August 20, 2018

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Opinion

Life's not fare -- at least for some

Transit drivers have little defence against passengers who refuse to pay

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>A Downtown Spirit bus stops for passengers on its route as it goes past city hall. One longtime driver calls it ‘the Sniffer Express.’</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A Downtown Spirit bus stops for passengers on its route as it goes past city hall. One longtime driver calls it ‘the Sniffer Express.’

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/8/2017 (366 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Last week’s column about the female Winnipeg Transit driver who used a broom to prod awake a sleeping indigenous passenger included another controversial element that almost got lost in the telling, if not the title.

Free ride, rude awakening, the headline read.

The bus driver who gave her last passenger the brush-off at the end of the line claimed to have let the man get on without paying. It was the free-ride aspect that stood out for one Free Press reader.

“Hmmm,” Sally St. Germain began her email, “a monthly transit pass for an adult costs $90.50. If somebody gave me the choice to pay, or ride free but experience a nudge with a broom when my stop was upcoming, I would certainly choose the broom nudge. I would save over $1,000 per year! As a Winnipegger, I am always looking for a deal.”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/8/2017 (366 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Last week’s column about the female Winnipeg Transit driver who used a broom to prod awake a sleeping indigenous passenger included another controversial element that almost got lost in the telling, if not the title.

Free ride, rude awakening, the headline read.

The bus driver who gave her last passenger the brush-off at the end of the line claimed to have let the man get on without paying. It was the free-ride aspect that stood out for one Free Press reader.

"Hmmm," Sally St. Germain began her email, "a monthly transit pass for an adult costs $90.50. If somebody gave me the choice to pay, or ride free but experience a nudge with a broom when my stop was upcoming, I would certainly choose the broom nudge. I would save over $1,000 per year! As a Winnipegger, I am always looking for a deal."

Apparently, she’s not the only one looking for a deal. The passenger who got the rude awakening is far from the only one who’s getting a free ride these days at Transit and taxpayer expense. So I was informed by another reader who happens to be a veteran bus driver.

"It’s so epidemic it’s unbelievable," the driver I’ll call Transit Tom told me this week.

No wonder, given what else Tom said.

I asked what instructions Transit offers drivers about how to handle fare evaders?

"All you have to do is inform the passengers what the fare is. And then give them a transfer if they request it."

"Even if they haven’t paid?" I asked.

"Even if they haven’t paid," he confirmed.

We met at his invitation over an outdoor café table, where the roar of passing rush-hour buses and sirens of emergency vehicles lent an appropriate ambiance to the moment. I offered him the pseudonym Transit Tom because he said his employer frowns on drivers talking to the media.

Tom suggested the situation of people getting on and saying they forgot their bus pass, or left their wallet at home, has been going on forever. He recalled being at a family gathering years ago with a relative who was one of the last living streetcar operators. When he learned Tom was driving a bus, the elderly man had a question.

"He said, ‘So tell me, do you still get people getting on the bus going, ‘Oh, I got no money?’ This is from a guy who retired in 1967," Tom noted.

What appears to have changed, though — beyond the frequency of free riding — is the apparent reason behind it. The potential for conflict, and the increased level of threat to driver safety, has prompted the system to conclude that trying to enforce fare payments isn’t worth the risk to bus drivers who only appear to be in the driver’s seat. Over the years, respect in society has taken a back seat to swearing, spitting and swinging at these street-level authority figures who have no authority — and little to no on-board protection.

"I have been assaulted three times over the years," Tom said. "Each time, it was involving a ‘sleeper.’"

He said the female driver’s use of a broom to wake the passenger was foolish. He also said he was a friend of Jubal Fraser, the 58-year-old bus driver who was stabbed to death this year after he woke a sleeping man at the end of his run early on Valentine’s Day morning. I asked Tom if, six months later, the public goodwill and sympathy for bus drivers that resulted from the slaying had dissipated.

"Oh, yeah," he said immediately. "Oh, yeah. We were getting, ‘Sorry brother, you know, sorry about your loss.’ Now, it’s back to ‘f—- you.’"

Tom laughed when he said that but, when he’s working, he never knows what will be coming through his open bus door. What can he expect if, on a regular basis, people expect to board without paying?

Most commonly, it’s on one of the buses where poverty tends to be a silent rider, the routes he calls the "teens," with numbers like 16 and 18.

"Basically, anything that goes up into the North End area," he said.

I asked how often people get on and end up not paying.

"In a three-hour shift, you’ll probably have over 10 to 20 fare evasions on any given day."

Tom offered an example of one that started in Osborne Village when a woman got on at River and Osborne, in the dark of a rush-hour morning.

"She goes into her pocket, pretending to get a transfer. And she pulls out this knife and just holds the knife off to the side while she’s looking. Then puts the knife back in the pocket. I said, ‘Just go sit down.’

He said he quickly contacted the Control Centre, which alerted police to meet the bus once he got over the Osborne bridge.

Tom’s seniority allows him to pick "quieter" routes these days, although some years ago he almost quit after driving the one city bus officially advertised as free to ride. It’s called the Downtown Spirit, but Tom has another name for it: The Sniffer Express.

It’s supposed to be a quick-commute bus around the downtown that loops by city hall and places such as Siloam Mission and the Salvation Army. But there are times, he said, when passengers have brought pillows and blankets and camped out in the back of the bus, while others are firing crack pipes and sniffing solvents.

"The people on there were polite enough. They’re getting a free ride anyway, so they’re not going to hassle you about fare."

It wasn’t the people that made Tom want to quit that route. It was the smell on the bus that one day forced him to open his driver’s window and, well, I’ll let him tell you:

"I puked out the window."

Tom still gets his share of free riders, though. There was a woman who got on his bus route recently with three kids who looked to be between eight and 12 years old.

She paid her own fare, then asked for four transfers.

"I said, ‘Well, you’ve only paid for one fare. What do you want the transfers for?"

The woman gave him a smug look.

"My kids are under five," she answered, "so they get to ride free."

"If they get to ride free," Tim asked, "why do you need the transfers?"

The woman responded by swearing at him.

Anyway, on Friday the city confirmed Tom’s story about how drivers are supposed to deal with people who decline to or can’t pay the fare.

"The role of Winnipeg Transit operators is to inform passengers of the fares," the city said via email. "Operators are also responsible for advising passengers of Transit’s ‘Pay Double Next Time’ policy."

I asked the city if Transit has any way of tracking or could estimate the number of free riders. But its "yes" answer didn’t come with any numbers and came across as misleading and unconvincing.

"Our new fare boxes record the amount of fare contributed towards an underpayment or an overpayment."

Nothing there specifically about tracking no payment. When our interview was coming to the end of its own line, I asked Tom what he thought the answer was to all of this free riding.

"I think they should make it free for everybody," he said.

In a way, Winnipeg Transit already has made it free for everybody — at least, everybody who knows how to get a free ride.

The rest of us appear to have been practising something else unknowingly when we board the bus: the honour system.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

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