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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Translink has so far only committed to maintaining a single-ride discount equivalent to that found in those 10-ticket transit pass booklets. Note that when plastic fare cards are introduced, any ticket purchased outside the new system tends to be quite a bit pricier. London and Washington, D.C. are standing testaments to this phenomenon. If you dare to opt for a paper ticket in D.C., your trip is at least a buck extra. In London, it's even worse.

When I contacted Translink about this, spokesperson Jiana Ling responded, "We are still in discussions and will ensure our customers’ needs are addressed and a smooth transition into the new Compass program is met. There will be options to make bulk purchases, but specifics as to how we’ll be able to accommodate low-income customers, such as those in homeless shelters, are still being determined."

Meanwhile, News 1130 ran a story on the issue was met with a vitriol that seemed downright un-Vancouverish. Here's just a small sample:

  • Sorry. No free rides. All other cities and countries don’t give out free rides. Many others pay for their rides.
  • This is a form of discrimination and preferential treatment to the homelessness. If they can get free ride, then I demand that I have the same rights and equal treatment for a free ride. Thus, I declare I am homeless and I demand I be given free ride.
  • I really don’t see what good it would do, we really don’t need smelly crazy homeless people making everyone uncomfortable riding public transit.

So we see that the commentariat in that thread seems far more hostile towards giving homeless people a lift than Translink itself. News 1130 even posted a story about the backlash to their story.

The backlash thread suffers from some rather tortured logic which we'll leave aside for now, but the complainers are arguing from the standpoint of transit as a luxury, rather than as part of the foundation of a healthy urban society: "Pay to get around", rather than "Everybody's gotta get around".

Maybe they'd change their minds if they thought of Vancouver as an organism, and transit as its circulatory system. We are the city's lifeblood, no?

Because they're the heroes Vancouver deserves

Indeed, the bus driver who answered questions on Reddit cited the fare evaders who obviously had money as a major annoyance: "I usually don't care, but it's frustrating when you see someone with a bag of McDonalds, or a case of beer get on and say they don't have any money. The sense of self-entitlement from a lot of people is frustrating."

Street-dwelling homeless people are really just the tip of the iceberg: the vast majority of Greater Vancouver's homeless don't sleep rough, but in shelters, youth safe houses, treatment centres and hospitals, or jails. So, when you shuffle back to avoid that guy bringing on a bagful of cans, you may just bump up against a woman who's also homeless.

Besides, fare evasion has been built into Translink's system since the SkyTrain first opened in 1985. It's not clear why faregates weren't introduced from the get-go, but initial implementation isn't as easy as we'd think. For example, besides a litany of other problems and controversies surrounding the project, Jerusalem's light rail service launched in 2011 without ticketing at first (as was the case when I used it that year). A local told me that this was because CityPass, the operator, couldn't get the ticketing system to work. And it's only one train line.

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