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Takeaways from EcoFair Toronto’s Panel, The Importance of Affordable Transportation

This article comes from our Toronto office, where Senior Program Specialist Adrienne Boyd recently moderated a panel for EcoFair Toronto on Equity, Access, and Affordable Transportation. You can view the recording here.

There’s an old joke that Toronto is about an hour from Toronto. While most of us can bond over our shared burden with a bit of humor, the reality is that Toronto is often ranked as the worst commutes in North America. This, in part, is due to our high transit fares and average one-way commute time of 42 minutes, or 52 minutes for transit riders. What the data doesn’t show is how limited transportation choices can be dependent on where you live.

A recent virtual panel on Equity, Access, and Affordable Transportation in Toronto brought together Patricia Burke-Wood, Geography Professor at York University; Nahomi Amberber, Public Space Fellow at The Bentway Conservancy; Taraneh Zarin, Free Transit Toronto; and Darnel Harris, Executive Director at Our Greenway. The panelists discussed the variety of ways equitable transportation is a matter of social justice. When mobility is limited, it also limits access to jobs, groceries, physical activity, and public, social, and community spaces. The length of time it takes to travel is an inherent judgment of the value of a person’s time, and travel times have risen 21% in North York since 2013.

More acute examples of transportation inequity is the harassment and scrutiny that people of color experience while walking, biking, or riding transit. The panelists engaged in a discussion around how this type of enforcement erodes any sense of belonging, safety, or dignity that each of us deserves. Panelists recounted the example of Reece Maxwell-Crawford, a teenager who was tackled and pinned to the floor of a streetcar by fare enforcement officers in 2018.

Taraneh Zarin of Free Transit Toronto says running transit without charging a fare would remove barriers and police conflict, making public transit more akin to libraries and schools. After explaining how Toronto could afford to reduce or scrap fares through improved federal and provincial funding and taxes, the conversation turned to what Toronto is losing through transportation inequity. If transit was widely affordable, we would see a surge in ridership, and the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) could reestablish routes and schedules to serve communities where there is a need.

Patricia Burke-Wood, a regular columnist for Spacing Magazine and professor at York University, emphasized that transit pays out dividends to society through improved mobility, public health and wellbeing, and economic growth. Burke-Wood challenged attendees to imagine what our GDP could be if everyone had their mobility needs met. Furthermore, the societal costs of automobile dependency are inordinately borne by poorer communities through increased air pollution, road fatalities, and the effects of climate change.

Nahomi Amberber published a study on active transportation and health equity, which showed a higher risk of collisions in neighbourhoods with marginalized communities. There are lives on the line when we design our streets without considering children, seniors, people with disabilities, or anyone without a car. The highway-like roads make it obvious how street design puts pedestrians and cyclists in harm’s way and deters people from using outdoor space to socialize, exercise, and move freely.

Darnel Harris, Executive Director of Our Greenway Conservancy, explained that local economies could flourish, and travel times would drop if the city allowed for inexpensive multi-use paths through Northwest Toronto. This would also provide more freedom and choice to residents, rather than complete reliance on transit schedules or private vehicles.

It was such a pleasure to hear from our panelists and discuss issues and solutions surrounding transportation equity in Toronto. We’ve seen incredible changes in our streets and council chambers this year, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement. These conversations reaffirm my passion for making our cities work better and provide fresh guidance for what to aim for.

Author: Adrienne Boyd

Senior Program Specialist, UrbanTrans