“Everyone has the right to walk from one end of the city to the other in secure and beautiful spaces. Everybody has the right to go by public transport.”
— Richard Rogers, British architect
The last time Metrobus went on strike, in 2005, I was one of the thousands of passengers left stranded.
Fortunately for me, I had friends and family members who gave me a lift to and from work when they could, but I also took my share of costly cab rides — which is not to suggest that cabs charge too much, but rather that $15 rides twice a day was not a habit I could afford, and I lived much too far from work to walk.
I was lucky then, because the strike didn’t last long, unlike the current labour dispute, which — as of this writing — has kept buses off the road for two wet and dreary months.
Now, people are ingenious and they try their best to cope. Online, you can see posts from people willing to share daily cab rides for half the cost. Others are biking it or walking it, or paying a colleague gas money to share their car during the morning commute.
But not everyone can find alternate transportation, and the horror stories are legion — people missing doctor’s appointments and going without medical care; people who’ve managed to find work and to get off social assistance only to have to go back on social assistance because they can’t afford to cab it to work; people who can’t get their kids to daycare; seniors who feel isolated in their homes and have no way to get out and about; students who are being denied the education they are paying for because they can’t get to class.
And when there’s a lack of public transportation, it can affect folks in other ways, too — ways you might not think of.
It can change people’s food choices, and lead to medical problems and higher public health expenditures down the road.
In December, The Canadian Press reported on an interesting study by a Toronto think-tank called the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity. It found that, as you would expect, poor people suffer most when the cost of food rises, and that rich people eat more nutritional foods than poor people.
One of those reasons has to do with public transportation. If you can’t get to a grocery store, you may find yourself having bologna and Kraft Dinner for supper, rather than grilled chicken and a salad. Why? Because the corner store has now become your only option for buying food, and those shops are better known for cold beer and pickled eggs than fresh fruit and vegetables. The only other option within walking distance? The neighbourhood takeout.
“The costs to society of poor nutrition for low-income people are high …,” the article noted, “since it is linked to diabetes, obesity and overall bad health.”
Yet another reason why — as public transit activist Natalee Brouse noted in The Telegram on Wednesday — the province should consider making Metrobus an essential service.
In fact, I’d go one further and take a leaf from Ontario’s book, and declare public transportation a human right.
“Equal access by persons with disabilities, older Ontarians and families with young children to adequate, dignified public transit services is a right protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code,” notes a 2002 report — Human Rights and Public Transit Services in Ontario.
That province doesn’t have a flawless record in providing public transit to all those who need it, mind you, but you have to admire the fact that it has set itself a lofty target and is working to reach it.
I challenge the City of St. John’s to do the same; it should rely on binding arbitration rather than leave its most vulnerable citizens to the vagaries of unpredictable contract negotiations.
As the Ontario report notes, “For many, (public transportation) is also a necessity — in order to obtain an education, find and keep a job, or use basic public services like health care. Lack of access to transit may also lead to isolation, as visiting friends or participating in the life of the community becomes difficult or impossible.”
That’s already happening here.
On the issues-oriented website suite101.com, urban planning writer Spencer Rose notes that some public transit advocates argue that governments that don’t provide reliable transportation systems are violating human rights.
“In short,” he writes, the contention is that “public transportation is an essential service, like electricity and drinking water, and therefore something that should be guaranteed for all.”
Perhaps St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe should mull that over and approach the province about making public transit in St. John’s a right, and not a privilege.
And rather than dangling the carrot of cheaper fares once the service resumes, perhaps he should consider the fact that the cheapest fare in the world is no deal at all when you can’t even count on the buses being on the road.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.