Edmonton and Calgary are grappling with transit safety issues amid efforts to bring passengers back

People board and depart at the Century Park light rail station in Edmonton on February 26, 2021.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

After several high-profile assaults at transit stations, Alberta’s two largest cities are scrambling to address security concerns as they work to repopulate trains and buses that have been emptied by the pandemic.

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said the city would hire more law enforcement officers and launch a short-term foot patrol program. The city had already pledged to improve transit safety by expanding existing Opioid Awareness and Response Teams, improving video surveillance and launching a bystander awareness plan.

In Calgary, law enforcement and patrols have been beefed up on public transit in recent months and there has been a significant decrease in major incidents, such as assaults and drug overdoses, according to the spokesperson. from Calgary Transit, Stephen Tauro. But the agency noted that additional security upgrades are being considered as complaints persist.

City leaders have linked rising reports of crime and disorder on public transit to worsening homelessness, the opioid epidemic and the mental health crisis, but experts and transit officials say the problem may be linked to broader societal forces.

Two acts of violence on transit platforms in Edmonton have come to public attention in recent weeks. In early March, a 39-year-old man was injured in a stab during an altercation on a downtown platform. And last month a 78-year-old woman was seriously injured after being pushed from another platform. Police later determined that the man charged with that crime had also threatened a man with a gun at another station.

Carrie Hotton-MacDonald, manager of Edmonton’s transit service, said in a statement that transit ridership in the city has reached about two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels in recent weeks. , its highest point since the start of the pandemic. In 2019, annual ridership in the city exceeded 86 million.

Ms. Hotton-MacDonald noted that increased traffic could help prevent disorder and crime. Data provided by the city shows a 341% increase in reported medical incidents on public transit from 2019 to 2021, when the pandemic reduced ridership. The number of welfare checks increased by 83% over the same period. Data was not provided for 2022.

The Edmonton Police Service had responded to 596 incidents at transit centers (that is, not on trains or buses) this year as of Friday. The service classified 24% of incidents as violent.

Ms Hotton-MacDonald said part of the apparent increase in crime could be linked to passengers reporting incidents more frequently than before. She added that these issues are “bigger than public transit.”

Sohi criticized the provincial government for inadequate funding of social supports, leaving the city to deal with the consequences. Asked in the Legislative Assembly on April 28 about the safety of public transit users, Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro pointed to nearly $159 million in funding, provided jointly by the province and Ottawa, intended to support municipalities in Alberta. He said that money can be used wherever cities want it, including on public transport.

Both Edmonton and Calgary recently said they are stepping up partnerships with social agencies to serve vulnerable populations, as cities balance support for those in need while ensuring public safety.

Calgary Transit’s Tauro said the city’s approach was “compassion before law enforcement.” Ridership in Calgary is now around 50%, compared to pre-pandemic numbers. There were nearly 105 million trips in 2019.

In January, Calgary announced it would close some closed C-train stations overnight to prevent people from sheltering inside. Mayor Jyoti Gondek said the spaces are not equipped with basic amenities and the move would increase public safety and encourage people living on the streets to seek out more appropriate supports.

The announcement came shortly after a spate of stabbings at transit sites, which police say were motivated by hate. Three victims were targeted because they were homeless, the force said.

Limited data provided by the City of Calgary shows that transit disorder calls increased by about 57% in 2020, compared to 2019. But Tauro said the number of calls has since returned to the pre-pandemic levels after the implementation of additional safety measures. at the end of last year and this year. He links the decline, in part, to worrying behaviors that are less noticeable now that riders have started to cram into stations again.

Calgary Police Data view calls in LRT-related venues for “crimes against the person,” such as assault, increased in the 12 months between March 2021, when there were 26 calls, and February 2022, when there were 26 calls. there were 48. Drug-related calls and property-related calls varied over the same period with no clear trend.

Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people into homelessness, some of whom have sought refuge on trains or at bus stops . He urged kindness and empathy from passers-by who feel inclined to call the authorities.

“Imagine yourself on your worst day, right? Imagine what you would have looked like, how you might have acted, whether you were scared, tired or traumatized,” he said. Homelessness is a person’s bad day, every day.”

Matti Siemiatycki, director of the University of Toronto’s Institute of Infrastructure, said recent issues point to a much larger problem than individual malaise: an increase in antisocial behavior in society.

“I think it has to do with this discomfort resulting from the pandemic and it’s changing the way people behave in public right now,” he said. “Public transport is a key place for society and it is a place where many different groups are. And, in these spaces, we are at a time when there is an increase in unprovoked random events.

He added that people should be careful to draw clear links between vulnerable populations and security issues in transit, unless those links are proven. Either way, he said, these concerns must be addressed to build public confidence in public transit systems as cities come back to life.

“We are faced with two options. One is a very car-based type of recovery and will have huge impacts in terms of pollution, long-term environmental emissions, increasing urban sprawl and spurring greater inequality. for people who don’t have access to a car,” he said. .

“Or we go the other way, and public transit recovers alongside active transportation and greater walkability.”

Professor Siemiatycki added that cities must ensure that additional enforcement resources do not reinforce existing inequalities faced by some transit users, such as women and racialized people.

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