Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Proposed transit rules reactionary

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Public transit plays an important cultural role in cities. It can be gritty, crowded, and noisy, but still charming in its own way.

Consider New York. New York transit users are known worldwide for their shenanigans. The Long Island Railroad provides the most colourful example. Hockey fans sometimes break out into chants after games, fuelled in part by beer -- which they can legally consume on the LIRR. It's a surreal and thoroughly enjoyable scene. While this type of disorder might seem alarming, it's not that unusual on late-night transit in many big cities. It may annoy some people, but it doesn't really hurt anyone. Cracking down on this innocent fun would seem bizarre to all but the most crotchety. Hence, legislators have taken a hands-off approach. Why fix something that isn't broken?

Contrast this to the approach of Winnipeg city council. A proposed bylaw seeks to crack down on drinking on buses, loitering in bus shelters, as well as prohibiting singing, wearing "inappropriate" clothing, "Causing a disturbance or interfering with the comfort or convenience of other passengers," and a litany of other activities. In short, they are trying to crack down on rudeness, noise, intoxication and loitering. Council is considering watering down the singing ban after public outrage, but it still appears they will attempt to ban singing that "disrupts" other riders. While the bylaw is ostensibly to improve safety, the only proposed measure that could actually do so is adding two police cadets to patrol transit. The rest is reactionary nonsense.

This is a classic case of privileging potential "choice" riders over actual "captive" riders. Attempting to "clean up" transit by displacing marginalized people in the hopes of attracting people who are generally unlikely to use transit is not a sound strategy. While driver safety is important, kicking disadvantaged people to the curb is no way to operate a public transit system.

Any non-transit user who claims they might use public transit if it were "cleaned up" is unlikely to ever use the system. Winnipeg Transit is already very safe and convenient in most parts of the city. Since decisions on mode of transportation are made in conjunction with the decision of where to live, non-transit riders don't tend to live where transit is practical. Transit decisions should be made to accommodate existing and likely riders first and foremost, rather than speculatively changing policies in hopes of attracting those unlikely to use transit.

While swearing teenagers wearing low-cut shirts might be distasteful, refusing to admit them onto public transit would be cruel and require a large police (or cadet) presence. For many of those targeted by the bylaw, the bus is the only way they can get around the City.

The transit bylaw seems to be motivated by the broken-window approach to policing employed successfully in New York during the 1980s. The theory is if broken windows are left unfixed, criminals will view that as a sign of lax law enforcement. The first broken window type initiative was introduced by then transit police chief (current NYPD Commissioner) William Bratton. The New York subway was overrun with graffiti, and he believed that removing that graffiti would restore the perception of safety. Eventually, that approach bore fruit.

While the approach has some merit, it can be taken too far. Bylaws against profanity and "inappropriate" clothing are subjective and unenforceable. It's not even possible to record a small fraction of such incidents. Introducing unenforceable bylaws does little but breed disrespect for the law.

Some degree of gaucherie is inherent in public transportation. When you put a lot of people together in one space, there will inevitably be different conceptions of acceptable social behaviour. To some, that is uncomfortable -- which is why many people won't use transit unless they absolutely have to. The idea of policing morality on public transit is utopian. Ensuring the safety of drivers and passengers should be paramount. Protecting people from unseemliness is impossible.

While some believe we need to "clean up" public transit so Winnipeg Transit can succeed, a quick ride of the most successful transit systems should demonstrate every system has its share of warts. Focussing on making the system more convenient is the only way to attract new riders. Kicking existing riders to the curb won't help. If New York transit riders can deal with some amount of discord, surely Winnipeggers can, too. A little sing-along on the way to watch the Bombers or the Jets might even be fun.

Steve Lafleur is a public policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2014 A17

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