Service with a smile: Will empathy training improve TTC customer service?

Watch video of our Story Circle to get a snapshot of the transit-related issues and solutions we heard from Scarborough community members.

Until about two years ago, my two kids had a TTC ritual. Every time we got off of a train, they stopped and said goodbye to it. If the train conductor responded to their vigorous waves with a smile and a wave of their own, it would thrill my kids to bits — especially if the conductor tooted the train horn as it rolled out of the subway station. They’d skip outside in the best of moods.

This ritual wasn’t always successful. Many times, the TTC conductor would leave the window as soon as the train started moving, so my kids would end up waving to an empty window. Or sometimes, the conductor just stared straight ahead, avoiding all eye contact. That didn’t stop my kids from yelling, “BYE!” at the top of their lungs, though.

My kids are a little bit older now. They don’t always stay at the platform to bid their subway adieus. My almost tween daughter’s waves are a little less enthusiastic, but she smiles nevertheless; my son always has a goofy grin on his face. But if the train toots as it leaves, they’re still thrilled — and to be honest, so am I.

This winter, I found myself taking a page out of my kids’ playbook. During my transit commutes, I tried to enter the bus at the front door — even if I was boarding via the bus bay of a subway station — look the driver in the eye and say a cheery “Good Morning” or “Hello.” Since these TTC employees had jobs to do, I didn’t try and engage in banter; I just said my greeting, tapped my Presto card and moved to the back of the bus. I was happy to see that on many occasions, the drivers responded with a smile. My day certainly felt better with a cheerful start, especially during this long and unusually cold winter.

Other times, however, I found the bus drivers either looking straight ahead, not acknowledging people getting on and off the bus, or just remaining impassive. I wasn’t sure what to make of those interactions. Maybe those drivers had had a long day, maybe they were in a bad mood or maybe they preferred not to engage with customers for their own safety.

At Scarborough Discourse’s transit-themed Story Circle, we heard attendees discuss the need for customer-service and empathy training for TTC staff — especially those who have public-facing jobs, such as operating ticket booths and driving buses. This was one immediate solution that surfaced to address community members’ frustrations with using public transit in Scarborough. To get a sense of the conversations we had at the Story Circle, watch the following video, which was shot by Centennial College Storyworks student Trevon Smith, and edited and produced by my colleagues Uytae Lee and Anita Li, respectively.

In response to my last newsletter, Rasak Adewale Bakare told me via email that the “TTC could be extremely frustrating, but by and large, it has been reliable and almost efficient. In fact, I have had so many wonderful experiences with drivers on 54 route but same thing could not be said of 102!” Rasak then shared a link to a Facebook post in which he describes his pleasant experience with a TTC driver on the 54 Lawrence East bus.

How do you cope with the challenges that come with using public transit in Scarborough? Email me your thoughts.


Nidusha Nithi (front, holding soccer ball) and Gabriela Estrada (middle, holding “Keep on Moving” sign) with Girls and Women in Motion: Built to Move participants. “Younger racialized girls are made to think that sports is not a place for them. Or physical activity in general,” Gabriela says. “We want to create healthy communities.”

Nidusha Nithi calls “Scarborough home, [but] more specifically, Malvern.” Growing up, however, she didn’t have access to many community programs in her neighbourhood.

“There weren’t any children or youth programming available that were affordable,” she tells me in a phone interview. “When there was something, it was $400 to $500 for a whole session.” Although it’s changed since then, she feels there still needs to be more affordable programs targeted towards youth, underemployed immigrants and newcomers. They should also be centrally located in Scarborough, “so that it’s convenient for everyone,” she adds.

Nidusha’s experiences growing up in Malvern motivated her to volunteer with Girls and Women in Motion: Built to Move (GWIM), an organization that provides affordable and accessible sports and fitness programming. Although the program is open to girls and young women from across Toronto, its focus is on east Scarborough and Malvern due to the lack of resources there.

GWIM is an offshoot of community programs started by Gabriela Estrada, in association with the Girls & Boys Club of East Scarborough. She had a similar experience as Nidusha while growing up here. Gabriela’s parents were from Guatemala, and couldn’t speak English; this language barrier, combined with other challenges of being new immigrants, limited their ability to access community organizations. It wasn’t until Gabriela turned 12 that she started playing soccer. Now, she’s a master’s student at the University of Toronto, researching the relationship that marginalized and racialized female youth have with sports and physical activity.

“There are some programs in community hubs and gyms, but programs for and by community members are lacking,” Gabriela tells me. “We wanted to create an accessible, affordable, safe and inclusive space with diverse voices at the table to plan this programming.”

The lack of affordable sports and physical activities in Scarborough was a strong motivating factor for Gabriela and Nidusha to donate their time to GWIM. “We didn’t want to create a competitive league, which is what lots of clubs in Scarborough are,” Nidusha says. “We wanted an inclusive environment where young girls are encouraged to play.”

Nidusha credits one of her high school teachers for introducing her to soccer, after he saw her run at track and field events. “Long-term wise, I want to work as a race director. Most races or marathons are downtown or in North York. I want to create a marathon for Scarborough residents,” she adds.

In the community

Community members, including (from left to right) MPP Mitzie Hunter, MP Shaun Chen, organizer and MP Salma Zahid and city councillor Jim Karygiannis attended a vigil outside the Scarborough Civic Centre last Saturday for victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand.

More than 60 people gathered just outside the Scarborough Civic Centre on a cold evening last Saturday, March 16. The crowd encircled a small candle-lit table to stand in solidarity with victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, which happened the previous day. Event organizer and MP Salma Zahid, MP Shaun Chen, MPPs Mitzie Hunter and Vijay Thanigasalam, and city councillor Jim Karygiannis also attended. 

People of Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu and other faiths stood in solemn silence, as organizers read passages from the Qur’an, guiding the crowd in quiet prayer. Several attendees held brightly coloured signs, with some calling for “unity,” while others said “terrorism has no religion.”  

By: Trevon Smith

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