The Winnipeg Transit bus, a hulking, familiar presence on the streets, is similar to a beast. It hisses, it roars, and it can make people — users or not — nervous.
Oliver Bérubé, 19, often uses transit to get around. On the flip side, Dr. Manuel Resendes, a dentist, does not. Neither of them consider it a safe system.
Bérubé, who buses to work, witnessed an incident in August in which a Winnipeg Transit driver was assaulted.
The person committing the assault got the driver on the ground and continued to beat him until authorities arrived, Bérubé said.
Resendes lives 10 minutes from where he works, he said, but uses his vehicle for the commute. He said that he doesn’t feel good about it, but avoids using transit because of health and general safety concerns.
“I don’t feel safe riding the bus,” he said, bluntly.
On the street behind him, a Portage Avenue express bus roars past, filling the air with noise. It doesn’t bother to halt at the empty sidewalk stop two steps away.
In Winnipeg, the question “is transit safe” can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. It depends on the route, location, the time of day, and personal experience.
According to Tom Brodbeck, a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press, context plays into how safe one may feel using the system.
“I don’t feel unsafe, myself,” he said. “But I’m not in a demographic that would feel unsafe taking a bus.”
He said that for him to take the bus during the day from where he is, it’s easy, but it becomes a different situation for him at night.
In the midst of the upcoming election, there have been a number of pledges related to improving the Winnipeg Transit system: buying electric buses, adding new routes, better infrastructure, and more.
However, the subject of safety casts a nervous shadow over these forward-looking conversations on the subject. How to properly improve a system if many people are scared of using it?
“A balanced approach”
Some political candidates in the upcoming Oct. 26 election claim they believe the key to improving transit anxiety is better frequency and quicker wait times. In other words, crowded buses could mean more peace.
According to a City of Winnipeg quarterly financial status report from June, Winnipeg Transit is forecasting a deficit of nearly $15 million this year, and ridership remains down nearly 40 per cent in the same period. On a brighter note, the city says ridership has been “steadily increasing” since May.
The Winnipeg Transit Osborne Station, opened in 2012, is nearly empty at 4 p.m. on a recent weekday. Some information screens are blank, giving it an apocalyptic visage.
Average weekday ridership in 2019 was over 171,290, according to the Winnipeg Transit website.
Daevid Ramey, a city council candidate in St. James, said that in a perfect world, improving ridership would mean a system that is free and accessible to everyone.
“As you increase ridership, you get people out, in the community and on the street,” Ramey said. “And there is safety in numbers.”
Rana Bokhari, mayoral candidate, has recently pledged to fast track the Winnipeg Transit Master Plan and lower transit fares, among other things. She said that improvements to transit work interchangeably.
“I believe everything is connected to everything else,” she said. “So we have to take a more balanced approach.”
In an interview with Joshua Hood, transit advocate, candidate Glen Murray had a similar stance, saying he would attempt to implement the master plan in the next eight years instead of 25.
Though, he admitted he wouldn’t be able to achieve everything listed in the plan in that span of time.
The Winnipeg Transit Master Plan, released in full last year, covers the outlined proposal of an improved Winnipeg Transit system and routes that will be implemented over the next 25 years.
The current predicted cost is 3.2 million dollars, split amongst the municipal and federal government.
According to transit advocacy group Functional Transit Winnipeg, the plan, if implemented, would have beneficial impacts on transit ridership. Routes would be straighter, buses would arrive more often, and it would increase the number of houses within 500 meters of convenient transit.
This, the group says, would achieve their top three priorities for a reliable transit system in the city: frequency, accessibility, and affordability.
However, the master plan does not necessarily detail a plan to improve safety for passengers and employees — at least not on the surface.
An online Q & A on the plan relayed that, though they have increased transit inspectors in recent years, the plan does not cover security on the buses. A separate, independent consultant reviews any safety measures.
They also explained that although the Winnipeg Police Service does include public transit in their patrols, it’s not prioritized over other calls.
Though this may not be needed if frequency is improved, advocates contend.
A full bus, although not necessarily comfortable, could be a good start in increasing safety overall. A beast can be tamed.
In addition to Bokhari and Murray, nine other candidates are running for mayor. They are: Idris Adelakun, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Kevin Klein, Scott Gillingham, Rick Shone, Jenny Motkaluk, Don Woodstock, Chris Clacio and Shaun Loney.
Winnipeg Better has published voters’ guides for all the mayoral candidates — in them you can find the candidates pledges on how they pledge to deal with Winnipeg Transit issues in the city. The guides are located here, or from the site’s main page.
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