July 14, 2020

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Opinion

Losing their 'balance'

Winnipeg's most vulnerable headed for nasty fall trying to catch a ride with the mayor

Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press Files</p><p>Winnipeg Transit fares are set to rise by a 25 cents come Jan. 1, raising the price of a regular adult fare to $2.95. A monthly adult bus pass will rise to $100.10 a month, from $90.50.</p>

Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press Files

Winnipeg Transit fares are set to rise by a 25 cents come Jan. 1, raising the price of a regular adult fare to $2.95. A monthly adult bus pass will rise to $100.10 a month, from $90.50.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/11/2017 (962 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Early in the morning, when streets are cloaked in a crystalline dark, the day’s first buses serve as my wake-up alarm.

This is the sound of city life, the urban version of the rooster crowing at dawn. Rumbling engines rattle at my window when the rest of the outside world is quiet, announcing the opening of the day before my eyes can do the same.

So every day, I wake up to the sound of people on the move. People going to work, to the airport, to medical appointments, to school. People of every age on the go, shuffling onto this shared escape pod from the cold.

Sometimes, I close my eyes again and let the sound of buses lull me back to dreams. But I do not want to sleep while Winnipeg Transit and the people who rely on it are being squeezed. This part matters too much. I want to meet it wide awake.

In the world’s most livable cities, public transit is a jewel, invariably with flaws, but polished until most facets shine. And Winnipeg, a long way from a public transportation paradise, knows this, too.

In October, when the city and province joined forces and gamely made a bid to host Amazon’s second North American headquarters, Winnipeg’s transit system was highly touted. Quality public transit is important to Amazon, one of its stated priorities in selecting a second home, and so the city played along.

For people already struggling to make ends meet, that half–day’s wages is already spoken for. For Winnipeggers living on the edge, a 9.3 per cent fare increase ‐ more than five times the rate of inflation ‐ is not sustainable.

"Transit offers clean, low-stress ways into the core every day," the bid declared.

Yet the message about transit’s value is different when we’re not trying to impress people who don’t live here. After warning Winnipeggers city hall would reveal "painful" austerity measures in 2018, Mayor Brian Bowman delivered the details Wednesday in a proposed budget that will alter those "low-stress ways" for a lot of people who ride the bus.

Bus fares have increased by a nickel in each budget over the past several years, enough to keep up with inflation. Now, transit users must brace for a sudden leap in cost Jan. 1, along with service rollbacks and cuts to come.

The city has targeted 23 "low ridership" routes that will have reduced service or will be eliminated entirely beginning in June. Fares will rise by a quarter, raising the price of a regular adult fare to $2.95. A monthly adult bus pass will rise to $100.10 a month, from $90.50.

This is, the city was quick to point out, still well below the national average. But Winnipeg also has a higher poverty rate and lower cost of living than most other large Canadian cities, and it is disproportionately the poor who will bear the brunt.

In a tweet about the fare increase and route cutbacks, Bowman called it a "balanced approach." Balanced for whom? The sudden fare surge could trigger a devastating fall for Winnipeggers desperately trying to maintain their "balance" on a financial tightrope.

Think of it this way: imagine a mother of two kids, working full time at minimum wage. If every member of the family takes just two bus trips a day, each month the proposed increase will cost her more than half a day’s wages.

For people already struggling to make ends meet, that half-day’s wages is already spoken for. For Winnipeggers living on the edge, a 9.3 per cent fare increase — more than five times the rate of inflation — is not sustainable.

What makes this budget choice more dismaying is that Winnipeggers do care about supporting public transit when given the option. The city’s own 2018 public budget consultation report, released last June, showed that trend clearly.

During that process, 41 per cent of survey respondents named transit as their first, second or third priority for the city; that made it the second-most popular priority, far above police and just behind (you guessed it) the city’s ailing roads.

And when asked where Winnipeg should make more strategic investment, more than one in five said transit, the top response.

Elsewhere, in an online budget-allocation tool, more users supported increasing transit funding than any other sector. Overall, the tool’s users chose a smaller average decrease to transit than any other city service. (Police, the highest.)

To be fair, these activities all had relatively small sample sizes: about 250 responses to the survey, and 52 uses of the budget-allocation tool. And it’s reasonable to guess that respondents tended to be especially engaged on civic issues.

Yet the city itself pointed to those results, in the leadup to the budget release. In other ways, it did listen to the public: the plan proposes new transit security measures, which Winnipeggers strongly support after a bus driver was killed at the University of Manitoba last winter.

When it comes to the fare increase and route cutbacks, Bowman pointed to the province, which terminated a cost-sharing agreement this year, effectively freezing provincial support at 2016 levels.

But the city also makes choices, and even difficult choices are ones it ultimately must own. In this budget, it has chosen to sort out transit’s funding woes by leaning more heavily on its most vulnerable citizens than it ever did before.

And yes, other large cities in Canada do charge more. But we are not talking about other Canadian cities; we are talking about how Winnipeg takes care of its own. The core beliefs that guide city priorities ought to be homegrown.

This is mine: every morning, I wake up to the sound of rumbling buses. I lie in bed, wondering who is riding them, where they’re headed in the blue-hued hours before dawn. Wondering what their story is and how they’re getting on.

In too many cases, the answer is balanced on a razor’s edge. As I drift back to sleep, I dream of a city that surrounds them, ready to catch them, to help them keep steady. Not one that, when the winds are gusting, threatens to knock them off.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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