Where Are We Going? Public Transit and Racial Equity in Toronto

Scarlett Jones

Overt institutional racism may no longer be socially acceptable in Canada, as it was during the days of the Chinese head tax, yet it has certainly proven to be persistent. Racial inequities continue to exist along institutional fault lines. For example, there is a disproportionate correlation between race and poverty, with visible minorities experiencing a high poverty rate of 22 per cent, as opposed to their non-racialized counterparts at 9 per cent. In Toronto, 62 per cent of all people living in poverty are visible minorities, a category that includes many recent immigrants (whose disparate economic success is often attributed to language barriers, the transfer of foreign credentials, and social integration). Yet evidence has shown that poor economic prospects persist for second and third generation minorities, suggesting that persistent racial inequities are limiting social mobility for a significant number of Canadians.

At first glance, the relationship between transportation and racial equity may be unclear. Transportation is infrastructure with the physical power to connect or divide neighbourhoods, and that infrastructure is publicly funded to the tune of billions of dollars each year. Moreover, the availability of public transit affects a myriad of other policy areas including employment, housing, education, and health, and can play the role of social equalizer.

Improving public transit was a key issue in Toronto’s recent municipal elections, with front-running mayoral candidates unveiling multi-billion dollar transit strategies. Racism had its own moment in the spotlight, when some candidates were subject to racist vandalism and cartoons. And for one brief moment, these two issues intersected when Warren Kinsella, a strategist for Olivia Chow, retweeted “Is @johntoryTO’s Smart Track, you know, Segregationist Track?” accompanied by a map of Jon Tory’s proposed subway plan, with an ‘X’ over the Rexdale and Jane-Finch Region – a predominately black-Caribbean neighbourhood. Tory quickly decried the tweet as “dirty politics” and Chow distanced herself from both Kinsella and the subject.

Both Tory and Chow’s reactions in this case were indicative of a desire not to engage with racism at an institutional level. They are also arguably reflective of a tendency in Canada to attribute racism to individuals — abhorrent, yes; but systematic, no. Yet while the issue may have gained no political traction in the recent mayoral campaign, is it a in fact a valid policy question? Does public transit in Toronto treat all parts of the city equally? And can public transit bear impact on racial inequities?

Racial equity in Toronto transit planning was mentioned briefly in 2012 when Ward 27 Councillor Kristen Wong-Tam motioned for the inclusion of a “gender and racial equity lens” in a special advisory panel for transit development along East Sheppard Avenue. The motion passed, but was later highlighted in a National Post editorial that accused Wong-Tam of “driving policy-making further off the rails.”

A quick look at other jurisdictions, however, reveals that Wong-Tam’s proposal was not particularly radical. Racial equity in public transit has long been a social policy issue in American cities with high populations of visible minorities, and advocacy groups have achieved significant success. In Los Angeles, a city where 88 per cent of public transit users are visible minorities, a civil-rights lawsuit was launched against the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in 1996, accusing them of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (which prohibits racially discriminatory funding allocation). It argued that the MTA’s funding system favoured rail systems for primarily white users, instead of bus systems that served the majority user base – that is, low-income people of color.

The challenge was successful, and the MTA was required to lower the price of monthly passes, introduce a weekly pass, buy more busses, and create more bus services to connect the poor and visible minorities to medical centres. A similar challenge is now pending in Chicago, where the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) is advocating for Congress to set a major urban transportation agenda and to increase funding for public transportation.

Various other jurisdictions have also spoken out against, and taken notable steps to address the racial inequities perpetrated by their public transit systems. St. Paul-Minneapolis, for example, has tied federal transportation funding to race and poverty, meaning that funding will now be awarded to projects on the basis of whether or not the project benefits the poor and visible minorities. This decision was made by the Metropolitan Council, a regional governmental agency and metropolitan planning organization. Its rational was explained as follows:

“We already are currently experiencing nationally-recognized racial disparities, to us, equity can’t just be about how we do the least amount of harm to communities, but it has to be about how we lift communities up.”

Projects including roads, transit, or bike and pedestrian facilities will receive points for benefiting racially concentrated areas of poverty in particular, but also for benefitting children, people with disabilities and the elderly.

In contrast, the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) 2003 Ridership Growth Strategy cites customer service as a primary concern, yet makes no mention of racial equity. Metrolinx’s 2008 regional transportation plan The Big Move and the 2013 Big Move Baseline Monitoring Report affirm a commitment to ”fairness [and] equity across the region”, but contain no official equity strategy.

In the continued absence of public transit opportunities, low-income households will often sacrifice other necessities, such as food, in order to maintain a vehicle. David Hulchanski’s landmark study The Three Cities Within Toronto: Income Polarization among Toronto’s Neighbourhoods, 1970-2006 suggests that this may indeed be the case in Toronto. Hulchanski found that wealthier, white neighbourhoods had access to three times as many subway stations as poorer, predominantly Chinese, Black, and South Asian neighbourhoods. Moreover, low-income neighbourhoods with high concentrations of visible minorities tended to commute by car 10 per cent more often than their counterparts. Inequitable transit planning in Toronto may in fact be forcing the working poor into car ownership, thus increasing their financial burden.

Moreover, public transit indicators must include both physical and temporal factors such as travel times, wait times, connections, and night service, as well as social and perception factors such as treatment, personal experiences, security, and comfort. A 2003 Social Planning Council report, If Low Income Women of Colour Mattered in Toronto, found transit to be a key issue among local residents. While service cuts, nights busses, high fares, and lack of access were all mentioned, the over riding concern and source of anger was overt racism on the part of transit drivers to visible minorities, in particular women:

“One woman had her transfer refused by a driver who was openly hostile to her. She waited for the next bus and got on without a problem. An elderly woman over seventy reported that a driver refused to let her on the bus with a senior’s ticket claiming that she was too young to be a senior. In another situation a driver refused to accept a woman’s transfer until a White woman passenger who had just come off the same bus vouched for her.”

While the report recommended the establishment of a Human Rights Inquiry into discrimination and racism on the Toronto public transit system, the TTC has taken no action on the matter.

Racial equity in public transit has already gained significant traction in many jurisdictions as a social policy issue, and public transit has been recognized by many as a powerful determinant of equity. As one of the largest and most racially-diverse city in Canada, Toronto should follow suit; and the timing may be perfect for its City Council to address this issue. Municipal affairs have become increasingly visible at an institutional level, setting the stage for local government to develop policy responses to issues of jurisdictional importance. And visible minorities in Canada are primarily concentrated in urban populations in Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto, suggesting that the best way to serve this young and quickly growing population is through a municipal lens.

While the majority of transit funding comes from the federal and provincial governments, transit-planning strategies are determined and implemented at a municipal level. Moreover, while municipalities often struggle to obtain funding for settlement services or low-income housing, public transit has a more widespread appeal (as evidenced by the 2014 municipal elections). It is not only an issue for which public funding may become more widely available, but it is also a powerful tool in reshaping race, gender, and class inequities.

The impact of future public transit-related public policy decisions on racial equity in Toronto cannot be underestimated: institutionalized racism is cumulative and intergenerational; transportation infrastructure shapes cities; and public transit affects both physical and social mobility. Together, these three factors have the potential to play a powerful and decisive role in the future prospects of Toronto’s growing population of visible minorities. What remains to be seen is whether that position will be representative of an equitable and modern multicultural society.

Scarlett Jones is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia, and has previously worked as an editor and translator for the Instituto Politécnico Nacional research centre in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her academic interests include immigration and foreign policy and transnational migration.