Will Transit changes hurt low-income peoples’ right to move?

There are big changes in the works for Vancouver’s transit system this fall, and they could make it harder for low-income people to use the SkyTrain and city buses.

In late 2013, TransLink will replace all bus passes and tickets with electronic “compass cards.” People will use the same reloadable “compass card” to buy and store transit fares. Although it will still be possible to pay cash for single rides on the SkyTrain and buses, paper tickets and transfers will no longer exist.compass-card-translink

The new fare gates will also be running by Fall 2013, which means that the “honour system” in place on the SkyTrain and some city buses will also end. All transit users will swipe their “compass cards” to get on and off transit. There won’t be fare gates at the Metrotown or Main SkyTrain stations, but there will be more security guards posted.

TransLink has justified these changes by claiming that it loses $4.38 million in fares each year due to “free riders.” The new gates, however, cost $170 million to build and $50 million to maintain each year.

The new transit system and peoples’ right to move

How will these changes affect low-income people who use transit to access health services, find housing, travel in emergencies and look for jobs?

Although low-income seniors and people on provincial disability can buy subsidized transit passes, many people living off their $610/month welfare cheques still need to pay full fares.

Until now, many agencies, such as emergency shelters, used to give tickets to people who needed transit. With the compass cards, this system becomes much more complicated.

The new fare gates could also mean that low-income people who can’t pay fares but need to travel on public transit could be subject to more ticketing and criminalization.

With more and more low-income people displaced from the DTES due to gentrification, this issue is even more critical. Many of the services – and communities – that people depend on are still in the DTES. Barriers to accessing transit could mean that people are unable to access the services and supports they need.

The “Homeless Transit Plan”

On July 10, Vancouver City Council supported a motion from Councillor Geoff Meggs to endorse the Vancouver Urban Core Community Workers’ Association’s proposal for TransLink to establish a task force on the issue of transit and homelessness.

Although the motion is good news, by limiting the issue to “homelessness”, it does not go far enough.  Defining who is “homeless” might mean that people in unstable and precarious living situations could be excluded from free transit plans.  The $610 per month welfare rate does not cover people’s basic living expenses, much less the cost of transit.

The City could extend the motion to more low-income people by advocating for yearly passes for people on welfare. The passes, which could be similar to the existing transit passes for people on disability and pensions, could guarantee that people on welfare are able to make 30 round-trip rides per month.

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