Source: Andrew Goloida/Flickr

Every Toronto worker knows you cannot rely on the TTC. A recent report from the Toronto Region Board of Trade named the TTC the least reliable transit service in the Greater Toronto Area, with only 58 per cent of trips last year being on time.

On any given day, the TTC Service Alerts account on Twitter/X will post dozens of times about delays, outages, and lack of service. Standard reasons are injury on the tracks (usually code for someone trying to commit suicide), trespasser at track level, construction, blocked tracks/roads, mechanical problems, operational problems, “security incidents”, collisions, medical emergencies, traffic congestion, police activity, etc. The end result is no matter where you’re going or how close your destination, if you take the TTC, you’re likely to experience some disruption.

How can a basic service 1.7 million people rely on each day to get around Canada’s largest city be so consistently broken? The issue goes beyond the TTC itself, which has been underfunded for decades. The TTC in many ways embodies everything wrong with big city life under capitalism.

Suffering and indifference

Take one of the most common reasons for delays: injury at track level, which generally means a suicide attempt. The fact that this happens so often in the richest city in one of the world’s richest countries is a testament to rampant inequality and poverty. Suicide is the ultimate expression of intolerable pain. To state the obvious: life must be pretty bad if death is the preferable option. In recent years, suicide attempts on the TTC have risen. The pandemic accelerated this trend; 2020 was the TTC’s second-deadliest year ever for suicides.

The number of suicides becomes less surprising when you consider the dire straits so many people find themselves in across Canada. Poverty and homelessness are on the rise. Tent cities are expanding. Mental health continues to deteriorate. The housing crisis is most acute in Toronto and Vancouver. Since the legalization of medical assistance in dying (MAID), reports have proliferated of Canadians turning to MAID due to poverty. That is, people are choosing to die because they literally cannot afford to live. Whether someone tries to commit suicide by stepping in front of a subway train, or by having a doctor euthanize them, the end result is the same.

Common reactions to “injuries at track level” reflect another aspect of life in large cities: brutalization and indifference to human suffering. In TTC Service Alerts posts announcing “injuries at track level”, replies express frustration at service delays and the general unreliability of the TTC. It’s hard to blame anyone for reacting that way to something they’ve experienced so many times. Living in a big city slowly desensitizes one to such horrors.

Homelessness, poverty, violence, mental health problems

It’s similar to the way people with homes react to those experiencing homelessness. A common response is to ignore the latter or avert one’s eyes. It’s not that people don’t sympathize with the plight of the poor. But if there’s no perceived solution, all we can do is avoid thinking about it. Under capitalism, where basic needs like housing are treated as a commodity, there is in fact no way to end homelessness. That’s why no politician in Canada can or will solve the housing crisis. Indeed, many of them are landlords who benefit from the status quo.

As Fightback noted of calls for government to “incentivize” purpose-built rental units with subsidies, which is really a justification for more corporate welfare:

[S]o long as these units are privately-owned, they will be rented out at the highest rate possible. No matter how many subsidies are poured into “affordable” developments, investment properties will be priced to maximize returns. […] This is the logic of capitalism. At bottom, landlords and property developers do not exist to provide housing. They exist to reap profits. Their profits come from their monopoly chiefly over the land which surrounds Canada’s major employment and social centres. 

The rising cost of housing makes people poorer, in some cases leaving them homeless. Poverty is a primary cause of poor health, including mental health. If people can’t find proper housing, they will seek shelter wherever they can. Many of those suffering from homelessness do not feel safe in shelters, where violence, sexual assault, theft, and risk of disease are rampant. Meanwhile, police periodically destroy homeless encampments along with the few possessions their occupants have. Some people might not even be able to afford tents. In the absence of other options, where can unhoused people in Toronto turn to for shelter?

You guessed it—the TTC. Take a trip on the subway, bus, or streetcar, and at some point you’ll almost certainly see someone begging for change, trying to sleep on a few chairs, or having a mental health episode. Of course, this is hardly restricted to Toronto, but is a feature of capitalist cities in general. Indifference or turning away isn’t the worst reaction people can have. A few months ago in New York City, we saw the public lynching of Jordan Neely on a subway train. When Neely, who was experiencing homelessness, erupted in frustration at his hunger and poverty, two other men held him down while a third strangled him to death. Commuters watched this happen, and many reactionary politicians and media outlets openly celebrated Neely’s murder. These are the kinds of “solutions” capitalism offers to poverty: repression and violence.

Transit violence has become a growing problem on the TTC. 2022 saw a range of violent assaults on commuters. As we wrote at the time:

This trend must be understood as a symptom of a society in decline. Life is becoming increasingly unaffordable for the average Canadian. The national inflation rate hit 6.8 per cent in November, and was even higher for basic necessities like food (11.4 per cent) and gasoline (13.7 per cent). Already, 17 per cent of households report eating less food in order to pay the bills. While prices are surging, wages have not kept up with the increased cost of living: after decades of stagnancy, the average base salary increase in 2022 was just four per cent. Workers are getting poorer. At the same time, interest rates have increased while Canadian households are drowning in debt, leaving many families struggling just to pay their interest.

Meanwhile, the homelessness crisis has deepened. According to Toronto Public Health, homelessness kills one person every two days. Given the difficulty in ascertaining these statistics, the real number is likely much higher. This is a result of speculative investment on the housing market, which artificially inflates prices and makes it impossible for many to afford a place to live. This same speculative investment keeps a sizable percentage of housing units empty for the sake of profit. Simultaneously, the opioid crisis, also a result of capitalist profiteering, has led to the present drug poisoning crisis in Toronto. All of these factors contribute to a general mental health crisis. And of course, the climate crisis weighs down on everyone’s mind, creating a general sense of pessimism and hopelessness for the future, especially among the youth.

When a given form of society is able to develop the economy productively, when it is able to provide people with good living standards and give them hope for the future, it is possible to maintain relative social stability. When it seems that life is getting better every year, people tend to look forward with optimism. But in a period of severe crisis, the stresses of “everyday life” become too much for many people to take. In such a situation, it should come as no surprise that we have seen an increase in violent attacks and crime.

Increased violence and brutalization is just one aspect of the capitalist crisis. The same trend can be seen on a larger scale: Canadian MPs are currently funding a proxy war and arming neo-Nazis in Ukraine, recently gave a standing ovation to a Waffen-SS veteran in Parliament, and are now endorsing Israel’s genocidal attacks on Palestinians that killed hundreds of children in just one week.

Underfunded services, insufficient infrastructure

Commuting in Toronto is a nightmare regardless of one’s mode of transportation. At peak periods, it’s often difficult to squeeze onto a subway train, bus, or streetcar; a bad enough experience pre-pandemic, but now we pack together with few if any wearing masks. It’s all a recipe for a miserable travel experience.

The running joke is that TTC stands for “Take the car”. Yet those who drive to and from work might have it even worse. It’s almost impossible to drive in or out of Toronto at any point of day without running into heavy traffic—usually on the Don Valley Parkway, which Torontonians have rightfully nicknamed “the Don Valley Parking Lot”. On a recent bus to Kingston, it took the author 1 hour and 30 minutes to get from downtown Toronto to Scarborough. In addition to the usual traffic jams, there was an accident on every single route. Toronto has been ranked as the third most congested city in the world, to the point where even Tom Cruise took note of the horrible traffic.

Overcrowding on the TTC and the city’s notorious traffic have the same cause: infrastructure that does not have the capacity to meet current demands. The population of Toronto has exploded in recent decades, due in large part to immigration. But the city’s transit and road systems were not built to accommodate the number of people who now use them.

Source: Transportfan70 (Original by Craftwerker),
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Toronto is currently in the midst of a massive revenue crisis that will put public services on the chopping block. The TTC, like many social services, has long been underfunded. Now it is nearing collapse, while still having some of the most expensive transit fares in the world. The situation is bad enough that the federal government was compelled to invest billions of dollars in new transit infrastructure for the GTA. However, these projects are years away from completion, and mostly focus on outlying areas rather than the downtown core, which is the real problem. Last year, a viral TikTok video compared Toronto’s paltry three subway lines to the intricate, complex systems in cities like Paris, London, and New York. You don’t even have to go that far: the Montreal Metro is far superior to the TTC in terms of getting where you need to go on the subway.

While mayoral candidates in the recent by-election made all kinds of claims about solving Toronto’s traffic woes, voices in the bourgeois press declared the problem unsolvable for any major city. In truth, the failures of the TTC, Toronto’s notorious traffic congestion, and the wretched experience of commuting around this city could be solved by providing free, fully funded public transit. Unfortunately, under capitalism things are going in the opposite direction.

Paying more for less

At the start of 2023, the TTC announced service cuts and fare hikes. That continued a longstanding trend of ever higher fees and worse service, even as TTC management continue to give themselves generous pay raises. Despite declining ridership at the start of the pandemic, TTC CEO Rick Leary rewarded himself a 21 per cent pay increase in 2021.

After Olivia Chow’s election as mayor in August, she announced increases in transit service to pre-pandemic levels, which was already inadequate in 2019. The advocacy group TTCRiders welcomed the announcement, but said the TTC’s lack of reliability, safety, and security remained an issue and more needed to be done. Given Toronto’s revenue crunch, it is highly doubtful the necessary investments will be made. Instead, the TTC’s aging infrastructure will just get more dilapidated and unpredictable. Meanwhile, the broader crisis of capitalism will worsen. The Bank of Canada’s goal in hiking interest rates was to spark a recession to get inflation under control, but this will increase poverty, homelessness, and mental health problems.

Paying more for less might be the aspect of the TTC most reflective of the general decline of Toronto. In the face of inflation and price-gouging, the cost of basic necessities such as groceries has become so high, it’s practically impossible for many workers to save money.

The cost of rent jumped by 10 per cent in Toronto in just the last year. As of August, average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city was a whopping $2,620. More and more young workers are realizing they can’t afford to live in this city. As the Toronto Star reports, “thousands of young people are fleeing Toronto” because of what the paper calls an “affordability crisis”. Toronto is a sinking ship, and those who can find a spot are scrambling for the lifeboats. Economists, the Star adds, say the city will suffer as a result. This is a perfect example of capitalism’s internal contradictions, the same reason this system inevitably falls into crisis due to overproduction. Workers cannot afford to buy the goods they produce. In Toronto, as everywhere else, capitalism offers no solutions.

What is possible: Public transit under socialism

There is no reason a city as rich as Toronto cannot have a “world-class” transit system. The problem is an economic system based around private profit, in which essential services like public transportation go chronically underfunded.

In a planned socialist economy based on need rather than profit, services like transit would be free and fully funded, allowing for the expansion of the TTC to meet the needs of the city’s growing population. A socialist plan could also expand municipal roadways as necessary and ensure everyone has good housing, jobs, and social services. On the basis of democratic workers’ control, those who actually use and operate the TTC will be able to run it. An attractive, modern, and reliable transit system that meets the needs of the population would also reduce the incentive to travel by car, helping relieve traffic congestion and reduce carbon emissions.The Moscow Metro offers a glimpse of what is possible for transit under a nationalized planned economy. At the start of the 1930s, there was no public transportation system in Russia or any other part of the Soviet Union. Based on a rational socialist plan, and despite the parasitic role of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the U.S.S.R. constructed a modern transit system as advanced as any in the world. The stunning architecture of the Metro stations has been described as “palatial”. Artists and architects worked to build structures that embodied the values of svet (light, brilliance, radiance) and svetloe buduschee (a well-lit/bright/radiant future). If such results could be achieved nearly a century ago in a relatively poor and backward country, as Russia was at the time, the potential for beautiful, clean, reliable public transit under a workers’ government is far greater today in an advanced and wealthy country like Canada

For bosses who don’t use the TTC, the quality of public transit is irrelevant. For workers, it’s critical. Toronto can have an excellent transit system residents are proud of. The task of workers is to build a revolutionary communist party that can take power and build the infrastructure we need.