Public transit is often a lifeline for low-income Calgarians. As an integral part of daily life, equitable access to transit provides opportunities for better jobs, education and maintains connections with the community. Public transportation is often the only mode of affordable transportation; as many low-income individuals do not have access to a vehicle or public car services, such as Uber and Car2Go. Without access to transportation, individuals are isolated and unable to respond to appointments, community events, or spend time with family and friends. The absence of an affordable and consistent transit system means the city’s most vulnerable populations suffer, weakening the whole community.
For many people living below the poverty line, students and newcomers to Canada, the fare for the city’s public transit is already difficult to afford. In 2017, the Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary conducted a study in collaboration with Athabasca University and the Calgary Justice Sector Constellation exploring the impact of Calgary’s bylaw enforcement practices on marginalized populations. The study showed that transit fines from unpaid fares comprised roughly 65% of fines that respondents had most recently. Low-income riders often choose to engage in a cost-benefit analysis–weighing the cost of purchasing a fare or monthly pass against the $250 ticket for transit fare evasion. One of the primary purposes of bylaw enforcement is to discourage behaviour through deterrence, but 37.9% of respondents indicated that they would not be deterred from committing similar acts in the future because their life circumstances made it difficult to do so. As opposed to focusing on the root causes of poverty, bylaw fines target behaviour that results from these social inequities. Therefore, affordable access to transit services is one tool to prevent further discrimination against Calgary’s vulnerable populations.
Two successful initiatives were implemented to support the decriminalization of bylaw fare tickets and their impact on low-income Albertans. The City of Calgary introduced a low-income monthly-pass system with a sliding scale for cost of fare. The goal of this pilot project is to support the decriminalization of fare evasion by making fares affordable to all.
Secondly, on May 1, 2017, the province of Alberta implemented Bill 9, an Act to Modernize Enforcement of Provincial Offences, which stops the use of arrest warrants for minor provincial and municipal infractions. Under the former system, people could potentially find themselves with an arrest warrant for failure to pay a fine. Even if this would not lead to their criminalization or incarceration, the time spent in arrest processing to deal with an outstanding bylaw matter could affect their employment.
In April 2017, the City of Calgary began offering Low-Income Transit Passes on a sliding-scale. Passes are available to those of low-income after an assessment of income is conducted and offers a 50% discount on monthly passes at minimum to as low as $5.25 for those on assistance or disability. By 2018, over 425 000 low-income passes were purchased, with over 60% sold to households earning less than 50 per cent of the Low-Income Cut-Off ($25 338 when providing for oneself and up to $67 706 if providing for 7 people). In a study conducted by Fair Calgary Community Voices in 2018, hundreds of Calgarians stated that their lives and communities have been changed by the affordable fare system. They cited increased access to jobs and opportunities, improved health and wellbeing, increased access to education, increased financial resiliency and increased access to community and friends as just a few of the benefits.
In July 2019, Calgary City Council voted in favour of cutting $60 million from the rest of this year’s operating budget, with $6.9 million cut from public transit and a further $2.4 million from specialized transit services, totalling $9.3 million. While Low-Income Transit Passes managed to survive the budget cuts, there will be 80,000 fewer Calgary Transit service hours, which means reduced frequency of busses and CTrains. For those that solely rely on public transit, there are already a number of hurdles that they must overcome daily. For many, bus routes only frequent their area once an hour and their travel time can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour-and-a-half. Thus, they may need to show up to their work an hour early, resulting in hours of lost time throughout their day.
We encourage the provincial government to continue their research into the efficacy of bylaw enforcement and commend the City of Calgary for retaining Low-Income Monthly Passes. The recent changes in hours do have an impact on the accessibility for those low-income Calgarians who rely heavily on public transportation. As these cuts in service are reviewed for efficiency, there is hope that the areas that may be affected most negatively will be reviewed for adaptations. As Calgarians, we have a duty to support those of our community who are impacted by poverty, by ensuring that options to decrease the potential of criminalization are supported as mobility as we know is the key to a well-functioning community.