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Streetcars lined up on Queen St. East in Toronto on Jan 17.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Violence on Toronto’s transit system jumped during the pandemic and remains among the highest levels in years, but the situation appears to be improving as riders return, according to two decades of security data analyzed by The Globe and Mail.

The data, which details almost 50,000 incidents going back to 2002, shows that while last year was the worst on record for the number of assaults, a significant increase in ridership meant people were less likely to be attacked on the system in 2022 than during the previous two years. However, last year was still well above historical norms, with more than twice the rate of attacks per boarding than in 2018 or 2019.

Public safety has emerged as an issue as Toronto prepares to elect a new mayor on June 26, after John Tory’s resignation earlier this year. Concerns about safety on the transit system in particular have grown over the past year, which saw four passengers killed amid a number of high-profile incidents.

The data allows a more granular look at safety on the system than was previously possible. University of Toronto criminologist Jamie Duncan obtained it through a freedom-of-information request and provided it to The Globe, which then compared it with ridership data from the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

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Offences overall jumped to 3,019 in 2022 from 2,558 the previous year, a rise of 18 per cent, the data shows. And the number of assaults was up 38 per cent, from 748 to 1,030. Sexual assaults, robberies and reports of weapons occurred much less frequently – there were fewer than two reports a week of each of those crimes – but were still up between 22 and 50 per cent.

At the same time, ridership increased 62 per cent in 2022 over the previous year. The TTC carried 319 million passengers last year, about six million per week.

That means there were 9.46 offences, including 3.23 assaults, per million boardings in 2022. That compares with 12.98 offences, including 3.80 assaults, per million at the peak of the pandemic in 2021.

The outlier was homicides, though they occur in such small numbers that one or two incidents can cause big volatility in the trend. The three people killed in 2022 followed one in each of 2021 and 2020. There were four in 2019, after a number of years with no more than two. One person has been killed so far in 2023.

The data also show that the time of day when violent incidents occur has changed alongside evolving ridership patterns more broadly, with fewer assaults now during rush hours and more happening after midnight. The proportion of assaults requiring medical attention has quintupled since the pandemic began and comprised 13.6 per cent of the total last year.

About 10 per cent of the transit-system assaults reported in 2022 are described in the data as having resulted in an arrest.

Violence and disorder on transit is not a problem unique to Toronto. Transit agencies across North America have reported rises in crime and violence on their systems. There are various theories as to why this is happening, but no one has found a definitive reason or solution.

“It’s impossible to look back and try to disaggregate the effects of the pandemic from other sorts of things, and in particular the increasing split between the very rich and everybody else,” said University of Toronto criminology professor Mariana Valverde. “That, in itself, would cause an increase in crime, and so people shouldn’t be surprised. And then of course the pandemic certainly had an effect.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Tory announced dedicated police patrols for the TTC, conducted by officers being paid overtime. The money for that soon ran out, but police said they would include transit patrols as part of their regular duties. Other Canadian cities such as Calgary and Edmonton have also responded to public safety concerns by increasing the police presence on their transit systems.

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The Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA), which counts most leading Canadian agencies among its members, recently released a report listing 27 recommendations to improve safety.

“There is no single solution to address the complex issue of violence on public transit, so we need to bring together experts and advocates from different fields to work collaboratively,” CUTA president Marco D’Angelo said in a news release accompanying the report.

Some of the report’s recommendations could be implemented immediately, such as boosting the visibility of transit staff within the system or providing transportation from subway stations to homeless shelters.

Several mayoral candidates have presented plans to improve security on the TTC.

Former councillor Ana Bailao made an early pitch for getting reliable cellular service throughout the system; it is currently available only in certain places. Rogers later announced it was buying the Canadian assets of BAI Communications, allowing it to upgrade cellular service throughout the TTC’s subway tunnels over the next few years.

Councillor Brad Bradford has promised more security patrols and mental-health supports. Councillor Josh Matlow pledged to tackle the root causes of criminality and expand mental-health crisis teams that specialize in de-escalation.

Former police chief Mark Saunders, who has made public safety central to his campaign, said he would boost the number of TTC special constables patrolling the system and also enforce existing bylaws against loitering.

Some transit advocates say a simple safety improvement would be to increase the frequency of service. Doing so would reassure passengers that they won’t be left waiting long in a potentially dangerous situation. And reliable service would attract more riders, providing safety in numbers to a transit system currently carrying about 70 per cent of its pre-pandemic ridership.

“It’s the eyes on the street idea,” said Shelagh Pizey-Allen, executive director of the advocacy group TTCriders. “Making sure we’re winning back riders with frequent, reliable service is just such an important part of safety.”

The TTC data helps fill out the transit safety picture with tens of thousands of altercations and crimes unlikely to end up on the front page but which can still shake public confidence.

It reveals a transit agency that has faced a decade of increasing on-board violence, a trend that was magnified during the early days of the pandemic before starting to ease last year.

“We are working very closely to get a handle on the immediate concerns that we’re hearing from customers and employees about making the system safer, so that it’s practically safer and also safer in terms of optics and the feel of safety,” said TTC spokesman Stuart Green.

He cited the greater presence of security officials in the system and noted that the agency has, for the first time, included money for street outreach and social service workers in its operating budget. He also warned that some of the incident data may be skewed by flawed reporting practices, which he said the agency is trying to improve.