A Toronto gym made the news this week for hosting a martial arts course designed specifically to help transit riders defend themselves if they are attacked.
“It’s no secret that people don’t feel safe on public transit. And why should they?” reads the website announcement. “Nearly every day, the headlines cover news stories of brutal and random attacks happening on buses and subways perpetrated against innocent civilians at random.”
By the end of the week, the site was saying that its first session was already full. And no wonder. Toronto has seen a series of transit attacks in recent months – swarmings, stabbings, muggings. In one notorious incident, a man set fire to a woman on a bus; in a second, one woman pushed another onto the subway tracks.
It’s only natural that some commuters would want to take steps to defend themselves. It’s equally natural that many others would want to avoid taking transit altogether. Fear of violence and disorder on transit systems, not just in Toronto but in other Canadian cities, is one reason that transit ridership is taking so long to rebound from pandemic lows.
But neither reaction – fight or flight – is best. Even the most aware, most thoroughly trained citizens would have trouble defending themselves from a random attacker with a knife and, despite all the headlines and all the fear, it is exceedingly unlikely, in statistical terms, that any single commuter would suffer such an attack. While it makes sense for people to be on guard and aware of their surroundings in a public setting, we don’t really want to go down a road in which commuters need to be soldiers, ready to fend off attacks with their hands and feet.
As for flight, we only need to look at what happened to American cities in their darkest days a few decades ago to see the danger in that. Abandoning urban centres made them far more dangerous, leaving hollowed-out shells where ordinary citizens feared to tread. That’s the last thing we want to see happening in our vital 21st-century cities.
The answer, rather, is to keep our heads, steady our nerves and, above all, keep showing up. There is safety in numbers. A crowded subway car is generally safer than one with almost no one on it. A bustling street after dark feels much less risky than an empty one. The worst possible mistake we could make is to flee the city.
If you doubt it, consider the one of the core teachings of Jane Jacobs, that guru of urban thinking who made her home in Toronto for many years. As a young magazine writer, Ms. Jacobs was struck by the lifelessness of the modern housing projects that were replacing many crowded inner-city neighbourhoods in her native United States. They seemed not just barren but dangerous, and many indeed became magnets for crime.
To be safe, she famously concluded, cities need “eyes on the street.” In communities such as her own in New York’s Greenwich Village, there were always people around, walking down the street to the store, sitting on their stoops or just looking out their windows. It was an organic version of what became the Neighbourhood Watch program.
“Safety on the streets by surveillance and mutual policing of one another sounds grim, but in real life it is not grim,” she wrote in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “The safety of the street works best, most casually, and with least frequent taint of hostility or suspicion precisely where people are using and most enjoying the streets voluntarily and are least conscious, normally, that they are policing.”
In other words, what places such as Toronto need is not more people trained in the martial arts. Nor is it necessarily more actual police. Though it may make sense to increase police patrols on transit or downtown streets for a time – just to send a reassuring signal – there are only so many cops and they can’t be everywhere at once.
What Toronto needs instead is more ordinary people going about their business, looking out for each other as they do. A safe city is a busy, full, active city. Let’s not let the anxiety of the moment make us forget that.