Overcrowded buses worry commuters as COVID-19 cases rise and weather turns colder

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Raquel Tomlinson describes her commute to work as an exercise in fear – forced to stand side by side with other passengers on her bus, with no room for physical distance.“I don’t feel safe for the people in this region and I don’t feel safe for myself,” she said. “It’s just not possible on these buses. “

Tomlinson works in northwest Toronto – an area hit hard by the pandemic, with more COVID-19 cases in this pocket of the city than anywhere else. It is also one of the most affected by the overcrowding of buses.

During rush hour, bus stops at busy intersections are crowded with people. As soon as a bus stops, dozens pile up, dozens more crowd. The bus starts with most of the seats full and the passengers standing next to each other in the aisle. It’s a scene that repeats over and over again.

But Tomlinson, like so many others in this part of Toronto, has no choice but to put his fears aside and take the bus anyway. She relies on him to get to work, and as a key retail worker, she can’t stay home.

“I am disappointed with the TTC [Toronto Transit Commission] system and government. They should recognize that people’s lives are in danger. “

Raquel Tomlinson relies on the TTC to get to work, but she says the overcrowded buses have left her fearful for her safety. (Ellen Mauro / CBC News)

As cases of COVID-19 increase and colder weather looms, there are growing concerns about overcrowded buses in parts of the city.

The Ontario government has published guidelines for transportation agencies across the province. He says passengers should maintain a distance of two meters where possible – but acknowledges that won’t always be the case. The document does not set a limit for the number of passengers that should be allowed on a bus at the same time.

The TTC is aware of the overcrowding problem, but says there is no immediate solution that would ensure six feet physical distance on all of its buses.

“We are doing everything we can with what is available,” said TTC spokesperson Stuart Green.

The problem particularly affects the suburbs of Toronto. These areas, which are home to many low-income essential workers who depend on public transit, have already borne a disproportionate burden from the number of COVID cases in the city.

“I would love for politicians to take the bus themselves,” said Jennifer Robinson, a community leader in Malvern, a neighborhood in eastern Toronto. “I would love for them to have the same feeling as people who are immigrants, who have lower paying jobs.

Samuel Kisitu relies on the 35 bus that crosses northwest Toronto. He says it gets crowded every day during the afternoon rush hours. (Submitted by Samuel Kitsu)

Robinson’s son, who suffers from asthma, is now too worried about his health to take the bus. He relies on a friend with a car to help him get to work downtown, but Robinson fears what will happen if this arrangement stops working.

“He’s an adult, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying. ”

Samuel Kisitu is also worried. He relies on the 35 bus which runs along Jane Street in the northwest of the city. And he’s afraid of the colder weather on the horizon, knowing that it will likely force more people on board, making the congestion worse.

“If you want to sit down you don’t have a chance, but even when you get up you don’t have a break,” he said.

“The question is when is it going to end? “

Low-income workers bear the brunt

To alleviate overcrowding, the Toronto Transit Commission added 110 bus that can be sent on demand in high traffic areas A control center monitors the transit network to determine where additional buses are needed most.

Green says buses should normally operate at a maximum capacity of 50 people, but during the pandemic the TTC tried to schedule services so that the buses operate with half that number. He adds that over the last week, 92% 100 of all bus trips were below the 25 person threshold.

TTC is also relating more than half of the 450 employees made redundant earlier in the pandemic. However, it will not recall all of its laid-off staff until system-wide demand exceeds 50 percent.

During the lockdown, the TTC saw its ridership drop by nearly 85%, resulting in a shortfall of $ 21 million per week throughout the spring.

But, according to users, demand did not abate in outlying areas of the city as it did in downtown Toronto, where office tower workers could switch to working from home.

Dozens of commuters crowd a TTC bus in northwest Toronto during the morning rush hour. (Ellen Mauro / CBC News)

Over the summer, the TTC reported that it was monitoring 15 routes for overcrowding – many of them passing through these areas outside the city. He also advised passengers to delay their trips until 8 a.m. to avoid the busiest hours.

Geographer Sean Marshall studied ridership patterns during the pandemic. he mapped some of the busiest roads, finding they crisscrossed industrial estates with businesses that would employ low-income workers.

“These are where the problems are most severe,” Marshall said.

“Those who have to work in supermarkets, hospitals and other healthcare fields, in manufacturing – they still have to go to work every day. And if you don’t have a car, you have to take the bus. “

A TTC sign warns commuters to wear masks and stay home if they show symptoms of COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui / CBC)

With photos of overcrowded buses strewn across social media, Green acknowledges that overcrowding remains an issue, but beyond the additional buses that have already been added, he said there is little more the city can do at this point.

“It won’t always be possible on all roads at all times to have that six-foot distance,” said Green.

“If there’s one vehicle that’s too crowded, get out and wait for the next one – it’s not an ideal solution, but it’s an option. “

“We don’t even have the choice to stay at home”

Rechev Browne said that’s not an option at all when trying to get to work on time.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Take the next bus’, but that’s a whole different meaning for a worker, right?”

Browne catches the bus near his home in northwest Toronto – the same area of ​​the city most affected by the pandemic – just after 5 a.m. for an hour’s commute to his work in a grocery store. His days begin with getting rid of fatigue and managing his anxiety about the clutter he might encounter on the way. He lives with his mother who has asthma and is constantly worried about making her sick.

Grocer Rechev Browne describes how he protects his mother with asthma after finishing her ride on a crowded TTC bus. 0:37

“You have to work and my mom has essential work too, so it’s like we don’t even have a choice to stay at home,” Browne said.

“We really have to look at how we move down the line in terms of income but, at the same time, stay safe.

A difficult balance now – one that is expected to become even more precarious with the recent resurgence of the virus and colder weather approaching.

“There aren’t enough buses,” Browne said. “And there are too many of us trying to get to the same place at the same time. “

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