On Monday, Mayor Rob Ford booted the last remaining woman from his Executive Committee - a significant but largely symbolic screw-you to women across Toronto.
This week, however, City Council is set to take a move that is expected to have far more concrete consequences on the well-being of women in this city.
In a letter sent to city councillors, METRAC (the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children) warns that a proposal to allow opaque or barely-translucent advertising to extend around all sides of transit shelters would place "TTC users at considerable risk for theft, sexual and physical assaults and harassment" (PDF).
They cite a number of studies, including a report in a 2011 edition of Statistics Canada's Juristat journal:
Brennan (2011) reports in the Juristat article Canadians' perceptions of personal safety and crime, 2009 that 58% of Canadians feel less safe when using or waiting for public transit at night. This issue is gendered because while 73% of male-identified respondents report being not at all worried when waiting for public transit at night, only 42% of female respondents say that they are not at all worried at night-time. Fully transparent shelters help to ease these fears while persons wait for public transit, particularly at night.
METRAC has raised these concerns several times in the past, as recently as 2006-07, when the City of Toronto was developing guidelines for its "Coordinated Street Furniture Program." That Mayor David Miller initiative - which saw billboard company Astral Outdoor being handed responsibility for developing and maintaining much of Toronto's pedestrian infrastructure - officially incorporated many of METRAC's recommendations. (I led the Toronto Public Space Committee's ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the program, and METRAC was an ally.) Both the spirit and the letter of the City's contract with Astral are supposed to restrict advertising to within the single designated panel in each shelter.
But that is not how it has worked in practise. Again and again, Astral has requested permission to wrap shelters in advertising, and again and again they have been granted it. Now Astral and staff in the City's Transportation Services division are requesting a formal amendment to the contract to allow for such things. Their justification:
Creative advertising enhancements result in increased revenue opportunities through larger package sales to complement the special creative executions. The advertising community employs about 30,000 Torontonians whose skill and creativity are known around the world. Their artistic and innovative advertising enhancement can, when filtered through appropriate guidelines, enliven Toronto's streetscapes. As a major provider of advertising space, it is important for Astral Media to be able to meet the requirements of this community while, at the same time, providing the city with street furniture and revenues generated through these new opportunities.
There is no mention of the implications to people who actually use the transit shelters. In other words, City staff feel they have a greater responsibility to Astral than they do to transit riders, including those from vulnerable populations.
Signatories to METRAC's letter include WomanACT, the White Ribbon Campaign, the Toronto Women's City Alliance, the Wellesley Institute, WomenatthecentrE, the South Asian Women's Centre, the Social Planning Council of Toronto, Newcomer Women's Services, the Coalition for Better Childcare, and the Older Women's Network.
City Council will likely ignore them all and defer to Astral instead. The item will be coming up for debate on Wednesday afternoon.