The bus stops here

Pam
Pam Frampton
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“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 pframpton@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Canadian Press, Institute for Competitiveness, Rights and Public Transit Services

Geographic location: Ontario, Toronto, Ontario.That

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Recent comments

  • Christine Care
    January 09, 2011 - 17:45

    Excellent Article . I am so glad someone has written about this strike and the effect it is having on so many citizens. I really believe Ontario has it right with this paragraph from a 2002 report “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.".. This strike effects ALL citizens in the long run. Transportation MUST be an essential service and as such strikes should not be permitted. This is shameful.

  • Bob
    January 09, 2011 - 13:55

    Dennis? In the last election the people of St. John's had a take it or leave it choice between O'Keefe and Ron Ellsworth. A vote for either one was like shooting yourself in the foot. Whether any of the other councillors could govern any better is questionable at best but they'd all rather keep their cosy jobs and perks than challenge him. A part time occupation never paid so good.

  • mom
    January 09, 2011 - 12:38

    Taxpayer, I rent an apartment as close to my job as I can. My employer has a lot of workers and it is not easy to find something close to the job without paying higher rent than I do now. I can walk to work. It takes about 45 minutes. My concern with this is walking home at night. I don't know if anyone is considering the safety issue of people having to walk long distances at night rather than taking the bus. In a separate issue, I think the bus should be running 24 hours a day to accommodate people who get off work after midnight or go to work for 6am. Seniors have a difficult time as it is with a limited income. Many people have no family to help. People are really being hurt by this Metrobus strike. Excellent column, Pam!

  • Baffled
    January 08, 2011 - 17:23

    Taxpayer, Not all work sites are "smelly" - heavy industry and construction aren't the main employers in the capital. Service industries and the public sector in all its forms definitely provide the most employment. We can't all cherry pick our place of work based upon absolute convenience. I live downtown and work on Stavanger Drive, a decision I made based solely upon reliable access via Metrobus. I don't see any tracts of land devoted to low cost housing going up in that area, do you? Before that I worked on Topsail Road and relied completely upon the bus. That is reality for at least ten thousand people in our city. The buses shouldn't stop running for anything; it is an essential service for many. You call your own credibility into question when you doubt whether seniors without a vehicle really need and rely upon Metrobus - what else are they going to use for transportation? Not everyone has family. Not everyone has a bona fide disabilty; I highly doubt that Wheelway will cart around seniors who aren't considered disabled, it defies logic. What won't make sense in 2015 is everyone owning their own car and taking individualistic energy-wasting routes throughout the city. Do you disapprove of mass transit, Taxpayer?. My objections to your arguments are not attacks; I simply can't comprehend where they are coming from. With regards to binding arbitration, such all-or-none thinking gets us no closer to resolving this strike. All parties involved in this labour dispute need to learn a thing or two about negotiation and compromise.

  • Bob
    January 08, 2011 - 11:13

    Pam you covered pretty well all the bases. Add something like this; Pay for negotiators on both sides of a public service dispute should be suspended subject to a successful settlement of that dispute. If I recall correctly when Fraser March took NAPE to a strike and ended up in prison he received his already hefty salary plus something like $48,000.00 in OVERTIME. That's hardly an incentive to get people back to work. Do the current negotiators for the union and the bus company have similar contracts?

  • Taxpayer
    January 08, 2011 - 09:41

    I wonder if the hardship of seniors is in fact true. I have seen one senior using Wheelway for transportation. As a senior they do have mobility issues and thus might be entitled to the service. As to living " too far from work" why would someone do this unless work was surrounded by $500,000 homes, surely not the case as such owners don't wish to be near smelly work sites. Also it is predicted that in 2015 oil usage will be still 90 million barrels a day, while supply will have shrunk to 70 million barrels per day. Such long distance travel will not make sense. As for binding arbitration, why not make it so for all workers not just judges, police and transportation workers to name a few. But then seniors don't get to use binding arbitration and so they will be without transportation again. Problem not solved.