Russ Ford's Blog

Inequality and the Public Transit Debate

I recently read an article in which it was claimed that the United States (and I assume Canada) is now a "post racial society".

The argument is that while the United States institutionalized racism early in its existence through slavery, such notions of racial superiority do not exist today and even the President is Black.

I suspect the author is neither Black or a member of one of our First Nations.
This week at the LAMP annual general meeting Alvin Curling, one of the co-authors of the Roots of Youth Violence report laid out a very different perspective. Ontario's unemployment rate is 7%, youth unemployment is 14% and Black youth unemployment is 28%.

While those numbers may seem staggering they are consistent with just about every  other social indicator that examines the issue of  race. Poverty rates and crime stats all show the same tendency. In the United States for example, 30% of those arrested for drug crimes are Black yet 80% of those in jail for drug crimes are Black.

The notion of a "post racial society" is indeed troubling because if you accept that institutionalized racism is a thing of the past, the only explanation for these statistics becomes individualized. If you do not accept that unemployment among Black youth is tied to racism, your only explanation is to blame the person for being unemployed. And if more black youth are unemployed, then clearly the problem rests with the Black community.

It will also only serve as an excuse to maintain the status quo and do nothing about racism.

Attacking the issue of racism is difficult because it is so interwoven into our society. It is connected to poverty and poverty is connected to health status. I could go on but I think you get the point. The issue of racism is actually bigger than racism itself and therefore no one thing or no one strategy is going to address it. You cannot address racism without addressing poverty and you cannot address poverty without addressing health and education.

What we need is what I am going to call a "social justice agenda". The social justice agenda stands in stark contrast to the austerity agenda which is currently in vogue in Ottawa and Queens Park. The austerity agenda tells us we are in an economic pothole that can only be filled by tightening our belts.

Of course they do not mean we all have to tighten our belts. No, only the people who need government supports need to put their shoulder to the wheel.  Only people on government assistance or who access government programs need to tighten. The austerity agenda is a well disguised war on the poor who are over represented by members of the Black and First Nations communities.

By contrast the social justice agenda is about reducing the gap between members of our society, not increasing it. The social justice agenda recognizes the increasing gap between those that have and those that have not is both damaging and unsustainable.

The potential for embarking on such an agenda is indeed great. It is simply transformative and holds far better chances of creating real change than exchanging one of our current political parties for another.

A social justice agenda would force us to address some of the institutionalized barriers that promote racism. It would force us to not only understand why Black youth can't get jobs but it would lead to concrete action. Only then do we have even a chance of living in a post racial society.

So how do we do it.

Because of the enormity of the task let's start real simple. Let`s start by developing an equity lens on public policy. By that I mean every time there is a change in public policy we take out our equity lens and ask ourselves if this makes us a more equal or a more unequal society. If the answer is the latter, we reject it.

Now the issue of equity can apply to any area of public policy. As I did at our annual meeting, I will use the TTC as an example.

I do that not because the TTC is the bastion of inequality, but because it is an example of how insidious inequality has become. We do not even think of the current subway-LRT debate as one of equity, but it is.

Current TTC Subway Map and Priority Neighbourhoods

(Current TTC Subway Line and Priority Neighbourhoods)

If you look at the first map (above) you see the current subway system. Then take a look at where the most impoverished areas of the city are located (highlighted in red).  See how they do not match up. Yet we know that low income people are less likely to own a car and are therefore more dependent on public transit. So if our transit goal was based in equity, we would not be building subways. Or if we did we would not be considering future locations like Sherway Gardens. We would and should be asking ourselves how can we help people in Rexdale get to work. That should be the public transit agenda.

Now let’s take a look at the plans for Transit City (map below), which was to supply transit services throughout the city using light rail transit as opposed to subways. Interestingly the Transit City plans do go through the high need communities like Rexdale.

Transit City Plan

(Transit City Plan)

The final illustration puts the numbers beside each and clearly asks the question, are we better off with subways or LRTs.  I think the answer is obvious from both a financial and an equity perspective.


So if you take up your equity lens, the tone of the transit debate changes dramatically. The LRT will get low income people to work in the morning in a reasonable amount of time. The subway expansion will get us to the shopping malls. In the recent by-election all three parties supported the absurd notion of abandoning the Scarborough LRT and replacing it with a two-stop subway which will cost more and take ten years to build.

Toronto has a transit problem now. We are one of the world’s most congested cities but scheming to get elected seems more important than showing true leadership.

The behavior of our politicians in the Scarborough by-election is in my view one of the main reasons low income people vote at a much reduced rate. The political system just does not work for them and there is no better example than the subway-LRT debate.


transit and inequality

A really good blog, Russ - succinct and to the point. Let's hope we can get city council to pay attention to this analysis.

Inequality and the Public Transit Debate

Once again Russ, you make too much sense and your figures and illustrations show this. If I may, I would suggest that you take a different approach to make this information known.
I would suggest you arrange to use Marie Curtis Park or some like venue, tell people that it is not a pre-election stunt, ship in people from Scarborough and other parts of Toronto, especially elderly and others from long term care facilities. Once you have them there, because you have promised the participants with something- give them a burger and a cold drink and when you are inform the press with the following words - "LRT.LRT, LRT!"
It seems to work for at least one other in the City of Toronto, it might work for you. Oh I forgot, you are not running for mayor in next year's election.
Never mind then.

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