Toronto is a safe city. Not just by global standards, but by North American standards. It doesn’t feel that way right now. At least not to public transit riders.
I can rhyme off statistics about how the homicide rate has been relatively low and stable for decades or that you’re more likely to get hit by lightning as you are to be murdered by a stranger in Canada. And while the number of homicides in the City of Toronto jumped from 71 to 85 in 2021, the number settled back down to 70 in 2022. But I don’t think that makes anyone feel any safer.
Perception and reality of crime can diverge wildly. And perception can become reality if enough people change their behavior. They might use transit less often or avoid certain neighbourhoods, for instance. If we think a place is dangerous, it can become dangerous.
This isn’t something we see too much of in Toronto precisely because it has been perceived as so safe for so long. Toronto isn’t like Chicago or even Winnipeg where people avoid certain neighbourhoods, whether it’s rational or not. But that can change if we let fear get the better of us.
This morning a woman was assaulted while walking alone at Yonge and King. Awful and scary. I was in the area at the same time. (Didn’t witness it ). I was just walking around alone while I waited for a friend. Is my city not safe anymore? 1/ #TOpoli
— Beth Levy (@Beth_Levy66) January 20, 2023
Jane Jacobs long ago observed that having “eyes on the street” keeps communities safer. With fewer people downtown because of the pandemic, there are fewer bystanders to dissuade potential criminals. And with several years of COVID and a worsening opioid epidemic, there are a lot of people with unaddressed mental health issues wandering around. Having fewer people using transit or spending time in the city means fewer eyes on the street. Fewer eyes on the street one day can mean even fewer the next.
This problem isn’t unique to Toronto. New York is grappling with similar problems. Several high-profile cases of people being pushed onto subway tracks caused already skittish people to avoid downtown. A narrative took hold. It spilled over from the subway being dangerous to people thinking that all of Manhattan was dangerous. That narrative became so powerful that it had national political implications.
In Toronto, like New York, the perception of danger started on transit. It could also spill over into perceptions of Downtown, if we’re not careful. News that some taxi drivers are now requiring pre-payment to go to “dangerous” neighbourhoods like Dundas and Sherbourne (a few blocks south of my old apartment) suggests that might be happening.
Here's where we're at. If I Google "TTC woman" the first two fill-in options are "set on fire" and "pushed onto tracks"
— Oliver Moore (@moore_oliver) January 26, 2023
You might wonder why I’m focusing on perception of danger rather than crime itself. That’s because the underlying causes of crime are complicated, and the solutions aren’t obvious. Otherwise there’d be a crime free utopia somewhere we could emulate. Perception is something we can control. If we recognize that the city is reasonably safe, we can keep it that way. But we need some leadership from public officials.
The easiest thing politicians can do is show up. Spending time in the city core projects safety and stability. This is something the Mayor and the Premier should do more of. Not in a panicky way – that won’t help – but subtly spending more time in the city core, particularly on public transit. Mayor Tory or Premier Ford taking the streetcar would send a strong message, for instance.
Some more costly, indirect solutions might help. For instance, ensuring reliable public transit service. Anyone who rides the streetcars knows they have been less than reliable lately. That can dissuade people from visiting downtown. I live on Queen Street and I’ve skipped many trips downtown because I can’t count on getting the streetcar in a timely manner. I doubt I’m the only one.
Another potential solution, already being implemented, is a more visible police presence on the TTC. Even if adding officers doesn’t necessarily directly make cities safer, it can make some people feel safer. This might be viewed as a waste of resources and might worry some communities that have tense relationships with law enforcement. But if we’re going to avoid a transit death spiral, we need to do something to break the narrative that the TTC is dangerous. It’s a Band-Aid, but sometimes that’s exactly what is needed. Addressing the root causes of crime is a longer-term endeavor.
For what it’s worth, transit crime has decreased since New York increased enforcement. It’s not clear whether law enforcement actively prevented crimes or whether they just created the impression of greater safety. Either way, the crime narrative is much different than it was a few months ago when things seemed to be spinning out of control.
Fixing small problems with the public realm can also help by encouraging people to linger in public. Failing to keep public washrooms operating, overflowing trash cans, and questionable pedestrian safety make a casual trip Downtown less appealing even for those who aren’t worried about crime. These are all issues worth addressing if we’re going to maintain a vibrant downtown. The sidewalk ballet is resilient, but only to a point.
Finally, we need to address the region’s housing crisis. A housing shortage combined with strong population inflows means that some people are getting pushed off the housing ladder. That means more homelessness and more pressure on the shelter system. There is no short-term fix. But if we don’t want people sleeping on the train or the parks, we need to make sure they have somewhere else to sleep.
Getting these things right is crucial given how easy it is for a lot of people to opt out of the city. A lot of white-collar workers are resisting the call back to the office. And when news breaks about crime on the TTC or in the city, those stories make the rounds in both physical and virtual offices. It’s watercooler talk now. The perception of danger gives people an out – whether it be from office hours or dinner plans.
The most important thing most of us can do is to go about our normal lives. We need to remind ourselves that being the victim of a random crime is extremely unlikely. It’s a hard thing to convince yourself. Human brains are riddled with biases. But we shouldn’t let our biases control us.
I know it’s easy for me to say this as a straight white man. A lot of other people have reason to feel less safe than I do. But collective action problems can’t be solved individually. We all need to be the eyes on the street that help to keep other people safe.
Toronto is a great city. There’s a lot of room for improvements, but we have to make sure that we don’t let the perception of crime spin into a vicious cycle. That starts with us. So keep calm and carry on.
Steve Lafleur is a public policy analyst and columnist based in Toronto.