How Riding the TTC Has Affected My Mental Health
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How Riding the TTC Has Affected My Mental Health

I commute four hours every day, and it has worsened my stress and anxiety.

Every day, I spend nearly four hours on the TTC. I’m from the east end and I work in west end, and travel is about two hours one way. Being underground for such a long time complicates a lot of my everyday functioning. I can’t eat, drink, or nap on the subway without a high level of anxiety. It’s grim and gloomy down there. Sometimes, I feel like I’m being buried alive in a mobile cemetery because I’m exhausted from the confinement.

Public transit has always been a hot topic for debate among politicians, media pundits, advocates, and commuters like me. But left out of most conversations has been the impact the TTC has on the mental health of Torontonians—especially those from low-income neighbourhoods with long commutes.

Long commutes are unfortunately a commonality that many people who live in the suburbs have learned to accept and endure. A poll conducted by Forum Research in 2013 found residents of Scarborough have an average commute length of 49 minutes. By comparison, those who live in the City have an average commute of 39 minutes. Six out of 10 surveyed in this poll of more than 1,500 residents said their quality of life—that is, time spent with family, going to the gym, and relaxing—was reduced as a result of their commute.

Wendy Le, a first-year university student who lives in the western part of North York, has a commute of up to two hours as she often travels downtown and to Scarborough for school. As a result of her commute and school schedule, Wendy doesn’t participate in extracurricular activities.

“The exhaustion I feel after some morning commutes affects me because there are a lot of things to tackle during the day, and that requires energy and concentration…[with my] commute, the quality of [my school work] gets compromised,” she explains.

Meanwhile, Tsibbah Andemariam was commuting an hour each way to school and work—until it became too overwhelming.

“Ten years of travelling approximately an hour each way to and from work, I physically and mentally could not do it anymore,” she says. “Moving downtown and closer to work was absolutely necessary for my well-being and mental health.”

Stories like these can help inform the design and development of better transit, and centre the experiences of marginalized and poor communities. They can inform the evaluation of frequent service buses (that aren’t so frequent), and how service cuts always seem to impact isolated communities the most: Malvern, Regent Park, Scarborough. These stories can also shift the focus from cost efficiency (exclusively) to how long commute times affect where people can and are willing to go in the city.

The cost of travelling outside of low-income neighbourhoods, which have several transit deserts, is far beyond the current student and adult fares. Stephanie Premji, a researcher at McMaster University’s School of Labour Studies, conducted a study on the link between costly, lengthy commutes and precarious work. In her study, which included interviews with 27 Toronto immigrants, the qualitative research highlights fatigue, not being able to eat or drink, and not going to job interviews as key ways that employment conditions and long commutes impact health.

Proposals to improve the TTC have to include lived experiences to be accurate. For instance, a Downtown Relief Line doesn’t address the travel patterns of those that live outside of the downtown core. “Of the 1.15 million trips originating in Scarborough on a typical weekday, 60 per cent stay within Scarborough itself and only six per cent are headed downtown,” Steve Munro found. That fact should challenge the idea that the Relief Line should be built first.

Without considering the mental health of riders, long commute times are discussed without the appropriate context. TTC improvements should not just be about wanting fast and easy access to service. They should be about quality and secure services that benefit the most marginalized people.