by Emily Leedham
You can’t pay while staying six feet away. So cities across Canada are implementing free public transit and back door boarding to encourage social distancing and curb the spread of COVID-19.
Free transit reduces operator interactions with riders entering and exiting the vehicle and limits operator exposure to infection. Free transit also eliminates the need for fare inspection officers, whose jobs mandate close interactions with riders and handling personal belongings like identification.
Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, Saskatoon, Brandon, Kingston, Peterborough, Timmins, St. John’s, Halifax, Hamilton, Kingston, Mississauga, Guelph, and Montreal have all implemented fare free transit to encourage social distancing.
UPDATE: Edmonton also voted in favor of fare free transit on March 20, 2020.
Transit riders and workers in other cities are pressuring their governments to follow suit.
John Di Nino, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Canada (ATU), says transit workers across Canada have also requested permission to use masks, increased cleaning for transit vehicles and clear communication from employers regarding COVID-19 safety precautions.
“When we talk about public transit in a pandemic or an epidemic…we need to remind ourselves that even though a lot of places are in emergency shutdowns, some of our most valuable assets – and that is the health professionals, the healthcare workers, emergency response personnel, grocery store clerks who have to supply the food chain – a lot of those people depend on public transit, and we need to ensure there is a transit system for them,” he tells RankandFile.ca.
While it is imperative to maintain transit service, Di Nino expects employers to take every possible measure to ensure safety for all transit operators, mechanics and riders. He also says the pandemic has exacerbated issues stemming from the lack of dedicated operational funding for transit.
“We’re looking at governments to invest in public transit and, possibly, have the tough discussions of free transit. Right? If we had those things in place, then we wouldn’t be talking about social distancing in terms of collecting fares or fare evasion issues.”
Di Nino says public transit systems need a stimulus plan to not only adequately fund service, but to ensure jobs are protected, and workers’ income is not impacted by layoffs or reduced scheduling related to COVID-19.
Workers & riders fight for a safe TTC
Shelagh Pizey-Allen is the Executive Director of TTC Riders, a membership-based organization in Toronto that advocates for improved transit and reduced fares. The group has called for the Toronto Transit Commission to suspend fare collection and inspection to encourage social distancing, but Pizey-Allen says this TTC statement has caused confusion:
“TTC Fare Inspectors will continue their important work, focusing on education and customer service while respecting the importance of social distancing.”
“That’s very unclear,” she says. “We want them to take a very crystal clear position so we can guarantee social distancing on transit, and make sure they’re communicating clearly with the public, with workers, with riders about what measures they’re taking.”
The TTC is still currently running a bold anti-fare evasion poster campaign on streetcars, subway stations and buses featuring slogans like “There’s no excuse to not pay your fare.”
Ontario PC Premier Mike Harris cut provincial funding for transit in the 90s, Pizey-Allen explains, making the TTC more reliant on fares to fund the system. Though the TTC has not released official numbers, ridership has dropped as workers self-isolate, impacting revenues. She believes its time for the province to step back up to fund transit.
TTC Riders has released a petition calling for the province to stop collecting and enforcing fares, implement back door boarding, run enough service to allow social distancing, and provide paid sick days to all transit workers, including non-unionized contract workers.
On Wednesday, the TTC told workers a mechanic had tested positive for COVID-19. Around 130 – 170 mechanics were asked to self isolate and were told they could return to work by March 26 if they had no symptoms. In the meantime, the TTC said the garage would go through a thorough disinfection.
“They’re the ones that clean our vehicles, they’re the ones that repair our buses and our streetcars and change the lightbulbs on the buses…” says Carlos Santos, President of ATU Local 113. “There’s a lot of behind the scenes staff that nobody sees and I want to give a big shout out to them cause they play a very important role. Without them, we [ transit operators] can’t do what we do, so they make us look good.”
Santos tells RankandFile.ca he has been pushing the TTC for weeks to give workers permission to wear masks to work. That request was just granted on Friday. While the TTC will not be supplying masks, workers have the option to purchase and use their own on the job. Workers also no longer need to provide sick notes to take sick leave.
“They’ve been cleaning the vehicles a lot more once this whole pandemic started,” Santos explains. “Our union has even offered, we’ve even extended our overtime hours up to 64, it was 56 before. So we’ve extended hours so we can get the vehicles cleaned to make it safe for the public.”
Santos believes this pandemic has highlighted the importance of workers’ rights and union representation. Not all TTC workers are unionized, many positions have been contracted out by the TTC.
“I am happy they changed their policy, but what’s concerning is if we don’t ask and if we don’t push and we don’t lobby, we don’t get it, right?”
Transit needs healthy dose of public support
On Tuesday, Halifax implemented free transit and back-door boarding for all of its buses and the ferry system. In addition, only 50 passengers are permitted per bus or ferry at a time, and are not allowed to stand by or face each other. Riders enter buses through the back door, except for passengers who have mobility issues, who can still enter the front door via the accessibility ramp.
Chris Parsons, Provincial Coordinator for the Nova Scotia Healthcare Coalition, believes Halifax Transit has been managing the situation fairly well, considering the situation is so unprecedented. But he still has concerns.
“What I’m really scared about, as a transit user and someone who advocates for public health services, is that this is going to scare people out of using public health transportation, which is the exact opposite of what we should do when we get through this crisis,” he tells RankandFile.ca. “What we should actually be doing is strengthening public services and strengthening points of social solidarity and public transit is one of the best examples of that.”
Like Ontario and many other provinces, Halifax transit has no provincial funding, and Parsons believes the service has been overall inadequate. However, there were plans to implement a bus rapid transit system over the next five years, which he says would have greatly improved the service.
Now, ridership has dropped by 50 per cent as riders self-isolate or choose other modes of transportation.
“They’re in a real Catch 22, because they want to continue making sure that the buses are operating and people can get where they need to go but they also have to be very careful to make sure there isn’t an infection among their staff,” Parsons explains. “Because once the actual transit drivers and operators get ill, that’s going to completely shut down the system.”
He emphasizes workers should be vigilant to prevent the erosion and privatization of public services, including transit.
James Wilt, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars: Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber and Elon Musk, says a pandemic doesn’t change the fact that people require transportation, and public transit is the most equitable mode available, especially for the many low wage workers who will continue to work through the pandemic.
Yet many Canadian cities have decreased investment in public transit, while welcoming ride hailing services like Uber & Lyft, whose Amazon-inspired business models involve operating at a loss in order to destroy the competition – public transit.
“As always, ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft will be looked to by the rich as a safer alternative,” he tells RankandFile.ca , “but such options are inaccessible to a majority of transit riders and will exacerbate a vicious cycle resulting in further cuts to transit. This moment must be seized to build the free, quality, and safe transit systems that we’ve always needed, even more so during this pandemic.”
#SardineLife no longer an option
Juan Vargas, an organizer with Free Transit Edmonton, says free transit just makes sense in context of a pandemic.
“We keep funding public transit because we don’t leave behind the people that have no other way to get around,” he argues.
Last week, Vargas explains, Edmonton Transit reduced service on some routes in order to increase time for cleaning buses. That plan ended up backfiring, as the remaining buses on those routes were packed. The City then announced it would resume to the original route frequency.
Since schools are closed, the bus routes used to service the schools have also been cancelled, he points out. He suggests these buses be redirected to serve working class communities.
“Ideally we would live in a world where people can stay home,” he says,“but I think that you can tell which communities don’t have the ability to do that. I think that it makes sense to funnel a lot of the money towards those places.”
In 2017, Winnipeg transit riders organized a social media campaign called #SardineLife to protest fare increases and cuts to service. Riders took photos of their buses packed with people and shared them on social media.
Winnipeg Transit funding has been strained since Brian Pallister’s PC government pulled out of the province’s 50-50 funding agreement with municipalities. Since then, the City has cut service, attempted to raise fares, and engaged in a drawn out labour dispute with Winnipeg Transit workers, members of ATU Local 1505.
On Thursday, four Winnipeg Transit buses were removed from the fleet after a driver reported flu-like symptoms. Though it is not a confirmed COVID-19 case, the buses will be disinfected and the driver will remain in self-isolation until test results are confirmed.
ATU 1505 has also sent a letter to Winnipeg Transit requesting clarification regarding service changes and safety protocols. ATU International Vice President John Callahan has put out a request for donations of hand sanitizer as Winnipeg Transit has been unable to find any in stock
Free transit expands across Canada
On Thursday, Saskatoon, Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo became the latest cities to introduce fare free transit.
Balbir Mann, president of Unifor Local 111, represents Coastal Mountain Bus Company drivers in Vancouver. He says the union has been pressing the employer to implement more health and safety measures.
“They started with disinfecting buses once a week. They do one third of the fleet on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And as [COVID-19] was progressing, we – after multiple discussions – today, we came to an agreement with CMBC: rear door loading and unloading on all buses,” he explains.
Fare free transit on Vancouver buses will be in place until further notice.
Victoria and Nanaimo have also implemented free transit, but only for a 30 day period.
“Currently, it’s considered to be a temporary measure,” says Victoria City Councillor Ben Isitt, “I hope it’s not temporary.”
Isitt has been fighting for free transit long before the pandemic as a means to address the climate crisis. He recently helped secure free transit for all youth under 19 in Victoria. He hopes to build on that success to include all riders.
“Our thinking was the youth pass would be a first step towards eliminating fares for other user groups, thinking maybe seniors as a next step, then everyone else. So it’s still an uphill battle getting traction at the regional commission.”
Free transit for the future
Before COVID-19 became a pandemic, free transit became a rallying cry for social, economic and climate justice around the world.
In Chile, student fare evaders sparked a general strike against 30 years of neoliberal economics and privatization of public services, including transit and water.
In New York, riders jumped transit turnstiles en masse in demonstrations against racial profiling in fare enforcement and policing.
And across Canada, free transit campaigns have emerged in cities like Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton and Winnipeg. ATU Canada, the country’s largest transit union, has endorsed free transit, and The Leap declared 2020 “The Year of Free Transit” as part of the fight for a Green New Deal.
“This is an unprecedented moment in the 21st century,” Parsons emphasizes. “There’s been nothing during this century, nothing in decades, really probably since the second world war, that has presented so many questions about what the future of the economy and what the future of public services and the future of politics are going to look like. And I think that we’re going to need to seriously consider things like expanding all public services, including things like public transit.”