Environmental justice, transit equity and the place for immigrants in Toronto.

Author:Amar, Amardeep Kaur


In response to population growth and events, Toronto is currently in the midst of debates about transportation planning. However, the perspectives of immigrants, especially women, who depend heavily on public transit, are often missing from academic and policy debates on transportation planning in Toronto. Due to Toronto's changing demographic landscape, a transit planning strategy that is based on a deeper understanding of how immigrant groups travel across the city can further social equity in transportation. Drawing on qualitative interviews with immigrants on their experiences of public transit in Toronto, the paper proposes an environmental justice framework in order to consider the equity and sustainability issues inherent in Toronto stakeholders' focus on transit expansion. The research findings highlight the limited affordability of public transit, the poor servicing and connectivity of transit networks, and the resulting barriers to accessing work opportunities across the region. The paper concludes by highlighting the need for new directions in transit policy and planning that can better address the changing demographics and social and spatial divisions in the city.

Keywords: immigrants, transportation, environmental justice, public transit, gender, Toronto


Face a la croissance de la population et aux evenements, des debats sur la planification des transports ont lieu actuellement a Toronto. Toutefois, ces debats tant dans les milieux universitaires que politiques sur la planification des transports ignorent souvent les besoins des immigrants, en particulier des femmes, qui dependent beaucoup des transports publics. En raison des changements demographiques a Toronto, une strategie de planification reposant sur une meilleure comprehension des deplacements de groupes d'immigrants dans la ville peut ameliorer l'equite sociale des transports. Partant de riches entrevues avec des immigrants qui relatent sur experiences des transports en public a Toronto, ce document propose un cadre de justice environnemental pour definir les questions d'equite et de durabilite au centre de la reflexion des parties prenantes sur le developpement des transports en commun. Les conclusions de la recherche mettent en lumiere le prix plutot eleve des titres de transport, une faible densite et des mauvaises correspondances dans les reseaux de transports. Ces lacunes erigent des obstacles aux possibilites d'emplois dans la region. Ce document de recherche conclut en insistant sur le besoin de nouvelles orientations dans la politique et la planification des transports en commun qui repondent mieux aux evolutions demographiques, sociales et spatiales de la ville.

Mots cles: immigrants, transports, justice environnementale, transports en commun, sexe, Toronto


"It (transit) is a lifeline of the city. It is your backbone. It takes you around. You cannot survive without TTC bus services and streetcars and subways. You do need it. Because it's faster and better. Faster than cars too, right?" (Geeta)

In recent years, there have been many debates in transportation planning and transit policy in Toronto amongst decision-making stakeholders. Amongst the issues debated are what kind of railway systems--subway or fight rail (LRT)--should be implemented, what priority should be given to a downtown relief fine and what is the potential for public-private partnership. Current shifts in transportation planning --from autocentric supply planning to multi-modal demand management have invited particular forms of investment and interest in rapid transit, including the airport express train (see Metrolinx 2010a). While the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) released a bus plan in 2009, it was soon overshadowed by capital-intensive rail projects. Moreover, as the previous Mayor Rob Ford reduced operating budgets, TTC implemented service cuts to bus routes (Rider and Kennedy 2011). The bus service cuts led to a reduction of weekend and night hours that have bearing on transit-dependent communities. Limited stakeholder discussion and research have taken place on the spatial distribution of public transit and the social dimensions of transportation in Toronto. A consideration of discourses of who belongs and has rights to the city can further an understanding of transit equity and the social dimensions of transportation. The notion of urban dwellers' "right to the city" points to the inequities in power and decision-making in cities. In the same way that procedural rights are an essential component of environmental justice, Lefebvre (1996) argues that all urban dwellers should participate in decision-making as citizens. As argued by Teelucksingh and Masuda (2014), marginalized citizens' right to claim space and to play a role in urban development emphasizes the need to democratize city. In light of Toronto's changing demographic landscape, transportation strategy should be based on a deeper understanding of how recent immigrants travel across the city. The goal of the research is to bring forward questions of access, socio-economic disparities, and the spatial polarization of Toronto in terms of immigrant settlement patterns and travel experiences.

The paper begins by outlining transportation plans in Toronto and their relevance to immigrant communities as a context for the paper's arguments. Next, we discuss literature on environmental justice in order to lay the groundwork for a need of a multi-dimensional framework to transportation planning. Drawing on an exploratory study using in-depth qualitative interviews with a small sample of immigrants on their experiences of public transit in Toronto, we argue that a holistic and relational approach can provide more context on the multi-dimensional challenges faced by lower-income immigrants, especially women, who highly depend on public transit. The research findings suggest the limited affordability of public transit, the poor servicing of the transit network, and the resulting barriers to accessing work opportunities across the Greater Toronto Area. The paper concludes by highlighting the need for new directions in transit policy and planning that can better address the changing social landscape, spatial divisions in the city, and the broadening of urban development processes to address structural conceptions of environmental injustices.

Immigrants and Transportation

Immigrants are now the major source of population growth in large Canadian cities. Between 2006 and 2011, two-thirds of all growth in Canada was attributed to immigration (Statistics Canada 2012b, 2). Of the 1.1 million new immigrants that landed in Canada between 2001 and 2006, a quarter settled in City of Toronto (2007). In Toronto, immigrants form over 50% of the population (Statistics Canada 2007). In 2006, half of the immigrant populations in Toronto had arrived only within the last 15 years.

However, only a few scholarly studies in Canada have specifically centered a discussion of immigrants' use of transit (Heisz and Schellenberg 2004; Thomas 2013; Lo, Shalaby, and Alshalalfah 2011). Based on micro data from the 2001 Canadian Census, Heisz and Schellenberg (2004) found a strong positive relationship between the number of recent immigrants (those that arrived within the past 10 years of the census survey) and the use of public transportation in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal's CMAs. In Toronto, 36.3% of immigrants use public transit for work compared to 20.7% of Canadian-born (Heisz and Schellenberg 2004, 172-173).

The higher use of public transit amongst recent immigrants in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal CMAs highlights important travel trends amongst immigrant populations across large Canadian cities. Though the province of Ontario is shifting focus from auto-centric development to more multi-modal transportation networks and supporting rapid transit (Metrolinx 2008), there has been limited discussion of immigrants' transportation needs. Research on immigrants' transportation experiences is even more pressing, as there is a clear shift in Toronto's settlement landscape. While immigrants generally settled in the core of the city in 1960s, the inner suburbs have become the key receiving area for immigrants more recently (Murdie 2008). Many of these new immigrants have lower incomes and struggle to find affordable housing (United Way Toronto 2011; Walks and Bourne 2006).

The Three Cities in Toronto report underpinned that despite having less access to rapid transit in the inner suburbs, transit use was similar to those of downtown residents (Hulchanski 2010). A recent study by Basu et al. (2013) on new immigrants and youth in Scarborough identified public transit as a major problem that respondents felt was essential for improvement in their suburb. The study pointed to issues of inaccessibility with transit, high fares, lack of access for people with disabilities and children, poor connectivity, and infrequent service.

Furthermore it is important to note that there is diversity in immigrants' experiences and differences in their socio-economic status. For example, immigrants are heterogeneous in terms of their origin and display unique and differential settlement patterns--particularly in their housing choice and location, as some studies have noted (Ghosh 2007; Agrawal 2008). Basu et al. (2013) complicate Hulchanski's polarized description of three cities by highlighting the multifarious ways residents participate in suburban communities despite poor transit. There is also class diversity with some groups able to access more opportunities such as home ownership more so than others (Murdie 2002). In a case study of Filipino immigrants in Toronto, Thomas (2013) shows that despite rising costs of centrally located housing, respondents continued to prioritize proximity to transit. Racialized immigrants from the Global South have different economic opportunities than white immigrants and white Canadian-born populations....

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