Transit in a Time of Crisis

My latest piece for NOW Toronto looks at how the transit industry, and Toronto’s TTC and GO systems, are affected by and reacting to the Covid-19 crisis.

Not included in the NOW version are hyperlinks to the websites of many transit agencies I cited. Here they are. To the degree possible, given varying navigation paths of each website, the links go to the page with information about service and fare changes.

14 thoughts on “Transit in a Time of Crisis

  1. The April 14th TTC Board Meeting has been cancelled. Taking bets that the May 13th meeting will also be cancelled.

    Steve: Or they will find a way to hold it remotely, not with a formal public event.


  2. In most other places, I think the costs of the transit are seen as benefits to health budgets, at times in the form of a safer non-car mobility. With this current squeeze of demand on the too-squeezed from decades of ‘austerity’ combined with a bulge of demand from boomers etc., we need to be making sure that the traffic of cars and trucks doesn’t contribute anything at all to the demand for medical services and hospital resources. The federal level might be smart on this point; not so much the province of course. And Caronto itself – not even a study of the Vehicle Registration Tax, and we’re still stupidly thinking of a couple of clunker subway lengthening projects, and if we wanted to save some money, maybe ’tis worth looking at not operating the Spadina/Sorbara Extension past York University, and/or the Sheppard stubway.

    Steve: I would argue that health budgets are not considered by “most other places”. In my visits to the websites of many transit systems, the overwhelming theme is of cutting service based on demand with an emphasis on essential workers.

    I agree that the megaprojects need to be revisited, but don’t think we will reach this point until later in the year when Metrolinx sees (a) what appetite there is in the industry to take on these long term commitments and (b) whether bids will come in much higher than expected in anticipation of greater risk. Much will depend on how long the crisis lasts and the long-term outlook for demand.

    As for selective subway closing, that is a very political decision.


  3. Here’s a ‘slapback’ that will most likely happen here too, especially Toronto. I already see the ‘chafing’ happening with the near lock-down, and how incredibly inequitably it’s being applied.

    The gist of the following has appeared in a number of UK papers, this article indicates the extent of it happening, and it’s a real ‘spanner’ in the transit future discussion that’s pretty much universal. I’ll comment on this more later when I’ve had time to digest aspects, and now they will relate directly to Toronto:

    Coronavirus: ‘Concerning’ rise in car journeys as people urged to stay at home

    A “concerning” rise in car journeys has sparked fresh warnings for people to stay at home during the coronavirus lockdown.

    Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director of Public Health England, revealed motor vehicle usage in Britain has jumped to around a third of usual levels.

    Despite a gradual drop off to 27% on Sunday, the number leaped by 10% to 37% the following day.

    Bus and underground journeys in London also rose, but National Rail train usage dipped slightly compared to the latest figures.

    [From Sky News]

    Story digresses to other matters after this quote, but it is non-paywall. I’ll search for more detailed examination of this phenomenon and post.

    Yikes…this could be a massive complication to getting transit back up on a steady footing again.


  4. Subsequent to last post, more here. The Evening Standard not exemplary for news analysis, but they do publish a chart with the article.

    The uptick is very clear on the chart, but might be transient. It might also be prescient. I’ll continue scouring the UK quality press for more. Pardon the language, and I don’t fully know why, but this worries the hell out of me.


  5. They’ve now decided to go to rear door loading except for people who need the ramp. I don’t need the ramp but I do need the kneeling step at the front and it’s hard to get then to give you that, They keep the front door closed and try to make you get on at the rear under threat of driving off without you. I sympathise with the drivers but the truth is the virus isn’t airborne. It is carried in droplets when you cough or sneeze. You would have reach your head around the plastic barrier that protects the driver from assault and sneeze/cough into his/her face. Were a passenger to try this I could see the driver kicking him/her off the bus but us old guys aren’t likely to try that.


  6. Many drivers are refusing to open the front door even for people on wheelchairs leaving them stranded on the streets. Should there be a ZERO tolerance approach for such drivers? By ZERO tolerance I mean, should these drivers be fired? What impact will read door entry have on fare evasion? Will it go down, stay the same, or go up?


  7. Regarding bus drivers allegedly not opening their front doors for people in wheelchairs, I think it’s “Citation Needed” as wikipedia says.

    I can also think of legitimate reasons to bypass wheelchairs. For example, if there’s one wheelchair already aboard, there may not be a safe space for the second one.

    Steve: The problem goes beyond people in wheelchairs and affects people who need the kneeling front step or the ramp because they cannot climb the high step at the back door.


  8. Even so it’s one of those things which falls into the category of extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    Few years back it got on the news when a bus operator didn’t deploy the ramp for a customer at a location without a concrete curb and my understanding is that they were following official procedures.

    If there are truly hoards of people in wheelchairs being left behind on the street I couldn’t imagine this is the type of story that would remain buried for long.

    Steve: The larger issue is for non-wheelchair users who cannot climb the rear stairs. This is especially a problem if a bus does not properly align with the curb, or if there is a curb cut that happens to line up with the rear doors making the step even higher.


  9. What impact will rear door entry have on fare evasion? I suspect that this will reduce fare disputes.

    Steve: I am quite sure fare evasion will be higher with rear door loading on all routes, but there are bigger problems with revenue loss from lost riding right now. The TTC and Metrolinx also really, really need to face up to the problem that Shoppers Drug Marts are thin on the ground in parts of the city, notably those with lower incomes, because although they are “pharmacies”, they make their money on beauty products aimed at those with some disposable income. The result is that people in these areas do not have as easy access to some place they can top up their Presto cards as people in the better off areas. The exclusive deal with Shoppers was a stupid decision by Metrolinx and shows the mindset of an organization that does not understand (or care about) its customer base beyond affluent commuters to downtown.


  10. “The TTC and Metrolinx also really, really need to face up to the problem that Shoppers Drug Marts are thin on the ground in parts of the city.”

    Back in early February (well before the current virus situation started) I lost my PRESTO card and had to go and purchase a replacement. Since I had heard about Shoppers deal and since they were only one block away I went over to get one. I was cut off abruptly by the cashier who said “we haven’t had any PRESTO cards in stock for weeks.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the many Shoppers stores had no cars in stock right now.


  11. With the misnamed “Spanish Flu” of 1918, the public was only “advised” to avoid the crowded privately run streetcars. Canada had a population of only 8,000,000, but still had 50,000 deaths from that flu, Ontario 8,705 deaths. From TVO.

    The big difference was that the incubation period of the “Spanish” flu was one to three days. With COVID-19, the incubation period is between two and eleven days. See Macleans.

    Steve: This is supposed to be a transit blog, not a place to discuss the pandemic except specifically as it relates to transit.

    Yes, I know there’s not much going on on that front right now, and my “pen” has been silent. Although the subject is retrospective, I am about to resume route analyses including an update on the King Pilot Project. Although this will seem like we’re peering into a world that no longer exists, it is vital that we not lose sight of the TTC’s poor record on line management, a problem that will make the inevitable service cuts that will come much worse.


  12. Pardon me; since most of the posts and comments point out ‘issues’ and deficiencies, it’s maybe a ‘transick’ blog; so Commentary is alright. Also, the high death rate in NYC of the transit staff there make it really an important issue; and thankfully so far we haven’t had the same catastrophic losses and illness, and let’s hope it doesn’t happen. Sure, the staff are well-paid, but there’s often an awful lot of due diligence and training involved, and odd hours to give us service, thanks.

    Steve: The situation in New York has to be seen in the context of the much slower response there to the need to lock down the city which is now a world hot spot for the disease. What I don’t want to see is a comment thread here taken over by competing theories about origins and responses to the pandemic.


  13. On the topic of public health however, transit is almost always much much safer, law-abiding and thus more cost-effective in avoiding the health care costs of automobility. As we do need to maximize hospital resources at the moment, theoretically we should be quite supportive of having full transit service, everywhere, with less worry about how ‘full’ it actually is. And on the ‘full’ topic, since the traffic levels are down, we really do need to let the pedestrians and bikes have more room for safer passings in the public realm by re-allocating roadspace, and other cities are leading of course.

    This is amusing.


  14. There has been talk recently by some self-described “urban planners” who are using the current pandemic crisis to push their anti-urban and anti-transit world view. Jarrett Walker penned a recent article in City Lab indicating how essential public transit is to keeping the cities moving during this pandemic, but there is a significant opposite viewpoint that is gaining some attention. TVO’s The Agenda devoted a program to this issue this past week as well.

    Essentially, the view is that Jane Jacobs got it all wrong, while Robert Moses had it right, in that urban density and well-used public transit are some of the primary reasons for the dangerous spread of the virus in big cities. Those cities (the focus seems to be mostly on US cities) that have low transit use, high automobile use, and low density are faring much better with fewer cases and deaths, these people say, than transit-dependent cities like New York and Boston. These planners conclude that, once the crisis is over, city planning will need to change in order to become more resilient against such future pandemics by lowering densities, and switching more of their population to private auto travel. They advocate a stop to all major public transit expansion, favouring only the continuation of minimal levels of bus service for the poor who cannot afford a car. Strangely, I haven’t heard them recommending the banning of airplane travel or ships or trains (the cross-country kind), though perhaps no one has put the specific question to them.

    I certainly hope this silly “back to the future” paradigm doesn’t gain any more traction than it already has, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out as we move into the future of city planning and public reaction to a return to “normal,” whatever that may be.

    Steve: I am somewhat less gracious than you in my reaction to this sort of argument. It suits those whose view of a “good” urban area is one dominated by cars and spread out for miles and miles in every direction. Some of these “planners” even claim to be pro-transit, but they are charlatans.


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