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Why pedestrian safety is a matter of justice for essential workers

A new Amazon fulfilment centre opened in northeast Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though we consider Amazon employees essential workers, a basic level of safety pedestrians and transit users is lacking.

The new YYZ9 Fulfillment Centre in Northeast Scarborough, looking across Steeles Avenue

In August 2020, in the midst of an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon opened its sixth fulfillment centre in the Greater Toronto Area near Steeles and Tapscott Road in northeast Scarborough. Upon opening, the new warehouse, where consumer orders are packed for delivery, employed 700 workers, 100 more than Amazon initially planned due to high order volumes.

The starting wage for an Amazon fulfillment centre employee is $17.00 an hour, despite notoriously tough working conditions. With most professional and office workers at home, and with ongoing pandemic restrictions, Amazon has enjoyed significant sales increases. But those workers picking and packing orders are not able to work from home – and workplace spread has been a significant factor in COVID-19 transmission in Ontario.

Brampton, home to two of the GTA’s fulfilment centres, and close to Amazon’s Mississauga, Milton and Bolton warehouses, has been a COVID-19 hotspot. Like Toronto, Peel Region has been under lockdown and stay-at-home orders since November.

Like most new logistics facilities, the new Scarborough warehouse, like the other five GTA Amazon fulfillment centres, is in an industrial area on the city’s outskirts, where land is plentiful, but transit and pedestrian access is lacking. East of Tapscott Road, Steeles Avenue narrows from four lanes to two, and there are no designated pedestrian crossings at the intersection with Eastvale Drive. The eastbound TTC stop at Eastvale Avenue was removed in 2018 after a passenger was struck and killed trying to cross the street after disembarking from a 53 Steeles East bus. The next nearest stop, at Tapscott Road, is 300 metres west.

Steeles Avenue, looking west towards Eastvale Drive and the signalized intersection beyond, at Tapscott Road

The sidewalk on the south side of Steeles Avenue ends at Tapscott, a few hundred metres west of the Amazon fulfilment centre. On the north side, the sidewalk ends at Ferncliffe Crescent in Markham. Despite a new residential area in Morningside Heights, to the east, there is no sidewalk along Steeles to connect to it. Pedestrians heading to Amazon or towards Staines Road must choose whether to walk in the mud, or on the busy roadway. Though the posted speed limit is 50 km/h, motorists regularly travel at 60 km/h or faster.

Looking east on Steeles from Tapscott Road – despite the sign advising motorists of pedestrian activity, there are no sidewalks leading east towards the new Amazon fulfillment centre (Sonali Praharaj)

A stairway and ramp were built on the north end of the Amazon property, likely with the expectation that a sidewalk on the south side of Streeles Avenue would soon be installed. This would provide improved pedestrian access to the fulfillment centre. But without a safe and logical way to get to it from the street, it remains largely unused.

Passmore Avenue, on the south side of the fulfillment centre, was rebuilt with a sidewalk in the late fall of 2020, months after Amazon opened. However, it requires a lengthy walk north to Steeles Avenue up Tapscott, and there are no sidewalks on Tapscott from Passmore south, towards McNicoll Avenue. The intersection of Passmore and Tapscott itself – controlled by an all-way stop – still does not feature proper crosswalks.  

Looking east on Steeles from Tapscott Road – despite the sign advising motorists of pedestrian activity, there are no sidewalks leading east towards the new Amazon fulfillment centre (Sonali Praharaj)

Though there are two TTC bus routes that operate to the corner of Tapscott Road and Passmore Avenue – 53B/953B Steeles East and 102B/C Markham Road – for months, workers had to walk on the roadway, through a construction site to access those buses. Anyone looking to go east, towards Morningside Heights, or southeast, towards Malvern, still face a long, dangerous walk or a lengthy bus commute.

The corner of Tapscott Road and Passmore Avenue

The TTC, starting January 11, 2021, began diverting the 53B Steeles East bus to directly serve the Amazon fulfillment centre, finally serving a major industrial trip generator and reducing essential workers’ travel times. Even still, the new sidewalk on Passmore ends at the warehouse entrance – anyone waiting for a bus must still walk and wait in the snow or mud.

Eventually, Steeles Avenue will be widened, with new sidewalks and bike lanes, and Morningside Avenue will be extended north to Steeles Avenue. However, these improvements have been planned for years and completion is still several years away. Though new warehouses have opened here, civic infrastructure has not caught up.

New TTC bus stop serving the Amazon Fulfillment Centre on Passmore Road (Sonali Praharaj)

The TTC’s service change, adding a new bus stop on Passmore Avenue, was a welcome – yet overdue – acknowledgement that essential workers, especially racialized and lower-paid workers, deserve better. It is inexcusable that new employment uses are planned, approved, and constructed before the appropriate pedestrian infrastructure and transit services are in place. It is also inexcusable that after a TTC customer was killed that a nearby bus stop was removed, rather than safety improvements added instead. This is not just a matter of ensuring a basic level of safety for pedestrians – this is a matter of justice for those we consider essential workers.

One reply on “Why pedestrian safety is a matter of justice for essential workers”

“Fulfillment centre” is a dreamy term for these work places. They are sprawling, cavernous warehouses of things packed up by under-paid people who have to take public transit day and night to distant locations because they can’t afford to own a car.

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