Public transit: An essential service for essential workers

Marco D'Angelo, CUTA President & CEO

This week, transit systems in Vancouver and Toronto announced significant layoffs and route reductions. And across the country, transit systems are in growing danger of imminent financial collapse.

It’s no mystery why. Most systems are carrying about 90 per cent fewer riders. Many are forgoing fare collection altogether to keep drivers safe by allowing rear-door entry. The financial challenges faced by transit systems are real and are compounded by cleaning costs about four times higher than normal.

There has been much coverage about these steep drops in ridership and revenue, but instead of focusing on who is not taking the bus these days we should think about the people who are.

Every crisis reinforces our reliance on front-line workers. The difference with Covid-19 is the essential workers on whom we depend are overwhelmingly lower-income.

They clean our hospitals, nursing homes, and apartment buildings. They stock shelves at grocery stores and staff the counters. They are hospital orderlies. Along with doctors, nurses, paramedics, and transit operators they keep our communities going even during a pandemic—and they deserve our thanks.

Most of us probably think about how we can keep them safe when we shop or ride a bus. We wear masks. We keep our distance. Helping them stay healthy should be top-of-mind. But we often don’t think about how these unsung heroes got to work in the first place.

What happens to the janitor or grocery worker if systems reduce service more than they already have? Inevitably, they will have to wait longer to get to the jobs on which we all depend—and will have to wait longer to get home after a long, nerve-wracking day trying to avoid infection.

If service is reduced, it will also be harder for people on board to maintain personal distance as the few buses and trains still in service grow more crowded. In other words, reducing transit service significantly will make life worse for people doing work essential to us all and expose them to greater risk of infection on their commute than need be.

Other modes of transportation, such as airlines, are covered by some sort of government relief. Other countries have already helped public transit keep moving during this crisis. Here, that’s yet to be the case.

Some systems, such as Vancouver’s, have already begun talks with unions about significant reductions in service. Others will almost certainly be in similar situations soon. Because the unfortunate reality is that with the steep drops in revenue, transit systems are running out of money that will have a double impact on essential workers during this crisis.

It will hurt people who work for transit agencies. And it will hurt people who depend on transit to do the work on which, in turn, each of us depends.

So as we do what we can to keep workers as safe as we can, we should also spare a thought to how they got there to start their shift. We should ask how long we should make them wait to return to loved ones. And what level of crowding on what buses or trains remain we’re comfortable with—for the people driving and for the people riding.

As life adapts to these extraordinary times, we can fly less. We can get take-out or delivery. We can work from home. There are programs to help people affected by these changes. But transit is one of those things that shouldn’t be shut down because despite massive reductions in ridership, it is an essential service for people who do essential work and needs our support.

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