'We don’t know what we don’t know': Canada's biggest city will see big transit changes, but specifics are unclear

Elianna Lev
·3-min read
TORONTO, ON - MARCH 3: TORONTO, ON- March 03 2020.TTC employees wipe down the surfaces in vehicles. The TTC provided a visual demo of our enhanced cleaning of subway and bus touch points. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Public transportation in Canada’s largest city could be a different experience for riders in “the new normal”, as a direct result of the pandemic. But representatives from the Toronto Transit Commission, the country’s largest transit system, and Metrolinx aren’t yet sure precisely what that will look like.

At the TTC, spokesperson Stuart Green says it’s not clear what the new normal will look like and it’s still unclear when the current guidelines will start to lift. It’s currently running about 15 percent of its usual 1.7 million daily ridership.

“We’ve adjusted our service to meet that demand and also preserve physical distancing,” he tells Yahoo News Canada. “We’ll likely have slightly longer headways in service and gaps between vehicles starting this weekend.”

The TTC recently announced it would temporarily be laying off 1200 workers, as a result of a decline in ridership. There are currently place markers and tape on subway, streetcar and bus seats that indicate where people can sit in order to safely distance. Buses keep the front doors close when letting on passengers, except for those who need help with accessibility.

Green says the TTC is currently in the planning stages of a gradual return.

“The assumption is that there will be a phased approach to reopening the city,” he says. “We’re planning for multiple scenarios that envision a gradual return to ridership.”

Green says the biggest challenge right now is that it’s not clear when ridership will return, what graduation of phases will look like and what restrictions will be imposed on public transit. Some public transportation systems in countries like Spain and France require all riders to wear masks.

“We don’t know if something like that could happen here,” he says. “Will there be regulations about public capacity or how close people can be next to each other? Because public transit is planned at its busiest times - rush hour - to be full. That clearly wouldn’t work right now.”

At this point, Green says it’s all a guessing game.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” he says. “We don’t know if there are going to be public health restrictions and how that will relate to public transit.”

Since the pandemic hit, ridership on Metrolinx services like the Go Train and Up Express, which goes between downtown to Pearson International Airport, has also seen a dramatic decline - 90 per cent. Customers who haven’t ridden since then can expect a different atmosphere.

“It's a bit soon to talk about what is coming for transit but I can say that the measures we have taken during COVID will be continuing as we go back to work,” Anne Marie Aikins with Metrolinx said in an email. “We’ve got several teams making plans for the future as we return to normal, the new normal.”

Some changes include the installation of polycarbonate screens to protect the drivers in buses, frontline staff wearing face shields and gloves and hand sanitizer dispensers installed on buses and in stations. Cleaning of work locations, stations, trains and busses has also been stepped up.