Using a bit of poster paper and some markers, transit users created what they call a "COVID-19 East" bus on Saturday to draw attention to the problem of TTC crowding during the pandemic.
The mock bus was been set up outside the office of Scarborough MPP Vijay Thanigasalam, at 8130 Sheppard Ave. E., near Morningside Avenue.
Parents, students and transit advocates acted as passengers on the COVID-19 bus to make the point that the province needs to fix TTC crowding before school starts. The bus included a driver, seated on a fold-out chair, and many passengers.
Thanigasalam, who represents Scarborough-Rouge River, is the parliamentary assistant to Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney.
Transit users said they want the Ontario government to provide permanent funding to the TTC, without conditions, to enable the transit agency to add more buses on busy routes and to lower fares.
"As we know, the buses are packed. In fact, I have renamed the Lawrence bus. I call it the 54 COVID East. And I'm sure you're all okay with me renaming it that," Austin Jafri, a York University student, told the crowd.
"Our buses are overcrowded. We need more TTC service now. It is not a joke," he added.
"As we know, Scarborough is a transit desert. Scarborough has been neglected for years due to corrupt politicians constantly changing the plan. It is disgusting."
Sarah Abdillahi, the president of the University of Toronto Scarborough campus students' union, said the issues raised at the rally are not new. There has been underfunding, neglect and a lack of political will to improve public transit for years, she said.
Abdillahi said she lives in the Jane and Finch community and travels two hours on transit a day to get to university. There are too few buses in Scarborough and they do not arrive on time, she said.
"We are here today because students need a transit system that is safe and accessible for all people and we are calling on all levels of government to do better," she said.
TTC adds 110 buses to run as directed on busy routes
Stuart Green, spokesperson for the TTC, said in an earlier interview with CBC News that the TTC has added 110 buses, which will run as directed, this week to ease crowding and to encourage physical distancing. It has added more service on certain routes throughout the pandemic, he said.
"Really, our focus is putting service where it's needed most. It's about responding to demand," Green said.
Green said the buses can be deployed at a moment's notice and are intended to help the transit agency manage an anticipated increase in ridership as students return to school.
Green said the TTC is aware that there are "very, very busy routes" and heavy traffic on buses, particularly in north Etobicoke, the west end of North York and northeastern Scarborough.
Heavy routes include buses on Jane Street, Keele Street, Steeles Avenue, Dufferin Street, Markham Road and Lawrence Avenue, he said.
Distancing on buses not always possible, TTC admits
Green acknowledged that it will not always be possible for TTC passengers to engage in physical distancing on some buses, and the transit agency is encouraging people to wait for the next bus if one arrives that is "uncomfortably crowded."
"It's not always going to be possible on all routes at all times to have that six-foot distance," he said.
The TTC is providing 90 per cent of its normal bus service, even though only 40 to 50 per cent of ridership has returned, he said.
In a news release this week, the TTC said it communicated with school boards to determine hot spots, student volumes, and start and dismissal times.
Ministry says municipalities have received transit funds
As for the Ontario Transportation Ministry, it said in a statement to CBC News on Saturday that the province is providing up to $4 billion in "urgently needed assistance" to municipalities. Up to $2 billion, with the help of the federal government, will help municipalities to keep their transit systems running, it said.
"This funding will support transit services so people can get where they need to go as our province reopens and people return to work," Natasha Tremblay, spokesperson for Mulroney, said in the statement.
"Public transit systems are critical to supporting the economy and getting people where they need to go as the province cautiously and gradually reopens."