Sean Hertel is a professional urban planner who specializes in policy and programs related to transit, housing, and suburbanization. Sean co-authored Next Stop: Equity. Routes to fairer transit access in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, a report that examines why the benefits of building transit are not equally shared, and how to begin to correct this. This is the first in a TransformTO Talks interview series with multi-sectoral experts on the TransformTO advisory group.
TAF: What is ‘transit equity’?
Sean Hertel: A lot of people might be quick to say that equity is all about equality, but it’s actually quite different. While equality says that everyone must be treated the same, equity is about treating people appropriately and fairly, and not all the same. Our research has shown that transit equity must be purposefully addressed. It’s the opposite to a trickle-down economics approach, it has to be very deliberate. And it’s just as important a consideration as GHG emission reductions.
TAF: What’s at stake if we don’t consider equity when advancing low-carbon transportation approaches, like transit?
Sean: The implications are increased social disparity, declining public health, and public disengagement. It’s a downward spiral effect. As a planner I view the city through a lens of those who need a good city the most. If I can meet their needs, then I can meet everyone’s needs, and we have a just and good city. The cost of not doing it far outstrips the cost of providing the services in the first place. There’s an economic cost, there’s an environmental cost, and there’s a social cost. And you cannot separate those three things.
TAF: What are the factors that you think currently influence public transit investment?
Sean: Politics unfortunately. Despite expert advice and analysis, many decisions are made based on political opportunism. Accommodation of politics and finance and lack of meaningful public engagement mean that infrastructure isn’t always made for the benefit of all people and all publics. Secondly, a lot of decisions are made in terms of return on investment, which is often calculated in terms of tax revenue, development revenue, and development uptake. Lost in that calculus are some of the social benefits, the environmental benefits. I think politicians need to listen to experts, they need to look beyond their terms of office, and citizens need to be accountable to themselves and to their neighbours. We need to realize that taxes actually render services that everyone needs. So I think everyone has a responsibility for a better future.
TAF: What role does community engagement play in planning transit, and how can we ensure that it’s meaningful?
Sean: I believe that we need to hear from different voices. We often hear from people with a myriad of mobility options who live in good neighbourhoods. We need to reach the people for whom we’re planning transit for in the first place – those people who are working three jobs and don’t have time to show up to a public meeting. We need to be more meaningful and deliberate in our consultation; to go to people where they are, as opposed to asking them coming to us. Maybe we need to ride buses with them for the three hours as they’re traversing the region, or go to their places of work which are often in the suburbs. And if we take the time to understand their situation in the first place, we’ll get more meaningful consultation, which means a better project design and better value for our public investment.
TAF: What are some tactics that will ensure social equity as we evaluate different transit options for Toronto?
Sean: The first and most obvious thing is price. The cash fare for lower income groups is proportionally higher than for those who can afford to pay more. That’s inherently unfair. Those with higher incomes are the ones who can take advantage of discounted passes, for example the TTC subscriber Metropass program, because they can afford to pay for their monthly fares up front. Then there is the user experience. Those who can least afford to ride transit are stuck on buses for hours at a time. And these buses are dirty, these buses are not reliable, and they make people feel even less appreciated as citizens. There was a woman who told me that every time the bus would stop on her route, all the garbage would roll down the aisle and over her feet. And she would just look down at all the garbage around her shoes and just feel terrible about herself. So beyond price, which is important, there is the user experience. And there is recognizing that there is humanity in transit that we have to support and recognize. These are human beings, these aren’t ‘customers’ or ‘riders’ these are our neighbours.
TAF: TransformTO is looking to our Modelling Advisory Group to assess the impact carbon reduction strategies have on equity, economy, and health. Using transit investment as an example, could you explain how we could measure the equity impacts?
Sean: The whole point of delivering transit is delivering a mobility service, but we’re focusing too much on infrastructure. And buses aren’t sexy. However, what we found in our research is that if you want to improve equity, improved bus service is the way to go. If you run more buses and keep those buses clean you can improve service for marginalized members of the community very quickly and effectively, and for relatively little money. In the end it’s all about service. It’s decreasing the time that people are in transit, improving the predictability of service, and improving the customer experience.
TAF: What do we have to do to prevent areas around new transit development from becoming less affordable for low-income people, forcing them to move further away from transit services they need?
Sean: Providing a greater overall supply of good transit will help offset these effects. Another part of it is not separating transit from other city building initiatives, such as community services and facilities, schools, parks, and affordable housing. You can also stipulate rules around transit development. Let’s say we create a great new LRT or express bus service that serves a low-income neighbourhood. To ensure people are not displaced, make it a condition that you have a certain amount of affordable housing units along that line. You look at affordable housing issues at the same time you’re looking at improving transit.
TAF: Are there synergies between social equity and carbon reduction, or are their respective goals at odds?
Sean: I’m not a cynic by nature, but I think that they’re at odds. If you look at those members of society that have the opportunity to take advantage of green initiatives, they are white and upper middle class. It sometimes seems that green programs are less about environmentalism and more about consumerism and social status. And I know that that’s not the intention but that’s certainly how it’s playing out.
TAF: TransformTO will model various scenarios for carbon reduction to inform Toronto’s climate planning. How can we ensure that these scenarios also address social equity?
Sean: Transit equity should be elevated as an imperative of public transit investment on parity with reducing GHGs, dealing with traffic congestion, with increasing development potential and revenues for government. We have to make community gardening, energy efficiency retrofits, and active transportation, not just a nice-to-have where it’s convenient to implement, such as higher density areas of downtown, but a fundamental element of city building, period. Let’s prioritize actions in Toronto’s Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. If we can effect change there, we can do it everywhere.