In my experience, there are few things that can bond two strangers in Toronto faster than griping about the TTC. But delays, daily overcrowding and rapidly rising fares for continually worsening service are not the greatest offenses committed by the TTC. This superlative is reserved for their treatment of people who have disabilities.

I do not have a mobility disability. I do have an anxiety disorder related to crowding that dictates when I can travel by TTC. But I think to myself very often that at least I can take public transit at some time of the day. To many others, this is not possible.

Line 1 opened in 1954, then Line 2 in 1966. None of the stations on these lines were accessible. In 1989, a study called Choices for the Future justified the TTC’s initial decision to shortcut accessibility. The study said that TTC subway routes could accommodate everyone in Toronto with mobility disabilities by making only 20 stations accessible, using their Wheel-Trans service (an ordered, door-to-door service with accessible vehicles) to transport passengers between their inaccessible stops and destinations.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) was implemented in 2005 and mandated that Ontarian institutions, including a specific subsection for public transportation, be made accessible for people with disabilities by 2025. The TTC had a good start – 25 stations had already been made accessible (that is, they had an elevator, possibly an escalator) by 2005.

There are now eight years to go. Of the 69 subway stations, only 35 are accessible, and progress is slowing. Beginning in 1990, the TTC made 28 stations accessible (some of which were built to be accessible, others had to be upgraded) in 17 years. But from 2007 to 2016, it took nine years for the TTC to make seven subway stations accessible.  

The rest of the system has reflected this sluggishness as the AODA deadline encroaches. The TTC proudly touts the fact that their buses are considered accessible, and that all bus routes can be considered accessible – because, of course, they are serviced by accessible buses. But an accessible vehicle is useless without a safe way to get to that vehicle. According to the TTC’s 2016 statistics, about 16 per cent of the TTC’s bus stops in Toronto – 1,459 stops – are inaccessible (that is, people using mobility devices do not have a safe, flat, concrete path from the sidewalk to the curb).

The TTC stated in its 2016 Accessibility Plan Status Report that it intends to build 70 to 80 concrete pads per year to make all stops accessible. If the TTC makes 80 stops accessible every year, it will finish in 18 years.    

When it comes to streetcar stops, about 95 per cent are still inaccessible. Accessible streetcars service only three routes and makeup 11 per cent of the fleet. The massive delays and conflict of the TTC-Bombardier partnership have put a proverbial wrench in their order of 204 accessible streetcars. As of 2016, only 30 were in use.

How did it all go so wrong? The TTC had been making progress on accessible improvements even before the AODA. It had even planned to have all stations accessible by 2020 in the first several years after its implementation.

In 2009, the TTC began citing “recent pressures on the TTC’s long-term Capital Budget,” and announced it would be pushing its plans to make all subway stations accessible back by four years. In 2011, it pushed its end date for an entirely accessible subway system back another year, to 2025.

Then, in 2014, the TTC decided it would not sit idly by (pun intended) in the face of repeated annual budget cuts, particularly amidst the increasing costs from compiling accessibility requirements. It decided to cut funding for its project to make subway stations accessible until the city agreed to pay them more.  

The TTC asked that the “province take the lead on implementing specific elements of the standards rather than down-loading the responsibility and costs onto service providers.”

In fairness, since 2010 (adjusting for inflation), the TTC’s capital budget has been cut by 14 per cent, while ridership has risen 11 per cent. The TTC’s municipal and provincial funding per rider is also dwarfed by what other Ontarian transit agencies receive. In 2015, Durham Region got $3.74 in subsidies per rider and York Region got $4.56. Major Canadian transit agencies also trump the TTC – Vancouver got $1.86 per rider and Montreal got $1.16 in 2015 – as do systems in major American cities, where Los Angeles was given $3(US) per rider and New York, which had 2.385 billion rides that year, was given $1.52(US).

The TTC was given 90 cents per rider in 2016. And this is the most government funding it has had since 2010.

I will also admit that, as our understanding and accommodation of accessibility has improved, it has widened, and become more expensive. The 2014 implementation of the Integrated Accessibility Service Regulation (IASR), which supplements the AODA, did add significant new requirements for the TTC. External pre-boarding announcements on buses for people with hearing disabilities were priced at $5.7 million, pre-boarding auditory and visual announcements in the subway stations and trains totaled $8.1 million, upgrading streetcars to comply with IASR standards reportedly cost $9.4 million, and so on.

But people with disabilities should not be used as pawns in a game of “give us more money.” After years of being treated as a second thought, people who cannot use conventional transit due to disabilities were instead treated as bargaining chips.

After two years and no increase in funding, the TTC gave up and decided to put funding back towards making subway stations accessible. I will reiterate that the AODA is a law. I don’t remember being given the right to demand money to follow the law. I don’t like the idea of institutions, particularly those that the public relies on, doing so either.

What’s more, if the TTC had simply committed to thorough improvements for accessibility, and stayed committed to them, several of these costs would be far less significant than they are.

The first elevator was not built in a subway station until 1990. Back in 1954, when Line 1 was opened, and 1966, when Line 2 was opened, there were people with mobility issues who needed accessibility accommodations. Trying to save money by providing the bare minimum of proper service (which is essentially what they were trying to do by only putting in 20 accessible subway stations) to a distinctly vulnerable group of the public is irresponsible. This is not how public service should work. It should not accommodate only those that it would like to.

Really, the TTC should have been built accessibility. This mistake should have been devotedly rectified as soon as possible. But it wasn’t.

As the sluggish renovations for accessible transit dragged on, the demand for Wheel-Trans rose by just under 49 per cent from 2006 to 2016. This number represents just under two million more Wheel-Trans users. It is unclear how many of these people would have used or would instead use the conventional system if the system were built to allow them to.

The TTC stated in 2014 that it did not have enough money to cover updated IASR requirements that then forced them to provide 24-hour Wheel-Trans service. These new requirements included letting people who were taking the TTC solely to help another passenger with a mobility disability safely use the system register to ride without paying fares.

The TTC had posted, “With no funding provided by the Province to cover these operating costs and replace lost fare revenue, the TTC may be forced to raise fares and/or reduce service to compensate. To date, the Province has not responded positively to the TTC’s request regarding leadership or funding related to the implementation of the standards being imposed.”

But if the conventional TTC system was safe and accessible, people would be able to use it (and have much more freedom in their transit) instead of having only a 50/50 chance that the subway stop they need to get on or off at is accessible. If the system were adequate, the TTC would not have such a crucial requirement to not only raise funding for Wheel-Trans but make this service as available as the conventional system. I can imagine (but am not certainly saying) that the Wheel-Trans demand would be much lower.

There would also be less of a need for people to help others with disabilities to safely navigate some of the glaring safety concerns that even stump able bodies too. Like, oh, let’s say the dangerously large gap between the Toronto Rocket subway cars (which the TTC still claim are accessible, despite vocal opposition from activists) and the station platform. Maybe then we would need fewer people to help others use what is supposed to be a transit system that serves the public.  

Public transit should serve the public. This includes all members of the public. The way the TTC has treated people with mobility issues has been shameful and needs to change. Maybe instead of adding new subway lines, and sending the city into a tizzy as a result, just a moment should be spent thinking about making the existing lines suitable for use.

By Alexa Battler

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.