February 14, 2024

Addressing Food Courier Train Crowding Concerns

Recently, there have been photos circulating on social media about food courier bikes crowding GO trains along the Kitchener GO line, including on dedicated bike cars used on the Niagara trains during the summer months. This has unfortunately been the latest round of criticism towards food couriers with last year seeing accusations of them hogging Bike Share Toronto’s e-bikes prior to the pricing changes and Councillor Dianne Saxe’s motion calling for e-bikes and e-scooters used by couriers to have “unique identifiers”. These incidents of blaming food couriers are unacceptable and must be called out. Instead, we road safety advocates need to work with the couriers and groups like Gig Workers United to come up with some solutions to remedy the situation. Especially since we should be encouraging deliveries by bike over those done by motor vehicles in order to pursue meaningful climate action.

A crowded GO train bike car on February 2, 2024 (via Janice Jim)

During an interview I had with Cycle Toronto’s Alison Stewart, she mentioned how bike share costs could make up 35% of a courier’s wages because they cannot afford an annual membership up front, while many couriers are racialized and/or are international students with no other way to gain employment. I also spoke with Janice of Cycle WR who mentioned some couriers share a home (or apartment) with at least ten other people and there had been increased competition over the past few months. One courier Janice spoke with (Aryan) goes to class three days a week and earned $100 per day back in November, but now struggles to earn $20 to $30 a day despite leaving at 9 AM and returning as late as 9 PM. A wage that barely covers a return GO trip from Brampton ($17.34 with a PRESTO card) where many couriers live.

It should be noted the increased presence of food couriers bringing bikes on GO Transit or using Bike Share bikes are merely symptoms of several larger problems. The federal government had allowed record immigration in recent years amidst an ongoing housing crisis, while a lack of provincial funding prompted universities and colleges to boost international student enrolment. Some of those schools were labelled as “puppy mill” schools given their degrees don’t offer much value. Last, but not least, Uber itself is the biggest culprit given their business model causes disproportionate impacts on traffic congestion, high fees for restaurants (and customers), and poverty wages for drivers and bike couriers by only paying them for “engaged time”. A lose-lose situation for all except for Uber’s shareholders.

When I shared the below tweet about the GO train crowding situation which went viral on Reddit, I saw several possible solutions which offered varying degrees of effectiveness and need to be scrutinized.

  1. More Frequent GO Service – Increasing GO train service on the Kitchener line to every 30 minutes seven days a week as experienced on the Lakeshore line is one of the more sensible solutions. While Metrolinx plans to do this with their GO expansion program, there are some constraints facing them right now. Especially west of Mount Pleasant where additional works are required.
  2. Longer GO Trains – Another solution GO Transit could explore is to extend the train length if they aren’t already at the 12-car maximum. Some people suggested adding more bike cars, but that could take away space from other passengers who may need to use the service in the future.
  3. More Affordable GO Service – While GO Transit offers $10/day (or $15/weekend) fares, Sean Marshall wrote an article in 2019 about the broken fare structure. He noted how stops on the Kitchener line often have a higher charge per kilometre than on other lines. If GO Transit is to succeed in becoming a regional express rail service, they should make their fares more affordable. Maybe charge $10/day maximum during the week as well?
  4. Secure Bike Parking – Toronto has four secure bike parking facilities with 168 racks at Union Station and another 170 at Nathan Phillips Square; both of which are a fraction compared to bike parking garages at Dutch train stations. Expanding secure biking parking at TTC and GO stations, as well as making it more affordable – currently $28.13 plus $22.51 per month – could give some couriers an option to leave their bikes at Union Station. However, it’s not practical for those who need their bikes back home or can’t afford a second bike to lock at their local train station. Finally, e-bike charging will be an issue if the battery can’t be removed to be charged at home.
  5. More Affordable Housing – While we all agree on the need for more affordable housing, it’s not a practical short-term solution. Especially considering how long it takes for housing projects to get approved and built, while Premier Doug Ford’s Bill 23 (More Homes Built Faster Act) actually slowed down construction. Not to mention, it doesn’t work for couriers who are attending classes in Brampton (or elsewhere) and/or have families there.
  6. Make Uber Provide Their Own E-Bike Fleet – Having a dedicated Uber e-bike fleet – as courier companies such as FedEx and Purolator have – would save the need for couriers to bring bikes on GO trains. However, it is doubtful that Uber would go along with this given their business model relies on people bring their own cars or bikes, while there would certainly be competition for the e-bikes given the number of couriers. However, I do wish there was a way to make Uber pay for the impacts they have caused on public infrastructure.
  7. Improve Bike Share Access – With the most recent phase of expansion, Bike Share Toronto has considerably increased the number of e-bikes in 2023 to around 1,800 (vs 500 last year) and over 9,000 bikes overall. While this continued expansion is great, it can be made even more accessible by integrating Bike Share Toronto with GO Transit and TTC (including via the PRESTO card).
  8. Remove Seats Next to Exits – One option my partner suggested was to remove seats next to the exits to allow three bikes to be parked instead of two. Another option would be to make those seats flip up like the TTC’s accessible seating. While this out-of-the-box solution worth considering, modify the GO train cars to accommodate this new arrangement will take time, while that alone will not be enough to address the level of crowding that’s being seen.
  9. Increase GO Transit Enforcement – Aside from outright banning bikes on GO trains – which would be the worst possible outcome we must avoid at all costs – enforcement is not desirable. Especially considering racialized communities are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. While enforcement may ensure bikes don’t block the exists, such a move would increase the risk of couriers being stranded at Union if they are unable to get on the last train home at 11:34 PM.

After having listed some solutions, it’s worth acknowledging there will not be a single silver bullet that can fix the GO train crowding issue. However, it’s important to ensure any solutions that do get adopted get the buy in from bicycle couriers, while they should be encouraged to offer suggestions of their own. Let’s show some respect for these couriers not just by solving the GO train crowding issue, but also expanding bikeways to improve their safety (and that of other cyclists), as well as ending their exploitation including being misclassified as "independent contractors" instead of employees. Something which the Ontario NDP recently announced they plan to introduce legislation to address.

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