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Public transit users concerned proposed TTC service cuts will increase safety risks

TORONTO — Adrian Ruiz returned to his birthplace of Toronto five years ago after growing up in Mexico, but after an older woman was fatally assaulted near his home by a downtown subway station on Friday, he’s considering moving.

“It’s not the Toronto that I grew up in. I’m very worried about my wife and my kids walking at night, riding the TTC,” he said.

“I hate driving, but now riding the TTC … it’s very, very dangerous. I think the city is going down the drain.”

Other public transit users are speaking out against proposed Toronto Transit Commission service cuts that they say could further put riders’ safety at risk at a time when violent incidents on subways and streetcars are on the rise.

The TTC recently proposed its 2023 operating budget with changes to address a $366 million budget shortfall, which includes a 10 cent fare hike and running 9 per cent less service this year compared to levels in place before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Subways will run at 6-minutes or better service levels and as low as 10-minute-or-better service levels in some cases, based on demand. The proposed budget says schedules and routes will be adjusted based on ridership demand at the busiest portions, directions and hours of service.

It also says streetcar service will be reduced to 87 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, bus service will run at 94 per cent and rapid transit service will fall to 75 per cent.

Shelagh Pizey-Allen is the executive director of TTCriders, an advocacy organization made up of volunteer transit users in Toronto which has been fighting the planned service cuts and fare hike. Riders waiting up to 10 minutes for a subway car could be “a recipe for less safety,” she said.

“Safety is top of mind for some transit users right now, but less service makes use less safe because there’s fewer people taking the TTC if they can’t rely on it,” said Pizey-Allen.

The TTC’s 2023 operating budget and its proposed service cuts were being discussed among the city’s budget committee amid a string of violent incidents on Toronto’s public transit system in recent months.

Police said last week they were investigating after a group of up to 10 girls allegedly assaulted several people at five downtown subway stations randomly on Dec. 17 between 10 p.m. and midnight.

Last month, police laid several charges against a woman after six people were allegedly assaulted in a spree of random attacks on Dec. 19 on a streetcar, subway platforms and trains. Five were allegedly struck with a glass bottle.

Earlier in December, a woman was stabbed to death and another was wounded in a random attack on a subway train. Police have charged a man with first-degree murder and attempted murder.

And just this week, Toronto police said they were looking for a suspect after an alleged hate-motivated assault at a downtown subway station on Wednesday. Police alleged a man struck a person wearing a religious head covering. On Friday, police received reports that a man tried to push someone onto the tracks at a separate station downtown.

TTC spokesman Stuart Green said the transit agency’s leadership is in ongoing meetings with Toronto Mayor John Tory, police and union representatives to discuss safety issues on transit.

“We also know that there are bigger societal and systemic issues at play when it comes to the root causes of these incidents that require a multi-pronged response,” said Green.

“We welcome being part of a broader discussion with all community and government stakeholders about what can be done to improve safety and security on the TTC.”

Part of the TTC’s proposed operating budget includes hiring 50 new special constable positions “to increase safety and security,” a $4.4 million investment Pizey-Allen said is ill-considered.

“Adding a few special constables is not only the wrong approach, it’s going to harm Black and Indigenous transit users. They’ve been grossly misrepresented in enforcement interactions,” she said.

“It will make some transit users less safe and it doesn’t tackle the root causes of safety issues on public transit.”

Speaking on behalf of TTCriders, Toronto Metropolitan University student and daily transit user August Pantitlán Puranauth told Toronto’s budget committee this week they were scared by the prospect of waiting for transit for long time periods at night.

“If we had more service, that means it’s a reduced chance of people being in situations where they feel uncomfortable,” said Puranauth

They noted the service cuts are of particular concern for women on transit and echoed fears that Black and Indigenous riders would be targeted by fare policing and special constables.

“We need to be an inclusive city and a safe city, and that’s a city where transit is not overpoliced.”

Shauna Brail, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Management and Innovation, says there is a lot of research that suggests more policing will not improve the underlying conditions that can lead to violence on transit.

“It looks like a stopgap measure, but it isn’t what you need for long-term prosperity for communities and for individuals,” said Brail. 

“Investments in communities, in public services, in affordable housing and other kinds of investments are far better at addressing some of the challenges that we’re seeing in terms of violence spilling over to transit.

Tory will present the TTC’s operating budget by the beginning of February for consideration at a special city council meeting on Feb. 14.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2023.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press