Transit Rider Summit strengthens and builds organizing efforts in Toronto, throughout Ontario

By Jane McKenzie  

TTCriders, Toronto’s grassroots and membership-based transit rider organization, held its first Transit Rider Summit in several years on June 16 at the Scarborough Civic Centre, a site of pre-amalgamation municipal government. Nearly 200 community members participated in lively debates and workshops in English, Tamil and Mandarin, connected with collaborators old and new, and discussed future campaigns.

For TTCriders Executive Director Shelagh Pizey-Allen, “events like the Transit Summit are key to keeping a pulse on what riders care about and bring new people into transit advocacy who may come from different movements, like climate or housing, or who are simply interested in how transit runs day to day.”

The transit movement is growing in Toronto and it’s easy to see why. “Transit can be overlooked as an area for advocacy, but it unlocks so many other parts of our lives – it’s galvanizing,”, said longtime TTCriders volunteer and Summit co-MC Vince Puhakka.

This year’s Summit took place against the backdrop of a systematically underfunded transit system – a canary in the coal mine for crumbling city infrastructure after years of underfunding from all levels of government, in favour of privatization and corporate profits.

Recent events underline the dire state of the TTC: a dramatic rise in 2024 of hydraulic fluid leaks from subway work cars to tracks, the 2023 Scarborough RT derailment, the 2020 near-miss subway crash that was kept from public knowledge until reported by the Toronto Star – not to mention a serious lack of transparency and accountability across the board, service cuts and management directives to keep trains running for years longer than they should, which stretches maintenance workers thin.

What was on riders’ minds at the Summit, with this for the backdrop? “Surprisingly, the most popular workshop was about how to plan your own campaign,” which was delivered by young organizers from More Transit Southern Ontario, said Pizey-Allen. “People are really excited to organize in their communities.”

Toronto transit wasn’t the only system represented at the Summit, with contingents from Durham Region, Hamilton and Ottawa making appearances. “Some of [these groups] joined separately but connected at the event, which was exciting to see,” said Puhakka. Participants from Ottawa Transit Riders also delivered a workshop on advocacy tactics.

Puhakka said the idea of transit as a downtown concern rings hollow at events like this. “We had as many people excited to talk about the future of the Eglinton East LRT as about King St. transit priority. People are passionate about the TTC in the city core and the outer suburbs.”

Wheel Trans was another topic on riders’ minds, with practical tutorials like how to appeal your Wheel Trans status and strategic conversations around campaigning to improve services. “Riders are worried about losing their ability to move around the city under the ‘Family of Services’ model that forces riders to re-establish their need for Wheel Trans services and has pushed people on to conventional transit”, said Puhakka. “It’s a cost-cutting measure plain and simple, and Wheel Trans users are the ones paying the price.”

TTCriders has an active Wheel Trans committee which regularly campaigns to protect and increase services, and for the dignity of those riders using them.

Summit participants also discussed fare policy and potential demands. “Fare demands need to be ambitious enough that people will show up and take their own time to fight for them,” said Pizey-Allen. The idea of fare-capping – setting a maximum number of paid trips per day or month, after which the rider rides for free – was received very positively. “One of the reasons it’s a strong demand is because it’s a simple idea and can benefit everybody.”

Universal policies like fare-capping can be supported by a broad coalition and become harder to repeal over time because of the number of people who come to expect the benefit.

Worker and rider solidarity was another workshop on offer at the Summit, led by a member of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 113. In early June, while the union was in contract negotiations with TTC management, TTCriders members canvassed thousands of riders to inform them of the strike and what they could do to help. Many riders took action to urge city and TTC leadership to bargain fairly.

“Solidarity with workers protects TTC service and accountability to riders,” said Pizey-Allen. “Most riders we canvassed were at least understanding about why workers were considering a strike, and many were very supportive.”

The landscape in which TTCriders organizes may change in the short-term. On June 20, former TTC CEO Rick Leary resigned from his position. Leary, who was the City of Toronto’s highest paid employee in 2023, oversaw the gross decline in service levels and transparency of transit operations and service during his tenure. “This is an opportunity for renewal,” said Pizey-Allen in a statement. “We need a CEO who will be honest about what is going on and how to fix it, and advocate for the funding the TTC needs.”

This is a tremendous opening for the TTC Board to appoint an advocate to helm the TTC, someone who will seek and value public engagement. It remains to be seen how Mayor Olivia Chow will weigh in on this appointment, which will materially impact the daily lives of workers in Toronto, or whether she will stay on the sidelines.

The long-term health of Canada’s transit systems depends on sustained organizing by working people and a civic reform movement that can organize around, and win, a new deal for cities.

[Photo: members of TTCriders rally in April with “fund evasion” notices for the provincial government]

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