If we let the TTC go down the drain, the whole city won’t be far behind.
That’s what’s at stake in the crisis around safety in Toronto, and especially on the subways, streetcars and buses of the Toronto Transit Commission. Public transit is that important to making big cities like Toronto both successful and livable.
It’s been getting steadily worse for months but this week feels like a tipping point. “Crisis” seems like the right word, with every day bringing a fresh report of a stabbing, swarming or worse. On Thursday it was someone being shot with a BB gun at York University station. What’s coming tomorrow?
By strict numbers, compared to more violent cities, those incidents may not amount to a crisis. But it’s certainly a crisis in public confidence. For the first time, I hear people saying they won’t take the TTC because they don’t feel safe. People tell the Star they’re switching to Uber or carrying something they can use as a weapon if they’re forced to defend themselves.
We can see where this is heading if it’s allowed to continue unchecked. People who have a choice in how to travel won’t go near transit. The system will be left to those who don’t have a choice — people without cars, without money for cabs or Ubers, who do jobs where working from home isn’t an option.
That’s what it’s like in a lot of other places, especially U.S. cities that have bare-bones transit used essentially by the young and the working poor. And we know what happens when better-off people bail out of a public service. The pressure to fund it properly and maintain service levels evaporates. Governments put in even less money, it keeps getting worse, and the downward spiral continues.
We’re not there yet, but from where we are now we can see the outlines of that future, and it’s not pretty. So it was good on Thursday to hear city, transit and police leaders vow to increase the presence of police and other uniformed staff on the TTC.
There will be a predictable outcry that putting cops on trains and buses doesn’t address the “root causes” of crime — mental illness, homelessness, drug use, all of the above. Or that adding 80 or so officers on any given day won’t stop crime across a huge transit system, let alone everywhere else in the city.
All that’s true, but things have reached such a point on the TTC that it’s important to take immediate, visible steps to stem the erosion in public confidence before it reaches the point of no return. Plus a little bit of what some people call “security theatre” can be useful, if only to make people feel safer in an environment that suddenly feels distinctly unsafe. It’s been done at airports for years to calm fears about terrorism.
The announcement of more uniforms in the TTC, starting now, is also a necessary course correction for Mayor John Tory. He did himself no favours on Wednesday when he responded to the spate of attacks by calling for a national summit on mental illness.
Now, there probably should be such a summit. And Tory made excellent points about the failure of senior governments to fund treatment for mental health care at anything like the necessary level. He’s absolutely right that cities like Toronto have been abandoned, left to struggle with the effects of mental illness and addiction on their streets and in their transit systems, without the support (i.e. money) they need.
But that’s all about the long term; just organizing a national summit would take months, let alone seeing any street-level results from such an exercise. There’s a big problem right now that must be addressed, and that’s the fact people are starting to believe they can’t do something as basic as ride a streetcar without risk being exposed to violent attack.
Certainly we must work on the root causes of all this. But in the meantime we have to make sure people don’t give up on the system for good.
Leave a Reply