The cold hard truth about Toronto's transport network

Photo: Getty

With a population of 2.8 million, projected to grow to 7 million by 2050, Toronto is Canada’s most populated city. While its cultural, social and financial cachet skyrockets, one thing may soon hold it back – it’s public transport system.

Academic Caren Levy argued in 2013 that the ability to access transport reflects the “right to participate” in the life of the city – not just to exist in it, but to partake fully of what it offers, for work, leisure and education. Toronto’s public transport system has struggled to keep up with the growth of the city, and the demands that places on its infrastructure.

Ridership has dropped in recent years because of concerns over expense, comfort and even practicality – the stress that the transit system is under has rendered it inefficient and time-consuming. Add in the fact that a highway runs right through the centre of the city and that most of the public transport converges downtown, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Scholars, community organisers and local politicians have long since called for an expansion of public transport. In 2010, during a local election, concerned citizens residing around poorly serviced areas began the self-explanatory “Subways! Subways! Subways!” campaign, and the projected population growth of the greater Toronto area has led the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to promise extensions of the Metrorail subway system, although there has been controversy about whether the extension will reach the right places.

The city's transport woes have much to do with how public transport system was set up in 1849. The first bus routes started taking passengers between Yorkville and St.Lawrence Market, which are located in the centre of the city. Toronto has expanded outwards from there, and so too did Toronto’s transit network, which has led to the current concentration of the most transport links downtown, often around the most wealthy areas.

There are three main components to Toronto’s public transport system (not including the GO trains for suburban travellers that link into the city centre).

The primary system is the subway, which is structured around Line 1 (Yonge-University) that runs in a U, and Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth), which intersects the U at the centre of the city. Other, more recent additions include Line 3 & Line 4, both of which cover specific parts in the north and east of the city that were previously only covered by infrequent bus services. A cursory glance at the subway map transposed on to Toronto shows the lack of coverage in certain areas of the city - meaning that if you don’t live directly on a subway line, you have to get buses to your nearest stop.

The lack of coverage outside downtown Toronto and a few very specific pockets of the city has led to the establishment of the GO trains that take commuters directly from specific suburbs in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) to various central subway stations, but the bus coverage to get to these stations outside of the city proper is even more inferior than within the city centre itself.

The buses come every twenty or so minutes, and are often the only way of getting to a subway station, particularly some that are further out. The result is that during rush hour, they can be jam-packed, leading people (and sometimes children) to wait in freezing temperatures for the next one in the hope of more space. Some of the most recent figures from the TTC highlight that only 68.1 per cent of buses arrive on time. These issues are often exacerbated by traffic congestion on the roads in and out of the city.


Perhaps one of the most confusing parts of Toronto’s transport system is that streetcars comprise a significant part of it – Toronto’s streetcar system is the busiest and geographically, largest, light rail system in North America. While it sounds like a good idea – after all, this is a region with major transport problems – the streetcar runs on the same roads as the cars, meaning it has to stop for red lights, and around 50 per cent of streetcars are late. There’s even a very busy intersection downtown where a streetcar driver has to get out and manually change the tracks because other streetcars run on it.

A study in 2017 found that a monthly transit pass in Toronto, known as a PRESTO card, is among the most expensive in the world at  $150 (£88.40), despite the fact that Toronto’s public transport leaves so much to be desired. A student card is not that much cheaper at $130. And despite recent population growth, Toronto does not operate a zoning system like most other major metropolises – which means that a ride between two stops anywhere on the line will set you back the same amount - $3 for adults, and $2 for concessions.

These shortcomings when the city is growing so rapidly have made transport a hot topic at local elections, not least because it exacerbates a problem with income inequality which is already among the worst anywhere in North America. A comprehensive report from the Martin Prosperity Institute points out that the fractured nature of Toronto’s public transport might as well have generated different towns with differing standards of living.

Another report from the City Institute in York University in 2015 echoed this sentiment, emphasising that the “capillaries” of public transport in Toronto are left to waste away even if they do have some coverage, while prime spaces benefit from continued investment. These capillaries can be found away from downtown and wealthier areas, and instead run throughout the “inner suburbs”. A series of maps, from J.D. Hulchanski’s income polarisation study, clearly demonstrates that transportation systems don’t really cover the areas that might rely on it the most.

As a city lauded for its diversity, you would hope that Toronto’s public transport system would be geared up to cope with the dynamic between immigrants and public transit – not least the simple fact that immigrants tend to be the most prominent users of public transport the world over. In reality, much of Toronto’s immigrant population, comprising significant numbers of service and low-wage workers, live in those underserved inner suburbs, referred to in policy documents as Neighborhood Improvement Areas. These spaces without service have created what is now referred to as “transit deserts”, which can have long-term effects on the health and employment prospects of people living in those areas, as a Toronto Star article demonstrated. These issues have been left to fester, and worsen, for many years, without much actual resolution.

All of this is meant to be tackled by the “Big Move” plan run by Ontario’s transport agency, Metrolinx, which aims to expand the regional transport system – adding 1,200 km of rapid transport in the area with a view to completely changing how public transport is structured. Yet groups representing disgruntled communters like Fair Riders and TTC Riders are not convinced it will solve the structural issues, and concerned it will instead simply distribute them further outwards. Given the troubles Toronto has long faced creating a transport system that works for all its residents, it is unsurprising they remain skeptical that the city’s problems - and the ones yet to come - will be solved by current thinking.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.