Toronto is often lauded as a global, dynamic, and diverse metropolis that brings together the best of all backgrounds — especially, so the story goes, on the city’s touted public transportation system. But the more interesting question isn’t what the city looks like, but rather for whom the city is made and  whom it serves. Just as infrastructure can connect us, it can also divide us. Transit, in particular, is a central site in and through which belonging is determined and negotiated. 

Expulsion from within 

Documenting the perspectives of the most excluded individuals in political configurations of the city is scholar-activist Punam Khosla’s 2003 report, entitled, “If Low Income Women Of Colour Counted in Toronto.” The stories that Khosla records in her report show how racism, in its most blatant form, comes alive on the TTC. 

When I recently caught up with Khosla, currently a U of T instructor, to discuss her report, she recalled how, as soon as transit came up as a topic of discussion, the women “lit up with an enormous amount of stories… about getting spit on, being called names, and [being] harassed on the transit system.” 

In her report, Khosla articulated that the “passionate and unanimous anger” of women of colour with whom she spoke was directed at the discriminatory behaviour of transit drivers and fare collectors. She documented how drivers humiliated them, especially those who couldn’t speak English, and engaged in such practices as refusing to stop for them, to help them if they had a stroller with children, or to board them if they wore a hijab. Drivers also viewed them to be criminals and fare evaders — for instance, by refusing to accept their transfer. The report also found that racism by drivers and fare operators often emboldened passengers to do the same. 

Years since the 2003 study, Toronto university students who rely on the transit system continue to share many of these experiences. 

Ann, a Filipino-Canadian woman and U of T student, identifies as a “native Torontonian” who grew up in the suburbs of North York. She never expected to feel like she’s “not from around here.” But recently, while she was commuting home on the subway, a white man targeted her when she was the only person of colour in the vicinity. He rambled about how “she’s not Canadian” and that “immigrants should go back to where [they] came from. We Canadian taxpayers should not be paying for you.” 

Given her close connection to the city, Ann is terrified by the experience of racism in a place as diverse as Toronto — a fear that comes alive every time that she goes on the subway. 

Ayesha*, a Black Muslim woman and York University student, recalls several incidents that brought the intersectionality of her identities to the forefront. In several instances, she was called the n-word and at one point, told to “get to the back” of the bus — a reference to Rosa Parks. 

Another time, while taking a bus near Jane  Street and Dundas Street, she was told to remove her hijab because she could be “free” and “so much more beautiful without it.” She felt as if she was “nothing more than an ‘exotic’ woman who existed for [a male passenger’s] viewing pleasure.” In most cases, other passengers merely stood by, watched, and did nothing as she endured anti-Blackness, anti-Muslim racism, and misogyny. Because of her experiences, Ayesha is hyperaware of her surroundings when using transit.

While not directly experiencing racism on transit, other racialized passengers regularly witness it. Angela, a Chinese-Canadian woman and U of T student, has taken the 89 Weston at least twice a day this past year. She noticed how Mayor John Tory’s policy, which allows kids under 12 to ride for free, is not applied fairly. Specifically, racialized children are frequently questioned by bus drivers for their age and ID — sometimes having to pay a fare anyway. 

On the other hand, Angela said she has “never seen” white children IDed or forced to pay fare. She notes that the 89 bus is interesting because it passes through both affluent and racialized areas, which may inform differential treatment of passengers depending on their location. 

Angela also noticed how men frequently harassed Black teens late at night on the 89 bus, based on their age, gender, and sexuality. She observed how “naturally they responded, with confidence and anger that seemed far too routine.” 

What is clear is that women of colour, in particular, bear the brunt of open racism on the TTC. However, why racism occurs so particularly on the TTC is open to debate. Angela doesn’t believe that it does. “Transit is just something we frequently use, so it makes sense that racism, which is entrenched in our society, would manifest itself in this ordinary setting.” 

Ann claimed that on transit, passengers feel inclined to remain quiet rather than stand up to aggressive behaviour. Ayesha added that the “courage (or cowardice)” of attackers derives from the feeling that they can get away with it, without any repercussion. Filip*, a Hong Kong-Canadian man and U of T student, added that transit allows for quick exit and escape, thus enabling racism. 

According to Khosla, there is always an unspoken contest about who has access to public spaces, including transit. Spaces are hierarchized according to race, gender, and class, among other categories. Those who are privileged in these embedded fragmentations can express their entitled positions through openly racist, homophobic, and sexist vitriol — and usually are able to get away with it. 

The underlying reality is that their belonging in public spaces — such as transit — is fundamentally in question. People of colour, especially women, should expect to use transit as safely as everyone else does. But the city, while on the one hand claiming an identity based on strength in diversity, also contains a hidden order that bars certain groups from benefitting from the resources that are purportedly for everyone. 

Scanning the outer suburbs 

The Toronto subway system is well set up to connect commuters between the downtown core and the outer suburbs, like Mississauga, Brampton, and Markham. But it is important to note how connecting transit systems are not immune to similar issues of race, especially for Toronto commuter students. 

Nadine, a Black woman and U of T student, uses the Brampton and Mississauga transit systems. While taking the 502 bus from Brampton to Mississauga, she noticed that the driver was being difficult with an elderly Black woman who wanted to board the bus. The driver ultimately refused to drive the bus with her on board. 

Another time, at the intersection of Dundas and Hurontario Street, she observed a man’s reaction on the bus as a woman in a burka was crossing the street. He told the driver to “run them over — we don’t need them in our country anyway!” The bus was full of people of colour because it was travelling from Brampton. When they turned and questioned him about his behaviour, he only yelled back. It was not until another white man stood up to him that he stopped. 

Nadine also shared how bus stops in Mississauga are spray-painted with Islamophobic messages. She believes that racism is prevalent, especially during rush hour, because people are tired and don’t want to bother with incidents that won’t affect them after they leave the bus. Travelling on transit, therefore, is perceived as a momentary state that justifies disengagement from our obligations to one another as human beings. 

Earlier this year, Filip reported an incident of racial and sexual harassment to GO Transit authorities. One night, while taking a bus from Union Station to Markham, a drunk white man was making vulgar sexual comments toward the women who were with him. At one point, he turned his attention to Filip, accusing the woman beside him of having “yellow fever” — a racial trope referring to an Asian fetish.

The man followed with further vulgar remarks, which unnerved other passengers. Filip felt compelled to leave the bus, and informed the driver that he needed to handle the man’s behaviour. He is unsure if the driver was able to hear him clearly, as he was “shaken.” 

The downtown core versus the inner suburbs 

The intersection between racism and transit is not limited to experiences derived from the use of transit itself. The current transit infrastructure also reflects racial divisions between low-income communities — especially the inner suburbs — and other Torontonians. These divisions are concerned with affordability and accessibility.

Khosla indicates how transit costs are out of reach for low-income women. Public transit is the only option for this demographic, and working women make up 60 per cent of those who rely on transit to commute to and from work. Yet compared to other major cities, a large portion of the TTC’s operating costs — 70 per cent — are covered by the fare box, as opposed to provincial subsidies. 

This means that the working poor largely pay for the TTC. This issue is accentuated as fares continue to hike year after year, essentially operating as a regressive tax on transit-dependent communities. They are forced to make choices between transit and other essential needs.

Furthermore, because the TTC operates on the basis of maximizing the fare box, it favours the routes that generate the most revenue. This justifies cuts to less travelled routes that are used by the racialized working class in inner suburbs, like Scarborough. This leads to declining service, overcrowding, and longer wait times. Together, a lack of affordability and accessibility restrict the mobility of inner suburban communities — whether to find employment, socialize, or do groceries.  

The TTC even maintains the position that it is “beyond its mandate” to “resolve broader social and community issues related to income distribution” — that is, to serve the needs of its most vulnerable citizens.

In her report, Khosla noted how women of colour need subway service because of the long travel times on buses. Women in York saw the need for an Eglinton subway line, while women in North York wanted the Sheppard subway extended to Jane Street. The subway service that was demanded by women of colour 15 years ago has either not materialized or has yet to materialize. 

In a 2015 paper entitled “Environmental Justice, Transit Equity and the Place for Immigrants in Toronto,” Ryerson researchers Amardeep Kaur and Cheryl Teelucksingh corroborated many of Khosla’s findings. Immigrants are a large source of population growth in Toronto, and low-income immigrants — especially women — rely heavily on transit to navigate the city. But the transit system is largely set up to support the downtown core. A rapid transit network does not exist to support the inner suburbs. 

Meanwhile, low-income immigrant communities, who often only find affordable housing in inner suburban communities, are compelled to live far away from access to transit. Immigrant women with children face particular barriers. Buses and subways are not generally catered to accommodate their strollers or their need for functioning elevators and escalators, once again pointing to the issue of accessibility on transit services. This reinforces the isolation of communities within their immediate neighbourhoods and restricts access to various services, institutions, and needs.

One example of poor service in the inner suburbs is the notorious 41 Keele bus, which is frequently late and crowded. Since this summer, the Action Keele campaign has been canvassing on issues surrounding the bus and advocating for better public transit. 

In the October 13 Action Keele talk, Transit Justice in the Inner Suburbs, campaigner Steve Maher spoke about how central transit is to the lives of working people — but how they are the least connected to the city because the subway system is set up for the downtown area. Indeed, the suburbs are connected to the downtown core, but not to each other. All the “lively” and “desirable” parts of life happen downtown. For this reason, he lamented that the two regions appear to be completely different cities. In their transit experiences, both Ann and Angela observed that for locations populated by racialized communities, such as Jane and Finch, Weston Road, or Kennedy Road in Scarborough, there is a lack of reliable transit routes and service is infrequent, even though these are the areas that need transit the most to get around the city.

One of the most heated issues on subway expansion in the inner suburbs relates to the construction of the one-stop subway at Scarborough Centre, a plan supported by Tory. Critics pointed to the fact that politicians exploit the transit issues faced by suburban Scarborough citizens — many of whom are racialized immigrants — and offer the construction of a subway as a solution to a city that has otherwise neglected them.

But this is not a reflection of good policy; rather, it is a political strategy for votes and re-election. After all, the alternative plan — light rail transit — would offer more stops, service, and connectivity to more people in Scarborough, and it could be implemented much faster. The Scarborough subway, on the other hand, is viewed by critics as a costly, fiscally unjustifiable plan. Yet Tory accused his critics of not caring as much about immigrant communities as he does. 

Part of the optics of subway politics, then, is the invocation of race — even when it is not in the best interest of those whom the politicians claim to be representing. 

Khosla shared that, today, big capital projects have been undertaken or are underway, such as the York University subway expansion or the upcoming Eglinton line. Yet she cautioned that transit planning must reflect those who really need them and have no choice, namely, working-class people of colour. 

She criticized the mainstream environmentalist position on transit policy, which focuses on encouraging middle-class commuters to leave their cars at home and take transit as a means to reduce carbon emissions. This demographic operates on choice, unlike many inner suburbanites, who can only use transit. This only reinforces the downtown-commuter dynamic on which the transit system is already built. 

Moving forward

“What could our lives and our finances be like under a free, high-quality public transit system?” asked moderator Sadia Khan at the Action Keele talk. This was a timely question, as one of Toronto mayoral candidate Saron Gebresellassi’s platform points was, in fact, free transit. This idea, although dismissed as unrealistic, could theoretically address many of the affordability issues that low-income communities face. 

Khosla, Kaur, and Teelucksingh all agree that transit planning and decision-making need to include, consult, and focus on marginalized, inner suburban voices. This process can help reflect the needs of transit-dependent communities and also document experiences of racism on the transit system. For instance, Kaur and Teelucksingh also call for the planned downtown relief plan to connect to the inner suburbs, like East York and Etobicoke. Indeed, the future of transit needs to reflect those who need and use it the most. 

The reality, though, is that progress is slow and inelastic. For instance, Khosla’s recommendation for a discounted pass for social assistance recipients 15 years ago was only implemented earlier this year. 

At the Action Keele talk, TTCriders member Vincent Puhakka called for a transit system that delivers dignity to its users. He noted how riders feel disconnected and that the work of TTCriders is to engage in conversation and mobilize transit users as a political constituency that can reach out to elected officials — especially around provincial and municipal budgets and elections. 

Transit cuts across a variety of issues — like housing, poverty, and wages — so examining intersections in advocacy work is also key to long-term organizing. Puhakka also views the King Street Transit Pilot in downtown as a model for how transit could look like in the inner suburbs, where public transit receives priority over private motorists. 

On the subject of racism on transit, the TTC recently launched the #ThisIsWhere campaign, which showcases ads that raise awareness of harassment. The TTC also launched an anti-harassment app which enables passengers to share reports of harassment and allows TTC employees to respond. 

These new programs receive scrutiny. For one, the ads for the campaign may be triggering and uncomfortable for those who have experienced harassment or assault before, while those who haven’t might not be affected much at all. The question, then, is to what end these ads serve in terms of addressing racial harassment, beyond just “awareness.”

Furthermore, passengers of colour may feel uncomfortable using the app if there are concerns over police involvement. The app also suggests that it is the responsibility of the victim to address what could be a traumatic experience for them, making it difficult to engage in the reporting process. What is necessary for any such anti-harassment campaign is that marginalized voices are adequately consulted. Furthermore, there is a need for thorough anti-racism training for TTC employees and operators so that they are equipped to handle harassment appropriately and do not engage in it themselves. 

In February this year, the use of excessive force against a Black teen on a streetcar by fare inspectors was highly scrutinized. Similar to the aforementioned drivers, the behaviour of TTC employees can justify the perception that they are the perpetrators of racism, as opposed to interveners. 

Aside from anti-racism training for operators, the responsibility of bystanders is a main focus of those who experienced or observed racism on transit. Nadine, Ann, and Ayesha all emphasized the importance of bystanders standing up to racial harassment — especially if the bystander is white, as they appear to mitigate offenders who are white. Filip advocated for better bystander training in transit use, so that passengers are aware of how to intervene, de-escalate the situation, and help those being racially harassed.

Racialized folks in Toronto, like everyone else, wish to be a part of all the city has to offer, in terms of employment, services, culture, and social life. To do so, many need and use transit. Yet they continue to face structural barriers on the transit system — from discrimination to affordability and accessibility. This is a question about who belongs and who matters in the city. 

It is imperative that transit planning and policy reflect their experiences, concerns, and needs — if people of colour are to belong to the city, then the city is to belong to people of colour. 

*Names have been changed at the individual’s request