Metrolinx takes measures to make transit more equitable

At a time when organizations are looking to root out systemic biases, Metrolinx is no exception. The transit agency’s Planning team is looking for new ways to include equity, diversity and inclusion in its decision making to benefit a wider range of people and communities. Here’s how that work is going.

New transit lines improve neighbourhoods. But are those benefits equitable?

Experts review technical data when making transit plans, but that process is still open to systemic bias.

Metrolinx is taking steps to better understand this.

“Metrolinx is making a huge impact in communities and we want to ensure that we understand those impacts through an equity lens,” said Becca Nagorsky, Metrolinx’s director of project planning.

Nagorsky and others on the Planning and Development team became concerned something was missing in their processes for new projects, service changes and policies.

Photo of Becca Nagorsky
Becca Nagorsky works at Metrolinx as director of project planning. (Metrolinx photo)

“Our existing practices didn’t necessarily require us to measure all of the ways our decisions impact minority communities,” Nagorsky said. “You could find some projects where that came into the equation but that wasn’t the standard practice.

 “We had a call for volunteers and 30 people stuck their hands up to say they wanted to get involved. In addition to their regular work, they’ve been doing lots of research into what other cities are doing and experimenting with other methodologies and map making techniques that use a diversity lens to improve our planning practice.”

Each participant brought a unique perspective to the work.

“On a very personal level, obviously being a half black woman, there was a need for me to have a presence in the work that was going on to see things change for people like myself,” said Amy Peebles, Metrolinx manager of transit integration.

Photo of Amy Peebles
Amy Peebles is manager of transit integration at Metrolinx. (Metrolinx photo by Randy Bui)

People saw a clear need for change in the way planning is conducted

“Decisions may not be explicitly borne out of racism, but there are some historic factors like wealth gaps and property values that can affect decisions in ways that impact racialized communities,” Nagorsky explained.

One way to effect change would be take a more varied approach to transit investments.

“Transit projects drive economic change for the areas they are situated in,” she noted. “We know that economic benefit is not always equitable to all people and so we are working to gain a better understanding of our customers and their needs – current and future – to ensure we can realize more equitable outcomes for our projects.”

“We are changing the way we measure success to include more community metrics.”

Becca Nagorsky, Metrolinx’s director of project planning

While data can be used to remove some biases from decision-making, the first step is to collect the right data.

“We are changing the way we measure success to include more community metrics,” Nagorsky said.

The work is becoming refined.

“Now we have decent census information about where different racialized communities live and how people travel, but we don’t necessarily have that matched together to understand where we might be impacting communities of colour,” Nagorsky said. “By collecting better data and advancing our analytics we are hoping to have better answers to those questions so we can know if we are really helping to provide more opportunities for communities of colour.”

This approach is not entirely new. In October 2019, Metrolinx News reported on a University of Toronto study that found Ontario Line benefits will be concentrated among low-income, visible minority and recent immigrant populations.

“That’s exactly the kind of work we want to bring into more projects,” Nagorsky said.

Expanded consultations can make a big difference.

“The earlier we go out to communities the more we can make sure local input is making its way into projects,” she added.

Consultation can be used to refine details, like station entrance locations, to better reflect where people are coming from.

Metrolinx engagement with Indigenous Peoples is growing with the expansion of an Indigenous Relations Office, plus the development and implementation of a program that will bolster the quality of that dialogue.

Moving forward, there will be more engagement with social service providers and racialized communities on policy choices. For example, the team is working to find ways to deliver concession prices without stigmatizing passengers.

The Planning team’s research found some differences on diversity questions are addressed on different sides of the border.

“Surprisingly, US cities are ahead of Canadian cities in being more explicit in acknowledging and measuring outcomes based on race,” Nagorsky said. “Canadians tend to speak more in metaphors and euphemisms, but being able to talk about race directly is an important first step.”

Work to apply an anti-racism lens to planning practices is in addition to what Human Resources and other Metrolinx departments are doing around diversity and inclusion.

Today (Oct. 4) Nagorsky and Peebles will be sharing their work as a case study in a panel discussion on diversity and inclusion for transit professionals across the country, during a Canadian Urban Transit Association virtual conference.    

Story by Mike Winterburn, Metrolinx News senior writer