routes. But, as explained during deputations at the TTC Board meeting on January 9, any service reductions have elevated impacts on equity-seeking groups. 

Deputants remarked that people need transit to access services such as food banks. Low-income workers need reliable transit services outside of “peak” times. Speakers with accessibility needs reported that they already have difficulty accessing a bus with available accessible seating; an extended wait time between buses means fewer chances to actually be able to take transit. Speakers argued that the issue with service reduction is not only increased waiting time but reliability; less-frequent service during night-time hours poses heightened safety risks, particularly for women and queer riders. 

The sting of these service cuts hurts more given the TTC’s “safety” plan and corresponding increases in other budget line items. The TTC plans to hire 20 Community Safety Ambassadors and ten new Streets to Homes workers to direct houseless people to resources, as available. However, they also plan to increase the number of special constables on the TTC by filling 25 vacant positions and hiring 25 new special constables. Finally, they will hire 50 security guards who will be given “advanced training” in nonviolent crisis intervention. 

No one questions the need to make the TTC safer, especially in light of recent events. However, critics point to the ways this budget is self-defeating. The emphasis, they say, is to move away from reactive, punitive solutions and address the underlying causes of violence. Special constables and security guards do not keep us safe but instead threaten the safety of, in particular, Black and Indigenous riders. 

In her comments on the budget, Shelagh Pizey-Allen of the advocacy group TTCriders criticized the TTC’s plan for conflating people experiencing homelessness with violence. As a consequence, the TTC’s outreach workers mainly offer housing support. The task of de-escalating mental health crises is now the responsibility of specially-trained security guards. Using enforcement here is additionally confusing, given the recent and promising success of the City’s Community Crisis Service program as a viable alternative. 

Decreased ridership flowing from service cuts deters people from taking transit for fear of being alone and makes transit more unsafe for those without an alternative. Counsellor Jon Burnside, Chair of the TTC Board, commented that the recent violence was a result of “society’s problems migrating onto the transit system.” The TTC’s plan fails to realize that people use public transit to access their employment, medical care, and community supports that can mitigate these problems. Cutting service, therefore, makes these problems worse. 

The budget passed during the City Council meeting on February 15. In light of the truncated 14-day review period and the shadow of ex-Mayor John Tory’s “strong mayor” powers, public discussion has been brief but passionate. Because it is so central to everyone’s lives, people care deeply about the state of their public transit. 

However, there is so much we still do not know. Pizey-Allen says that we do not know why the TTC Board budgeted for safety in the way it did, or whether this funding will come from the TTC or the City’s budget. During the City Council meeting on February 15, Counsellor Alejandra Bravo received no definite answer regarding exactly which routes will be cut and only received vague promises that they used an “equity lens” to plan service reductions. 

It is frustrating that these decisions were made contrary to the lived experience of those most affected as well as the advice of experts. The resulting budget reflects the TTC Board’s misplaced priorities and short-sighted policy. I hope that the harm which will be caused by the TTC’s plan can be mitigated during the next budget cycle. In the meantime, we must throw our support behind the numerous community organizations that force politicians to understand that they must invest in healthy and safe communities. This starts with our public transit.

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