The transit route I take most often is the 505 streetcar – the “Dundas car.” Lately, riding it has become a bit of an adventure.
The 505 runs along Dundas Street, the historic thoroughfare that gives its name to Yonge-Dundas Square opposite the Eaton Centre mall. Along the way it passes safe-consumption sites for people who use drugs and shelters for people experiencing homelessness.
Not surprisingly, you see all sorts of characters on board. Transit vehicles and stations are often a haven for people on the margins, whether in New York, Calgary or San Francisco. But in the last while, the scene on the 505 has been getting stranger.
One day earlier this month, I boarded the 505 in the late morning to head to work. A guy in a nearby seat was sorting through his backpack, strewing playing cards, potato chips and cigarette papers left and right. He looked up to see he was missing his stop so jumped out of his seat and held the closing streetcar door open, keeping the vehicle and all its passengers frozen in place until he got through.
Another guy with a sleeping bag around his shoulders was sprawled, asleep, on a couple of seats, muttering something incomprehensible as he slumbered. A man with a bushy grey beard got on, took a seat opposite me, removed his beat-up running shoes and began scratching his dirty feet.
A few days later, I came home after dark on the 505. A woman with jet black hair and her face painted entirely white like a mime’s was cackling to herself as she wrote in a notebook with a bright orange felt pen and sucked on a big baby soother. At the back of the streetcar, a woman wearing a tattered and soiled pair of tights was looking at her phone and weeping.
Another evening, I got on the 505 to find another woman, naked from the waist down, smoking a crack pipe in her seat. She took off her top for a while, then put it back on and walked up and down the car asking people for a light. A boy of about 10, accompanied by his mother, looked on.
I try not to let any of this get to me too much. Many of the troubled people you see on the streetcars, buses and subways are mentally ill. Most pose no danger to anyone. They are simply looking for a place to rest and get out of the weather.
The TTC’s latest, extra-long streetcars are ideal. With the driver shut away in a closed compartment, there is no one to check whether they are paying their fares (unless a fare inspector gets on) or tell them not to smoke, drink or make a mess.
But of course, bad things do happen. It’s no longer rare to see people using drugs or urinating on the streetcar. Someone I know was riding the Dundas car this spring when a guy got out of his seat, walked over to a woman nearby and punched her in the face. Then he got off and fled. She had no idea who he was or why he did it. The streetcar stopped to wait for an ambulance and paramedics.
And that is far from the worst of it. The headlines have been full of violent incidents on the TTC, including the unprovoked stabbing that killed a 16-year-old boy at Keele subway station in March. A Globe and Mail analysis of security data showed that the rate of assaults per boarding last year was double that of 2018 and 2019.
The rates appear to be falling as commuters return to the transit system after the pandemic. The TTC is putting more guards, mental-health aides and housing workers on the system to fend off trouble and help those in need. Statistically, the odds of becoming a crime victim on public transit are still extremely low.
But the recent incidents have contributed to an atmosphere of fear that is driving people off the TTC. Even non-violent behaviours such as the ones I’ve seen recently make people feel uneasy and unsafe. Sometimes, the 505 seems less a transit vehicle than a shelter on wheels. The sense you get from riding it is of a system, and a city, where no one is in charge and anything goes.
That’s dangerous. Cities can’t thrive without a basic sense of order. Look at what happened to New York in the 1970s. The graffiti-daubed, dirty and often dangerous subways became a symbol of its decline.
The scene on the Dundas car is a sign of serious trouble for Canada’s biggest city. Toronto needs to get on top of it, and fast.