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Toronto Transit planning and COVID-19

Master of Planning student, Masooma Ali, provides analysis
By: Bonte Minnema
May 06, 2020
Presto machines lined up in a row at a subway station with green "go" light on

Masooma Ali is in her final year as a Master’s student in the School of Urban and Regional Planning (URP) and president of the Ryerson Planning Graduate Student Association, external link. Working with Pamela Robinson, professor, and director of URP, she has a particular interest in how things are organized, and how income & social status relate to spatial organization and spatial equities. “What is interesting about COVID-19 is that it didn’t cause the structural or systemic problems we face but research is showing how its impact makes them very clear,” said Ali when talking about challenges with the TTC system.  

The problem

Currently, we’re seeing that transit, subways, in high-income areas are nearly deserted and in lower-income areas busses are still crowded during rush hour for people getting to jobs they cannot do from home. While the TTC is adding busses to these routes social distancing is hard to do on a busy bus route.

The research

Ali takes big chunks of data about the City of Toronto and TTC ridership in her research and has noticed some important realities, with data, that we might otherwise not see. “My work follows Hulchanski’s work on PDF fileThe Three Cities Within Toronto , external linkwhere the city is divided and analyzed based on income and sorted into three groups,” she said.  

Pointing out that although “higher income groups live closer to subways and have more access to transit choices and payment methods, external link,”  at the moment these are the transit routes that are being used less. It is bus routes in low-income and racialized areas that are busier. Lower-income people often have jobs in industrial areas that are both more precarious and can’t be done from home.”  Where people live impacts how they can get around and by what means. It also impacts how they can pay for transit, and if they might be subject to questioning by transit fare enforcement officers. “We know the city is divided in a number of ways and when you take that data and look at Sean Marshall’s, external link work looking at the most heavily used routes during COVID19 you can notice some important differences.”

More busses

Marshall notes TTC ridership is down 80% at the moment. The busiest routes are not subways but bus routes. “This is both because of how the city is organized and how income affects access to transit and where people who can’t work from home live,” notes Ali, “busses are busiest between 7 am and 9 am largely on routes going to the industrial North West of the city.  Riders may be working in industries where work needs to be done at the production centres or distribution centres placing them at a higher risk of COVID-19 because of how they get to work.”  Ali points out that the city is working on adding busses, external link to these busy routes so riders can spread out on the busses, but it is important to acknowledge people face increased COVID-19 risks based on income, geographic and racialized inequities in how our city is organized. Transit riders confined to a bus don’t have the option of social distancing during their commute.

Paying for the bus

During COVID-19, people access busses from the rear doors to protect the driver, unless there is an accessibility reason to use the front door. Riders are supposed to tap on to pay however there may be other passengers near the payment system or if a rider has economic challenges, exacerbated at this time, they will have limitations on their ability to pay using the Presto (rather than cash) system. Paying for transit has essentially become an honour system at the moment. “It’s important that—during and after the pandemic—individual tokens and cash payments remain part of the system and that the PRESTO system is more accessible, as people with lower incomes will have limited access to other payment methods. Every barrier and every layer of risk we can eliminate (from a public system) has real impacts on lower-income people,” stressed Ali. “Many Ontario municipalities have made their transit systems free during the pandemic, recognizing there are not that many fares to collect at the moment.”


“I am all for improving technology, but we need to look at it in a way that technology creates more access for all people, and doesn’t leave people behind. Technological advances need to be better at incorporating more payment options for those who don’t always have access to newer payment methods and who need to use public services. Advance technology, yes, and include existing technology - single-use tokens, cash, for those who don’t have access.”   

As a final point, Ali notes that two of the top ten busiest bus routes referenced by Marshall include the Etobicoke General Hospital and Humber River Regional Hospital, also in the northwest of the city. Again making the point that people need access to these busses, and be able to maintain social distance on busses during the current pandemic, that those who can work from home do not face.    

Learn more about Ali’s final graduate research project on Monday, May 11, 2020, at 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. In this session, you will hear from URP graduate students on: what do innovation clusters, open data, smart technology in parks and open spaces and contactless payments all have in common?  

Register at: EventBrite, external link

Masoomi Ali can be found on Twitter @masooma__ali, external link and Instagram @em__ali, external link.