Love and exact change: Building compassion for homeless into Vancouver's transit system

You can tell a lot about a city by whom it lets on the bus.

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Breakin' the law, breakin' the law

The disruptive nature of the Compass Card (and its friends, the fare gates) is that the new system will kick to the curb a long-evolved system of community engagement whose end result was getting homeless people from Point A to Point B for free. That system, though, is one of ignoring City bylaws.

Douglas King of Pivot Legal Society wrote, "This is something that is technically illegal, and we look at is as compassionate when someone in a position of power decides not to exercise that power."

Said Greenwell, “If the fare gate system is the way of the future, then the essential-service nature of the transit system will have to be formally recognized. I understand that transit is an expensive proposition for a lot of people. at the same time, there’s some people who just can’t afford anything. Maybe the fares are too high for everybody, that’s an issue that could be addressed, but denying access to people who have no ability to pay is hardly the answer.”

Now that Translink has gotten people on the bus and SkyTrain, it's focusing on getting them to actually pay for their journeys. Besides installing fare gates, Translink is yanking some of the financial incentives, such as the Employer Pass Program, currently enjoyed by commuters as the Compass system drops into place; this despite previous assurances to the contrary.

Also gone will be the paper Faresaver tickets, and now homeless commuters won't be able to get by with a nod and a smile, because that's not how fare gates work. You cannot negotiate or argue with a robot.

Faresaver tickets: a dying breed

The new SkyTrain fare gates, said Greenwell, "are built around protecting against potential revenue leaks, which homeless people inevitably are. There’s got to be some formal way to make the system accessible."

#20 Bus, heading west on Hastings: A supervisor is watching the driver as the bus heads toward Main and Hastings. As per union rules, the supervisor can't lurk at the back; he must be right up by the driver. A three-year-old girl is singing, it takes a sec to work out that it's "The wheels on the bus".

Three men in grimy clothes crowd through the doors at the next stop, they clearly know each other. They're saying something to the supervisor, I can't hear what. The supervisor replies, "He's the driver, not me." I can see the driver's thumb jerk back towards the passenger area and the men walk through.

The bus stops in front of Army and Navy and a homeless guy gets off. he turns, says, "Thanks, driver! You're the best!"

We want a ticket to ride, but they don't care

Greenwell told me that Seattle has a deal in place wherein those serving the homeless sector can make bulk purchases of tickets for just 20% of face value. Greenwell and his team are trying to get Translink to agree to a similar bulk-purchase deal, wherein social workers could buy transit tickets at a discounted rate. They want a 50% discount. Translink has so far said "no", Greenwell said.

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