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Public (Space) Under Siege Outside TTC Stations

One of t.o.night‘s now defunct temporary basket-style newspaper boxes, at King Station.

There’s a war raging across Toronto for our attention. The battleground: the public space outside TTC station entrances. On any given weekday, commuters, especially those getting on and off at busy hubs, can expect to be bombarded by freebie-distributors, marketers, and salespeople. On top of the old standbys, individuals asking for spare change or handing out apocalyptic pamphlets, riders now have to contend with newspapers being shoved their way, binder-armed youths seeking charity subscriptions, marketers pushing pretty much everything, and the occasional bank peddling credit cards (though sometimes the TTC is gracious enough to let them set up shop in-station).
With all this activity, is it any wonder that companies are constantly cooking up new schemes to grab our attention?

Enter t.o.night, Toronto’s only free evening newspaper. In May, the paper briefly introduced temporary basket-style newspaper boxes, designed to hang on the railings outside staircase entrances to TTC stations. To capture the evening rush, the paper installed the boxes just before 5 p.m., and removed them about an hour thereafter.
From a distributor’s perspective, the highly visible and easy-to-access baskets probably seemed like a great way to move additional papers without having to hire more newsies—t.o.night‘s famed paper handlers. Unfortunately, the baskets were also illegal.
“This basket style of box does not satisfy our licensing regulations,” says Duncan Gardiner, the supervisor for street furniture management at the City’s Transportation Services division. “All publication distribution boxes [must have] a self-closing door in order to prevent the entry of snow, wind, and rain, and deter the use of the installation as a garbage receptacle. Therefore, no permits were issued by the City.” T.o.night has since complied with the City’s request to stop using the boxes.
This leads us to an important question: does the City need to do more to protect the public space outside TTC stations? In this case, the City was able to crack down on t.o.night because bylaws exist that govern newspaper boxes and other objects installed on city sidewalks. There are no such rules regulating paper handlers, charities, marketers, or anyone else who isn’t actually selling anything. Transportation Services will only get involved in non-vending cases if there’s a complaint that an activity is “encumbering of the sidewalk,” explains Bruce Hawkins, a senior communications coordinator with the City.
There is, in fact, one bylaw on the books that restricts marketing and sampling on Toronto’s sidewalks, but it only applies to Yonge-Dundas Square. And as public space guru and former Torontoist contributing editor Jonathan Goldsbie noted in Spacing last year, it’s mostly aimed at keeping other companies and marketers off what the Yonge-Dundas Square Board considers its turf.

Metro and 24 paper handlers outside Islington Station.

So, is there an issue here? John Cameron, t.o.night‘s publisher, doesn’t see one, at least as far as his newsies are concerned.
“With the number of commuters downtown, you just have to have handlers,” says Cameron. “We purposely choose our spots not to aggravate people. I know some of our competitors might be a little more forceful… but it’ll hurt your brand in the long-term if you’re a nuisance to people.”
News publications, Goldsbie tells us, have a “right to the public realm,” but he adds that t.o.night‘s baskets were “inappropriate…given the TTC’s serious rush-hour traffic-flow issues.”
He saves his harshest words, however, for the marketers operating outside TTC stations. “Marketers have no excuse,” he argues. “There are any number of less obtrusive methods with which they can get their message out, and yet they choose this one specifically because of its intrusiveness.”
And the TTC’s thoughts? Well, according to Brad Ross, the commission’s director of corporate communications, if it’s an activity taking place on City property, then it’s a City issue, not the TTC’s. “If individuals enter a subway station, we can and do take action and ask them to leave,” he adds.
Inch by inch, bit by bit, it seems Toronto’s public space is being subsumed by interests bent on its monetization, and traffic focal points like station entrances are prime targets. Arguably, t.o.night‘s temporary boxes were much less intrusive than paper handlers or marketers, but they were still another attempt to grab our attention in what’s become a crowded field. And, hey, isn’t this what we have regular newspaper boxes for anyway?
Photos by Stephen Michalowicz/Torontoist.


  • Paul Kishimoto

    Congrats to Jonathan Goldsbie on his promotion to “guru”!

    I've more or less perfected my cheerily regretful, “Sorry, not today!” to the charity binder folks, and have even been able to stop and chat with a few without feeling obliged or guilted into committing to anything.

    The paper handlers, by comparison, seem mute and glum and just thrust the things your way.

  • adamd1

    At both Yonge and St. George stations for the past several months, some of THE MOST aggressive representatives of both 24 Hours and Metro were often blocking the exits, shoving papers at TTC passengers trying to get in or out of these stations. You had to actually push your way past them to get out of the subway, especially on rainy mornings.

    They recently replaced the two pushy individuals at St. George station with a lone female 24 hours rep who stands a fair distance from the doors now. I hope that means that somebody must have gotten the message that people don't like having their exits blocked by pushy newspaper people.

    I would not normally consider grabbing a copy of either of these publications previously, but especially given the tactless, in your face attitude of those paper reps, I now am never going to read either of them at all.


  • tomwest

    Remember: free papers only have “news” to make you read the adverts.

  • Iwona Szkudlarek

    I'd rather the newspaper people than the charity binders. I'm being slowly driven mad by them, and I know it's not their fault but the company, Public Outreach. I can't take a 15-20 minute walk down Bloor St without running into at least 4 individuals with the binders. At least the newspapers I have use for.

  • Sachin Hingoo

    It's not so hard to just say no, or to say you already donate to the cause.  I don't necessarily support all the causes in their portfolio (Greenpeace in particular) but they do good, important work.

  • Mark Jull

    I agree. I have the same feeling (on Bloor as well). I think it's the insincerity of their hailing: “Can you talk with me for a minute?” when really they want your bank info to take out money every month. Give me a panhandler – straight to the point: “Spare some change?” or “have an extra smoke?”

  • HotDang

    No, they only have news and adverts to serve as a backing for the crossword and sudoku.

  • Robert Stemmler

    I've always considered the binder folk to be panhandlers. What, ultimately, is the difference?

  • blearghhh

    In England, they apparently call the people with binders “Chuggers”, as a short form for Charity Muggers. I thought it was pretty appropriate.

  • Canadianskeezix

    Okay, but that's true of virtually all newspapers, and has been for centuries.  There are some notable exceptions over the years, Pravda for example, but I'm not sure that is a model that anyone should emulate.

  • Canadianskeezix

    Standing on the street and communicating to your fellow citizens (whether it involves hawking newspapers, espousing political views, pushing causes or selling wares) is one of the oldest forms of free speech.  None of this is new.  While the free-newspaper-distributors and charity-binder-folks drive me crazy, I'm pretty darn leery of anyone who proclaims that we need to “protect public space”.

  • Michael Wybenga

    It bothers me that charities have to pay companies to solicit donations. Whatever happened to volunteers. 

    Side note. My fail-safe way to never be bothered by a Chugger (I like that one)  is to pretent like I'm sending/receiving a text message. Works like a charm.

  • kstop

    You expect panhandlers to keep all of what you give them, and they do. You expect chuggers to give to charity what you give to them, and they keep most of it.

  • torontothegreat

    You have to take the source into consideration.  Anything not “arts” related is an attack on public space.  Didn't you know? /sarcasm

    Blows my mind that some people who claim to love the city so much, seem to actually hate living in a large urban city.

  • Iwona Szkudlarek

    Unfortunately, the large majority of the money that people give to these charities through Public Outreach doesn't even reach the charity. My disgruntled nature about the issue also stems from that….

  • gbread

    I just tell the charity people that I'm a hobo. If you dress as poorly as I do it works perfectly.