Public transit will be critical to Toronto's COVID-19 recovery, but will it be safe for riders?

Getting people safely back onto public transit looms as a daunting challenge in the coming weeks, and failing to do so could stifle Ontario’s chances at a swift economic recovery, experts warn.

Physical distancing will soon be impossible on its vehicles, TTC warns

It is now recommended that anyone riding transit in Ontario wear a non-medical mask or face covering, though the province's top doctor says the risks of using public transit are not yet known. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Getting people safely back onto public transit looms as a daunting challenge in the coming weeks, and failing to revitalize the system could stifle Ontario's chances at a swift economic recovery, experts are warning.

Public transit use has cratered during the COVID-19 crisis, with the TTC dipping to less than 20 per cent of its typical ridership since the province declared a state of emergency in mid-March.

But there are now concerns that even a minor rebound in ridership could pose a significant public-health challenge.

"Public transit has been identified as a location where there's going to need to be extreme care," said Matti Siemiatycki, an urban planning professor at the University of Toronto.

"The key is that there's going to be enough service that people can continue to use transit and that the service is provided safely."

The provincial government outlined a number of new measures this week in anticipation of more people returning to public transit as Ontario reopens.

The recommendations include the use of non-medical masks by riders, the installation of more Plexiglas barriers and allowing fewer passengers onboard vehicles.

"As more people start taking transit again, these public health measures will help keep people safe," Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said on Wednesday.

However, there have not been any major international studies examining the risk of transmitting COVID-19 on public transit. Ontario's chief medical officer of health said the spread of the disease is "biologically plausible" if vehicles become crowded again.

"We do not want to see that repeated, so the new norm will not be like the old," said Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health..

Physical distancing on transit will soon be impossible

The TTC has taken steps to protect passengers and its workers, including enhanced cleaning, deploying extra vehicles on busy routes and blocking off seats to ensure physical distancing.

But the agency says some of those measures will become impossible as more people return to the system, meaning the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus could increase along with crowding.

The TTC has blocked off seats to ensure physical distancing on its vehicles. The agency says it will have to lift those protections as more riders return to the service. (Max Coleman/CBC)

At its May board meeting, the TTC said it will no longer be able to provide adequate physical distancing between passengers when ridership returns to 30 per cent of normal levels, a minor bump the agency expects to arrive in the near future.

"There's going to come a certain point where physical distancing is just no longer going to be possible," said TTC spokesperson Stuart Green, who stressed the importance of masks.

Calls for more changes, emergency funding

The TTC and transit experts acknowledge that physical distancing of two metres will soon become an unrealistic standard on public transit, but there are hopes that other measures could help protect riders and workers.

Patricia Wood, a York University professor who studies transit, said Ontario should make masks mandatory for all riders, discourage talking on vehicles and consider lowering windows on buses to improve air circulation.

Siemiatycki said other cities have considered temperature screening and the removal of cloth surfaces. He noted that any such measures will either cost money to implement or lead to reduced revenue from the fare box.

ATU Local 113, which represents Toronto's transit workers, has also called on the province to make mask-wearing mandatory, rather than a recommendation.

Those steps, however, will not address the primary issue of potentially crowded vehicles, which Wood says can only be resolved through increased funding.

The federal and provincial governments have expressed their support for the TTC, which is shedding millions of dollars every day, though neither has committed to a plan for emergency funding.

"If we don't give the TTC the support it needs, we will not see a strong economic recovery in the city of Toronto," Wood said.

Will people return?

A preliminary survey conducted by the University of Toronto suggests many riders will not return to transit as long as COVID-19 remains a risk (The study was conducted through targeted Facebook ads and is thus not a true representation of transit users).

Just five per cent of respondents said they would return to transit during Stage 1 of the province's three-stage reopening plan, while 63 per cent said they would do so during Stage 3.

If riders do resist public transit in the coming months, Siemiatycki said governments will need to do more to make cycling and walking viable options.

Failing to do so will drive more people to use cars, he said, acknowledging that people with longer commutes may have no other option.

"If people do not return to public transit, if we do not make space for cycling and pedestrians, we will have gridlock like we've never seen in the city," Wood said.


Nick Boisvert is a multimedia journalist at the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He previously covered municipal politics for CBC News in Toronto. You can reach him at