Lack of data on transit violence amounts to 'blanket of ignorance': researcher
Canada needs standardized data on violence on transit systems to help tackle issues ranging from a lack of mental health supports to eroding public trust, say researchers, citing the recent stabbing death of a 16-year-old boy at a Toronto station as the latest example of random attacks on commuters.
Prof. Murtaza Haider, director of research at the Urban Analytics Institute of Toronto Metropolitan University, said the public should have easy access to such information.
Haider collected data on all violent incidents from the Toronto Police Service between January 2014 and June 2022 and said his recent analysis showed 7,306 incidents were reported on the city's transit system during that time.
He noted a sharp spike in violent crime, mostly at stations, which are operated by the Toronto Transit Commission.
In February 2021, nearly 12 violent incidents were reported per one million riders, compared with two incidents for the same number of riders in 2019, Haider said.
"My concern is that I don't even see transit authorities reporting such data regularly," he said, extending that concern to public transit agencies across the country.
Data is one way that transit agencies and experts are trying to come up with solutions to violence that has reached "crisis levels," according to comments by the head of the Amalgamated Transit Union Canada in January.
The TTC has recently been forwarding its data to the City of Toronto, a spokesman said.
Some transit agencies report crime data in ways that are not understandable to the public so they should be available in a standardized format, Haider said, noting the Edmonton Transit System has also experienced violent crime.
In January, the head of the Amalgamated Transit Union Canada called for a national task force that should consider whether increased mental health funding, better housing supports and greater police presence could help prevent violence on transit systems across the country. John Di Nino said it must include transit agencies and all levels of government.
For example, police in Edmonton have reported 35 violent occurrences on transit property as well as nine weapon-related reports since the beginning of 2023.
"In our case, in Toronto, (it's a murder case), which is quite shocking," Haider said of a teenager's death on the TTC last weekend. A 22-year-old man has been charged with first-degree murder.
"If this trust in the transit system erodes, we remain under a blanket of ignorance as to what is happening, how quickly the transit systems are responding to such catastrophic events and what have they done to (prevent) them," Haider said.
He questioned the TTC's strategyof sending its inspectors aboard streetcars to check for fare evaders when he sees a greater need for more police and security personnel.
Inspectors were reassigned to customer service for part of the pandemic and resumed fare checking on streetcars a year ago, the TTC said.
Josipa Petrunic is president of the non-profit Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC), which aims to reduce emissions on transit and violence against women who use those systems. She said standardized data about incidents on transit could help predict where assaults are likely to happen.
"Once we start seeing some trend lines and clusters of what's happening in our cities, where it's happening, at what time of day, we can start to identify some of the correlations. And we can turn all of that tech mapping into real-time predictions to help our police officers and our safety officers and our social workers figure out where an attack might happen," Petrunic said.
Predictions could be made from data on Twitter and other social media feeds used by transit agencies as well as information from text messaging services offered to riders to report safety issues, and artificial intelligence, she said.
"Heading into the pandemic, a lot of our transit systems already had safety issues, so now we're layering all of these social ills on top of systems that were underinvested in."
The consortium's membership includes 30 universities and colleges, including the Universities of Toronto and British Columbia, as well as transit agencies across the country such as the TTC in Toronto and others in Halifax, Metro Vancouver and Brampton.
Petrunic said it's time to stop seeing violent incidents on transit as entirely unavoidable and start taking social health and wellness more seriously.
TransLink, the transit agency in 22 jurisdictions in Metro Vancouver, said its safety measures include silent alarms and intercoms on trains as well as emergency phones on platforms. A text messaging system connects passengers with Transit Police, the only such dedicated service in the country.
Const. Amanda Steed, who speaks for the transit police agency, said 24 "safety officers" trained in mental health will be hired by next year as part of a new program that will provide an extra layer of public safety on trains and at stations. Half of the employees are expected to be working by this fall.
"They're going to be another uniform that passengers should expect to see on the system," Steed said.
The TTC said it also offers a text messaging service and the SafeTTC app for passengers to report problems to its control centre.
However, TTC subway commuters do not have consistent cellphone, internet or 911 service throughout the system. The agency says the best way to send an alert in case of emergency is to activate a yellow strip on a subway car. It says free ad-supported Wi-Fi is available at stations.
The City of Toronto is also hiring more outreach workers by May to offer shelter beds and mental health supports to unhoused people who may be sleeping at TTC stations.
Jon MacMull of the Canadian Urban Transit Association said a task force of representatives from transit agencies across the country has been established to come up with recommendations within the next few months to address safety concerns.
Part of the process will involve an effort to understand some social issues that have resulted in violence on transit.
"There is a strong sense of urgency," MacMull said. "That is an issue that Canadians across the country are facing, from major cities to smaller communities."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.
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Camille Bains, The Canadian Press