A City of Winnipeg request for proposals to examine transit safety issued this month is drawing criticism from a community group that argues the study’s premise is flawed and the funding should be redirected toward reducing fares.
Commissioned by the city’s transit safety committee — which includes representatives from Winnipeg Police, the Amalgamated Transit Union, city council and other stakeholders — the study will examine transit safety models from six similar cities and compare them to Winnipeg.
“At the end of the day, we’re really asking what sort of security model would be most effective here in Winnipeg for transit,” said transit manager of operations Randy Tonnellier.
He noted that Winnipeg transit inspectors, who respond to incidents on buses, do not have the authority to detain individuals and instead have to involve police in cases of violence. He said inspectors and transit police in other cities have the authority to make arrests.
Anecdotally, Tonnellier said the meth crisis the city has experienced in the last few years has made safety an important topic for many people.
He said violent incidents and criminal activity occur regularly enough on transit buses to warrant a response.
“It happens enough that it’s concerning to all of us,” he said. “We want to have the best safety and security model that we possibly can.”
Winnipeg Police Cause Harm (WPCH), a community organization focused on negative impacts of city policing, is calling for a cancellation of the proposal altogether, primarily opposing prospect of increasing the power of transit officers and the lack of community involvement in the proposal.
WPCH organizer James Wilt disputed that most of the violence is rooted in substance abuse, arguing it is fare-based.
“We think that by increasing security it’s going to crack down on people who need help and reduced fares the most,” said Wilt.
Wilt said rather than increase security measures, a stronger solution is decreasing — and eventually abolishing — bus fares altogether.
He noted that cities like Kansas City, Mo., and Dunkirk, France, have eliminated fares entirely, increasing efficiency and lowering assault rates arising from fare disputes.
“We’re not pretending that it’s one-for-one, that they cancel the study and therefore they have enough money to fund reduced fares and eventually free transit,” said Wilt.
“It will take a number of different policies and revenue-generating devices to get to that point, but we think this is an opportunity for the city to decide on a different direction from which it’s going.”
Wilt also pointed to the negative impacts of recent increases of security in liquor stores and at the Millennium Library.
“Based on what we’ve seen in terms of escalation in security, it would mean more racial profiling of Indigenous and black peoples, it would mean more denial of service to people who can’t pay, denial of service to people who are using substances or exhibiting mental health issues,” he said.
“It would mean more people stuck out in the cold in terms of having to walk places instead of having to catch the bus, which in a city like Winnipeg is a huge public health concern.”
Other initiatives proposed by WPCH include funding increases to public housing, safe consumption sites, stronger resources addressing substance use and mental health issues, food justice programs and income supports.
“Having increased security, as opposed to lower fares and more accessible transit, would basically be denying the people who need access to employment, food, healthcare, all these kinds of things they need most,” Wilt added.
None of the student transit users who spoke to the Manitoban reported safety concerns while riding Winnipeg buses, but U of M instructor Michael O’Brien-Moran said he supports the study.
“Even if we have a handful of incidents,” he said, “we have a significantly greater number of people who are going to be concerned about their safety and it should be determined on the basis of how many vulnerable people are worried about travelling.”
Wilt added that WPCH will be continuing to organize around this issue, including taking its concerns directly to the committee.
“There will be a number of opportunities for us to speak at council and committee [meetings] and so we will very likely take those and remind our elected officials that this issue isn’t going to go away,” he said.
“We’re not going to let it happen — not quietly.”