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Saskatoon transit users, organizers split on how to deal with free riders

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As the city looks at ways to improve transit safety for drivers and users, it also finds itself struggling to deal with another growing concern on city buses: fare evasion.

As a small number of people using transit service avoid paying their fare, finding a solution has proven difficult to resolve.

Transit user Gloria Hill said she's seen as many as eight people at a time file on to the bus without offering to pay, and to her it points to a greater issue happening across the city.

"Drivers are no longer in control of their busses," she said.

Back in March 2020, the city stopped collecting bus fares and restricted the number of people on a bus at any given time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the province began to reopen a few months later, fare collection started once again. However, more than four years later, some people are still not paying to ride the bus.

"The idea of fair enforcement is a complex issue," Transit Saskatoon director Mike Moellenback said last week.

"What we're really looking at right now is making sure that the people that are on our busses are doing so respectfully and safely."

It's city policy not to confront or enforce fare payment for anyone getting on the bus, leaving drivers helpless to people who use the bus for free.

"Our operators feel that if transit enforces fares, it would keep some of those issues off the bus," Amalgamated Transit Union Local 615 president Darcy Pederson said.

"And the riding public would think twice before they got on the bus and caused issues on the bus, especially if we had fare enforcement officers or transit police or police officers on the bus."

Last week, the city unveiled nine initiatives to help improve safety on buses and at bus terminals.

Pederson said many of the initiatives don't help the violence or safety problems drivers are facing now.

Pederson and other transit users CTV spoke with on Monday clarified not all people who don't pay cause issues and not all paying customers respect the rules, either.

"If there were easy answers, people would be doing them and they're not, so there aren't any easy answers to this one," said Robert Clipperton, a member of advocacy group Bus Riders of Saskatoon.

"Is it worth getting into an assault situation with somebody for a three dollar fare?"

While there's no consensus on the topic, Clipperton feels the city could do more for certain customers.

People who can't afford a full price fare or monthly pass shouldn't be victimized by the city's transit services as homeless people and other vulnerable people depend on the service to get around.

Starting in September, elementary school aged children will be able to ride the bus for free, and Clipperton thinks it could be the first step in opening up transit for more people.

"Maybe when you have lunch at the Friendship Inn, you're given a complimentary pass for the next day," Clipperton said.

Other cities offer a variety of prices for monthly bus passes based on a person's age or even a yearly income. Saskatoon's low-income monthly bus pass costs $66.40. Social services clients can get a monthly pass for $28.

In Calgary, the most expensive low-income bus pass costs $57.50 while the least expensive option costs $5.80.

Clipperton doesn't believe the city is worried about recovering lost revenue.

"I remember going down to St. Paul's Hospital. I took two busses there and took two busses back and the fare box was working once out of the four times," he said. "So nobody was having a fit when all of a sudden the fares weren't being collected because the boxes didn't work."

A report to council in February 2023 found the city lost less than one per cent of its transit revenue because of fare evasion over the previous two years combined.

Broken fare boxes were estimated to cost more than twice as much, but the city didn't track that data.

Ehab Diab with the department of geography and planning at the University of Saskatchewan has devoted much of his studies to public transit planning and operations. He says the city needs to investigate why people aren't paying fares, to what degree it's happening and where is it happening in the city before any solutions can be discussed.

He says a likely solution is getting some agency, whether it be Saskatoon Police or someone else, to form a transit police force with the ability to enforce transit fare payment and other rules on buses like many other Canadian cities have deployed.

"I don't like the idea of asking drivers to do more tasks," he said. "The enforcement part should come by other partners."

Clipperton noted enforcement comes at a cost, and it is likely cheaper for the city to lose thousands of dollars a year rather than devote hundreds of thousands of dollars to enforcement.

While the transit union feels some level of enforcement will help shift transit culture away from the violence and unsafe conditions experienced in recent years.

"Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto — all these major cities, they have transit police that enforce the fares. And if you don't have your fare, you're off the bus or you're off the train and, and then goes the problem too," Pederson said.  

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