Who cares about the bus? Riders pay the price of public transit under-funding
Waiting for the bus is a uniquely frustrating experience. Cars whiz by, billows of exhaust form around you, time passes, and you become late for work, again. When the bus does show up, it’s often overcrowded to the point where it can no longer pick up more passengers. So you wait some more. And some more.
Generally, problems that afflict poor people go unnoticed by decision makers until the problems become a crisis and the crisis becomes overwhelming. In the bus system, that time is now. Buses are overcrowded with passengers. At many major bus stops, hundreds of bus riders wait in long lineups that snake down the street and back again.
The current crisis has been many years in the making. In April 2000, TransLink adopted their Strategic Transportation Plan, which promised 450 expansion buses by 2005, for a total bus fleet of 1600. In 2004 TransLink cancelled the Strategic Transportation Plan in favor of the Ten Year Plan. The Ten Year Plan also promised 450 expansion buses, but not until 2013 – a full eight year delay. This amounts to a three percent increase in service hours per year, as compared to the 10 percent originally promised in 2000. Meanwhile, transit ridership has increased 4.5 percent in the last year alone.
Trying to follow the maze of doublespeak associated with TransLink bus purchases feels like watching a shell game in which the winner takes all, and the losers are bus riders. Even as TransLink media spokesperson Ken Hardie stridently insists that bus service has never been better, the fact is that overcrowding and long waits have never been worse. In a recent editorial to the Vancouver Province, CAW Local 111 Vice-President Jim Houlahan shed light on the grim situation facing both riders and drivers, noting that, “in effect, as of mid-December  we will have introduced only 60 per cent of the additional conventional vehicles and service hours proposed in the 2006 plan.”
The official cost of the Canada Line has now officially surpassed two billion dollars, and construction proceeds on schedule, thanks to the migrant workers labouring on sub-minimum wages to build it. This is the dirty truth behind TransLink’s hyperbole and mis-statements. The truth is, TransLink prioritizes Skytrain before buses. They do so even though eighty percent of transit users ride the bus exclusively, thirteen percent ride a combination of buses and SkyTrain, and only seven percent of transit users exclusively ride the Skytrain. Even TransLink staff refer to the buses as the ‘backbone’ of the transit system. This scenario, in which ultra-expensive rail projects are prioritized over the bus system, is one being played out in big cities across North America.
The cost of debt-servicing alone (largely incurred from borrowing money to build the Millennium Line, Canada Line, and the as-yet-unconfirmed Evergreen Line) will soar to 360 million dollars per year by 2013. After 2007, the only source of revenue TransLink can count on will be from transit fares. TransLink plans to increase fares again in 2008, and again in 2011, in all likelihood resulting in a fare of $2.75 for one zone, $3.75 for two zones, and $5.50 for three zones. Consider the havoc this will create for transit dependent people, and remember that welfare rates have not increased in the last twelve years and wages remain stagnant.
According to Dr Robert D. Bullard, founder of the Environmental Justice Resource Centre in Atlanta, Georgia, “follow the transportation dollars and one can tell who is important and who is not”. Unfortunately, TransLink spending has most often created opportunity for wealthy real estate developers, mall owners and multi-national contractors rather than the people who crowd on the buses everyday. Dr. Bullard confirms this trend, noting that “[i]n general, most transit systems tend to take their low-income ‘captive riders’ for granted and concentrate their fare and service policies on attracting middle-class and affluent riders. Hence, transit subsidies disproportionately favor suburban transit and expensive new commuter bus and rail lines that serve wealthier “discretionary riders.”
If you don’t ride the bus it may be hard to understand the pivotal role that transit plays in the lives of transit dependent people. Women and people of colour are disproportionately represented among the transit dependent. They work the hardest jobs, the longest hours, and struggle to survive on a punitively low minimum wage in the most expensive region in Canada. For them, the bus is a lifeline to work, family, friends and social services. Ultimately, public transit is about making our cities accessible to poor and working class people who cannot afford a car or are unable to drive. Ultimately, it’s about justice.
With chronic under-funding and ever-delayed purchases of new buses, riders -- many of whom already hover far below the poverty line -- will continue to make impossible choices between bus fare and other basic needs. The solution to the transit crisis is maddeningly simple. Put more buses on the road. Stop raising the fares. Stop investing in rail projects. And put bus riders first. Until then, bus riders will be waiting. Waiting, and organizing.
The Bus Riders Union is currently organizing two campaigns - “Ride With Dignity – No Overcrowding, No Long Waits, More Buses Now” and “Justice For Riders – No Guns, No Police Brutality, No Racial Profiling”. To get involved in either campaign, please email the BRU at email@example.com, or call 604-215-2775.