Creating counterfeit transit passes is now as simple as making a colour photocopy on glossy card stock. And still Edmonton bus drivers say they’re waving through passengers who use fraudulent payment or no payment at all, rather than dealing with potential violence.“You’ve got a fraction of a second and we’re directed not to enforce it anyway,” said one of several bus drivers who spoke with me about a steadily growing issue on Edmonton Transit buses.For a decade now, ever since driver Tom Bregg was brutally beaten over a fare dispute, drivers have been told not to enforce fare payment. Word gets around and now drivers say they’re seeing dozens of fare evasions each shift, with sometimes every other rider breezing past the fare box in certain areas of town.It’s frustrating because the cost of transit fares are going up. Single parents struggle to pay, while any scofflaw waltzes on by. While few begrudge a free ride for someone down on their luck or at risk of freezing, the bus drivers I spoke with say fare evaders are more likely to be aggressive troublemakers who cause other issues on the bus.It seems the decision not to enforce fares isn’t making a safer space. It’s making a lawless one.The City of Edmonton doesn’t track fare evasion. But I spoke with several drivers on Edmonton’s worst routes. Both transit union president Mark Tetterington and Edmonton Transit branch manager Eddie Robar back up their stories.I’m not naming the drivers because they could face disciplinary action for speaking with the media. The issue of free transit is heading back to a council committee next week.Bregg was hurt in December 2009. Gary Edwin Mattson, later ruled a dangerous offender, dragged him out of the bus and stomped on his head 14 times. The injuries were horrific and he’s been left with permanent blindness in his left eye.
ETS bus driver Tom Bregg, pictured as he leaves the courthouse on May 6, 2010, was viciously beaten by passenger Gary Edwin Mattson on Dec. 3, 2009.
AMBER BRACKEN /
Since then, Edmonton Transit officials haven’t wanted to risk another being driver hurt. “We’re trying our best to make sure everyone pays … but it won’t be at the risk of someone’s health,” said Robar.Drivers say almost everyone is waved on. Now on parts of Route 8, which runs between Mill Woods and Abbottsfield, someone gets on without paying every 20 minutes, said one driver. There are two to three dozen per shift. Others use expired transfers and many people paying cash put in less than the $3.50 fare, which went up from $3.25 on Feb. 1. Drivers often give a transfer anyway, said the driver. That saves the passenger from breaking the law again, perhaps with a junior driver.“Sometimes people are really well dressed and only put in a loonie,” said another bus driver. “But you have to be careful what you do,” he said, worried transit security might take a long time to respond. “Even a dirty look can send them into a rage.”They’re not over-reacting. When my colleague Jonny Wakefield got the data through a freedom of information request, on average one driver per week was spit on, hit or otherwise attacked from 2014 through 2017. Last September, a bus driver was stabbed 13 times.One issue is that the cash fare is a rip off compared to other options. It’s $3.50, up from $2.50 in 2010, and significantly more than the $2.63 per ride paid by anyone with the funds to buy a 10-pack of paper tickets. Cash fares are often paid by those who can least afford it, those who need their last dollars to keep the lights on.The other issue is security. At council last October, transit officials said most jurisdictions have one on-street inspector for every 100 to 125 buses.Currently, Edmonton Transit had one inspector for every 262 buses. It’s scheduled to hire 24 new inspectors and control room support staff this year, which will bring the ratio to 1:150. The city couldn’t supply response times for transit security, or say how much time its 65 security officers spend on buses.Statistics suggest security spends more time on LRT trains. In 2018, peace officers gave 5,773 tickets for fare evasion on LRT and only 47 tickets on buses, less than one per cent of the total. A 2017 transit survey concluded 89 per cent of riders said they feel safe on buses.Edmonton Transit is giving drivers new training to de-escalate tense situations. The Smart Fare system on track for mid-2020 should also help, Robar said. It will be paired with an automated passenger counter to target problem routes.Others have said free transit is the answer. Coun. Aaron Paquette’s motion on that is going to the urban planning committee March 5 and he’s hopeful council will consider at least a pilot project. Edmonton’s task force on ending poverty pointed to free or affordable transit as a game changer.To me, the real issue is Edmonton not valuing its bus system. It takes money to run a quality system — there’s no way to avoid that. Jacking up fares without improving quality and cutting corners on security damages the system. That drives riders away and creates a downward email@example.com/estolteListen to our Canadian news podcast