Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

“Fair” evasion: public transit must make space for everyone

Read more articles by

Editor’s note:  Spacing is pleased to introduce you to our new urban affairs columnist, Patricia Burke Wood. Tricia is a geography professor at York University and a co-founder of its City Institute. She’s a Montrealer by birth, a New Yorker/New Jerseyan by formative years, and now a Torontonian because that’s where she got a job. She worries about climate change, inequality, and the inadequacy of liberal democracy. Also a Sens fan.  

In February 2018, two TTC fare inspectors tackled a 19-year-old young man as he was exiting a westbound St. Clair streetcar at Bathurst St. in Toronto. He was pinned to the ground. Police were called and the teen was handcuffed and placed under arrest. He was later released without charge. The young man is Black.

He and his mother are suing the TTC and the police, alleging “unlawful detention, assault, battery, negligence, discrimination, and racial profiling.”

It is, sadly, not difficult to find instances in any Canadian city of racism directed at passengers on public transit. When that abuse comes from officials, it is even more serious. Hiding that abuse behind the “enforcement” of fare policies is not a just or appropriate of dealing with the problem.

We need to talk about the way we as a society discipline and punish our fellow citizens, and we need to have a close look at who we choose to discipline and who gets the second chances.

We need to reconsider the role—or even the existence—of fare inspectors. That’s part one of the conversation.

The reality is, anyone can get caught short, with not enough cash in your pocket or a fare card with an insufficient balance. If you’re boarding a bus, and have no means of topping up, you’re stuck. A City Council member in Washington DC pointedly admitted that it happened to him often, but that, because he is a white man in a suit, no bus driver had ever gotten him in trouble or refused him service.

Since the introduction of all-door boarding in Toronto, riders are supposed to have a transfer or other proof of payment when on a streetcar. Those of us who have been taking the TTC for more than half our lives sometimes forget this is the new practice. Changing from the subway to a streetcar at St. Clair, St. Clair West or Spadina happens inside the station so there’s no cue to take a transfer. More than once, I’ve suddenly realized I’m on a streetcar without proof of payment, even though I paid my fare.

It’s an easy mistake, and the loss, if any, is minor.

And yet fare evasion is utterly demonized. Mayor Tory made a “joke” about publishing in a newspaper the pictures of those caught for fare evasion, because “they make the rest of us pay.” Even Joe Mihevc has publicly fumed about evaders ripping us off, arguing we have less service because of it. Some have estimated the loss at $20-30 million. (Some have suggested that figure is much higher, but non-functioning Presto machines make it very hard to determine how much is actual fare evasion.)

A least one witness to the St. Clair streetcar incident said the young man looked like he was trying to avoid the fare inspectors and that he even shoved one of them to get off the streetcar. It doesn’t matter. The loss of a $3.25 fare does not merit placing hands on someone. It does not justify throwing them to the ground and calling the police.

Fare evasion is a petty theft. It does not merit shaming or lethal force. Have you ever taken home paper clips from the office? It’s not ok, but neither is it worth starting a Paper Clip Task Force, posting mug shots by the water cooler, and tackling people as they head out the door.

We need to think long and hard about any desire to shame people for small infractions, and how that desire might shape the way we discipline people’s behaviour.

Funny how the City is comfortable with, for example, writing off $1.4 million in rent and taxes from Harbourfront Centre, because they can see why it is unable to pay and the benefits of the Centre to the city are clear. Funnier still, how wealthy private golf courses in Toronto get tax breaks.

What is gained by punishing someone who lacks $3.25 for the bus? It might be someone who has just been caught short, and it might be someone who needs to save $3.25 because they are poor.

Punishing poor people for being poor is truly shameful.

Washington DC has been having a serious conversation about this. Previously, the maximum penalty for getting caught for riding without proof of payment, which is a criminal offense, was a $300 fine and the possibility of jail time. They’re proposing to eliminate any jail time and reduce the fine to $100. Three years ago, they decriminalized fare evasion for youths.

In 2008, San Francisco decriminalized all transit citations, including fare evasions. In 2016, California extended this to the entire state. The same has been proposed in New York City.

Fare evasion is about policing poor people, but it’s about more than that. A 2017 study [pdf] done in New York found that Black and Hispanic people were grossly overrepresented in fare evasion citations, and arrests were more frequent in poor neighbourhoods.

We (especially White people) need to take racism more seriously than we do. We’re so casual sometimes when we even acknowledge the existence of racism in our city. Like it’s an annoying bug to swat away.

Racism is toxic. Treating anyone as if they are less deserving, less worthy, less human in any way is corrosive to them and to you. It diminishes our humanity. It poisons our society. There are many ways in which we treat each other with disrespect, and none is acceptable. But I want to make a case for the extraordinary damage that racism causes, because individual acts do not stand alone; they are additional links in a chain of exclusion, hate and violence that goes back a long way.

Racism on public transit is a serious issue, because transit is a critical public space. Mobility is a necessary part of life in a city. Cities are interdependent economies, where we rely on others for all kinds of daily goods and services. In order to thrive, we need to move.

Public transit is as essential a service as housing or education. To bring the toxicity of racism into that space is to reduce access to the city and all it provides to all people targeted. And it is important to recognize that the individual young man tackled by fare inspectors is not the only victim. Every Black person, every Indigenous person, every person of colour who witnessed it, saw the video, or heard about it, felt a little more afraid of the city around them.

The priority of public transit management should be its service to all riders. The economic contribution that is made by transit does not come from its fare box. It comes from the economic participation and wealth production that are enabled by better mobility. Access to that mobility is a fundamental part of everyone’s well-being.








  1. I agree with Tricia’s point about racial profiling, shaming, etc. I would only add that not all fare evasions are neutral events, like jumping a gate where no one is personally exploited. For example, I’ve witnessed more than once a tactic that involves intimidation, especially of women. I’ve only seen white, young people do it. A man targets a woman and follows her through a gate, piggybacking her fair payment. Usually she notices. This recently affected my wife; in that case 5 people total, including 2 women, all in their 20’s, followed her through the gate. The (very large) man who directly followed my wife even said to her “I’ll just follow you through,” in a mild, confident tone. My wife was too intimidated to confront him/them, and I don’t blame her. This was at a station lacking a fare booth where they could pay cash; evasions here, and of the “piggybacking” kind, are common for that reason. Again, not all fare evasions are neutral, impersonal events, mere infractions strictly in monetary terms. I wonder if others, particularly women, have experienced aggression in order to evade a fare.

  2. What is fair about fare evasion? Why make this a racial matter? Disrespect for authority is too common as is interference on the part of others who start videoing a incident AFTER it turns into an incident because of this disrespect. Your entire article is not worthy of SPACING. You need to rethink your journalistic efforts.

  3. Unfortunately there are a number of analogies and claims in this article that don’t support the point at hand…or any point for that matter. There are some pretty sensation claims like “Every Black person, every Indigenous person, every person of colour who witnessed it, saw the video, or heard about it, felt a little more afraid of the city around them.” That’s a lot of people you consulted with to arrive at that statement.

    Your article implies innocence and presumes that this is a random event perpetrated by a person down on their luck of facing economic hardship. What if they’ve done this ritually, every day? I don’t care about the money aspect of chincing the TTC on a fare, it’s the potential for the flagrant disrespect to the system that is supposed to treat us all like equals – that’s the point. In order to use the service, you have to pay for the service – everyone is held to that standard. I’ve been $0.05 short before and been barred entry to a streetcar. Ultimately, as annoying as it is, how upset could I actually be?

    The TTC is not free and if you want to debate that point, then that’s a totally valid and separate argument to be had. Your example of U.S. systems is also flawed in that farebox revenue isn’t as critical for the economic viability of those systems as it is for the TTC. It’s a totally different model with totally different economic forces behind them.

    “Fare evasion is about policing poor people”. Another sensational claim. Did you conduct a study to identify the economic indicators of each fare infraction? No, because that’s a silly expection to have, but so is making such unsubstantiated and unfounded statements. You identify it earlier, but fail to tie in the multimillion dollar cost of what cumulative fare evasion does. Maybe I’m oversimplifying it, but maybe fare evasion policing isn’t an attempt by a racist instituon to seek and destory every coloured teenage boy that forgot their toonie on the kitchen table, or whose parents are struggling to make ends meet. Maybe it actually is about the cumulative cost and the impact that would be had if everyone decided to not pay their fare. You also do a great disservice to all those experiencing financial hardship that do what they must to afford their ride. Are those in that situation more or less supportive of fare policing? Do those individuals want you speaking on their behalf, exempting them from being held to the same $3.25 standard as everyone else?

    You’re employed in academia. People look to you for guidance, direction, opinion, and leadership. What you’ve given them with this piece is an attempt to capitalize on a hot button civic issue, mask it with unrelated analogies and examples, and make inflammatory and unsubstantiated statements that do nothing to further any cause, solve any problem, or identify any solution.

    Is racism an issue in our city? Yes. Should the TTC be free? I’d say sure, but obviously you’d need federal and Provincial (yeah right!) support. Was the use of force excessive? Obviously. Does $3.25 make a difference to the TTC’s operating model? I guess if it happens enough then it does by the figure you provided. $20 million would really help the system out. You took some really genuine points and issues in the city, and instead of creating a thought provoking intellectual civic leadership type response, you loosely tie these issues together and paint the whole situation with the “racism” tag which does absolutely nothing to address anything you tried to highlight. If this were a paper written by one of your students, I would hope you would take an objective look at it, and see some of the shortcomings.

    I look forward to seeing more work from you that contributes to the excellent quality of writing and production by the team at Spacing.

  4. Raymond asks rhetorically: “Why is this a racial matter?” Jeremy asks rhetorically ” Did you conduct a study to identify the economic indicators of each fare infraction?”

    Tricia explained why this is a racial matter, and cited studies, & articles that cite studies, all with links. For example: “A 2017 study [pdf] done in New York found that Black and Hispanic people were grossly overrepresented in fare evasion citations…” Or a Washington Post article which notes that “Washington DC has been having a serious conversation about this,” and that “The D.C. Council’s move mirrors a trend in cities across the country based on a growing awareness among lawmakers of how issues such as legacy policing practices, unconscious bias and systemic racism can unfairly target communities based on race or age — even in the seemingly mundane case of fare jumping. Some legislators are questioning whether fare evasion should be a crime at all, arguing that targeted enforcement campaigns are bound to ensnare poor and low-income people who don’t have the money to pay their fares — let alone fines.”

    The article also references (again, link provided) “a New York advocacy group, the Community Service Society, released a report concluding that fare-evasion arrests happen more frequently at stations that abut low-income neighborhoods. In addition, the report said that half of all fare-evasion arrests in Brooklyn involve black men between the ages of 16 and 36, but they represent only 13.1 percent of poor adults.” It also notes “a Portland State University study concluded that black riders were significantly more likely to be suspended from the system for repeat violations.”

    It’s only reasonable to assume that the systemic racism impacting the way fare evasion is treated in NYC & Washington & “other cities” in the U.S. is likely reproduced here to a significant degree. Tricia’s done enough homework to give us grounds to reflect, if we care to. She’s given us an opportunity to question our own assumptions, drawn into the light here in the form of those rhetorical questions.

  5. “Fare evasion is about policing poor people”.

    Fare evasion is not just committed by poor people. There are people who enjoy gaming the system. They could easily afford to pay the fare, they just like enjoying getting away with something for nothing.

    Every system has some amount of fare evasion. Newer fare collection systems and automated passenger counters help a bit, but the more complex the system – different types of fares, different kinds of concessions – does make calculating the loss a matter of “professional judgement” – (AKA wild ass guess) but most systems aim to keep losses down to around 5% of revenue. Losses from “shrinkage” in retail stores are at about the same level.

    For most types of ticketless travel a collected in cash on the spot penalty fare actually increases system revenue. Taking fare evaders to court gets expensive – and the fines go to the province, not the transit system. Identifying “frequent flyers” and charging them with the criminal offence of fraud (for much the larger loss amounts over time than one ride) is also often a worthwhile strategy in terms of cutting future losses.

  6. “Fare evasion is not just committed by poor people.”

    The central point, supported by evidence out of the States, was that poor people, who also tend to be racial minorities, are the most affected, negatively so, by fare evasion policy. Non-poor people who game the system are less likely to be targeted, and less likely to be treated as harshly when caught. That’s the context informing the conclusion “Fare evasion is about policing poor people”. Systemic bias underlying policy makes this so. This isn’t to deny that others game the system; in fact they’re relevant for meaningful contrast.

  7. Nice article Tricia. That and the ensuing debate will make useful reading for students learning how to read and think critically. Specifically, it offers a great example of a substantiated opinion piece, and — by the criticisms — how the forests (1. attacking a mosquito with a sledgehammer; 2. systemic racism) can be hidden by the trees (1. there are mosquitoes; 2. crime is crime). Just in case the point is not clear: no, visible minorities are not mosquitoes. If one reads it that way, you skipped too many classes.

  8. Perhaps we should look as transit as a social service, free for all at a transactional level, but paid for through business, housing, and personal taxes. This would free up resources from having to enforce payment rules, make transit more appealing, and it might free up space on our congested roads with a few drivers who would make the switch to transit.