Policy talk: pains, gains and automobiles

Organizers encourage Winnipeggers and Manitobans to talk about transit woes

Winnipeg is the centre of many debates about transportation, from Portage and Main’s pedestrian predicament to bike accessibility to the unanswered question of what will replace Greyhound in rural communities. Luckily, Winnipeggers have plenty of opportunity to get involved and make their voices heard.

Basia Sokal is the president of the Winnipeg Labour Council (WLC), which is running two transit town halls, one on Sept. 20 and one on Sept. 25. Winnipeggers are encouraged to attend and discuss their experiences with the city’s transit infrastructure and share their ideas about how to improve Winnipeg’s transit issues.

Sokal says the first town hall  is aimed at addressing issues in the West End, and the second one will focus on the inner city. The WLC was originally aiming to do at least three town halls aimed at different areas, but Sokal says they are only able to run two due to budget restraints.

“We wanted to cater it more to the neighbourhood and what the concerns were in those significant neighbourhoods rather than just saying transit in general,” Sokal says. “Because transit’s a whole different beast whether you live in the North End, whether you live in Sage Creek, or whether you live ... downtown."”

The town halls are a joint event between the Winnipeg Labour Council Education Committee, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), Functional Transit Winnipeg and the Amalgamated Transit Union.

The WLC town halls are open to discussion on experiences with “buses, biking and walking,” Sokal says. She adds the WLC is also “tying in sidewalks as an issue,” as it applies to those services, particularly snow removal.

The town hall is an opportunity for community engagement, and Sokal says they’ve already identified a few key issues to be addressed: safety, frequency, affordability and access are all areas of concern.

Sokal says the town hall will feature Ellen Smirl of the CCPA and a representative from the Canadian Union of Provincial Employees Local 500, and Smirl will present research done by the CCPA using the State of the Inner City Report.

For those eligible to vote in the upcoming municipal election, Sokal says “the important thing is to ask questions when a candidate shows up on your doorstep, rather than just take a pamphlet and dismiss it.”

“There’s a lot of progressive language being used. You know, ‘I’m a supporter,’ well, what does being a supporter look like in reality?” Sokal says.

“You know, a really good way for people to see what a supporter looks like is if you’ve got an incumbent councillor or school trustee or mayor, check on their voting records on things that matter to you.”

“One of the biggest issues (is that) transit fares went up last year, (and the City) tried to cut services. How did your councillor vote? That’s what real support looks like, not putting it in a pamphlet and saying ‘I support these issues, but my hands are tied,’” Sokal says.

Sokal also emphasized the importance of going out to vote.

“Fifty per cent of Winnipeg, last time around, decided 100 per cent of the population’s fate. That’s not very reflective of what our city needs,” Sokal says.

However, city transit issues are far from the only ones looming. As Greyhound pulls out of its Western Canadian routes, many communities in Manitoba will be left with limited or no affordable transit options for getting around their province – especially because Greyhound has very little competition in Manitoba operating with comparable breadth or price.

But one grassroutes campaign believes that another option is possible for Western Canadian communities.

Nicole Montford, an Alberta-based volunteer organizer with Nationalize Bus Routes (NBR) says Greyhound has “routes between a lot of major cities as well as smaller communities, they also do some parcel delivery, and right now they’re servicing the majority of cities and communities across Western Canada.”

But, she says, Greyhound is set to pull out of all of their routes save one on Oct. 31.

Montford says NBR began when “some friends and I, after the Greyhound closure was announced, we were kind of talking about the lack of any clear message from the provincial or federal government about what was going to be done here in Alberta.”

“We talked with some people in a few other provinces, and they felt kind of similarly, so we have sort of a loose network starting here sort of asking and advocating for a nationalized intercommunity public travel solution,” Montford says.

Montford says there are good reasons for people to look to their governments rather than companies that are seeking to fill in the gaps left by Greyhound.

“Transportation is a good candidate for nationalization, in that it’s an essential service that people can identify as being a universal need,” Montford says. “It does not lend itself very well to commercialization, in that there are always going to be discrepancies between services that people require and the amount of money that could be made off those people, very similar to something like healthcare.”

“Just because you need to go somewhere doesn’t mean (you) have a lot of money to spend on that, so while it’s still an essential service, funding it through a private enterprise doesn’t always work very well, because there’s a disparity between need and the amount of money that can be generated through just strict revenue,” Montford says.

“But that being said, there are areas where profit can be made where you’re going to have more service and a nationalized service does a better job of sort of spreading that cost around,” Montford says. “So you can use revenue from routes that are more profitable to help subsidize those services in less profitable areas, because they still need those services.”

Emily Leedham, host of Rank and File Radio (Prairie Edition) who has organized with NBR, says she “believe(s) that it would be beneficial to advocate for a public option, and that if you put the idea out there people would respond to it.”

Leedham says there is interest from the unions in creating a nationalized service.

“I interviewed Paul Thorpe, who was the previous ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union) Canada president, and they wanted to talk about asking for a subsidy for Greyhound,” Leedham says.

“We’ve seen with the new ATU Canada president they have warmed to talking with the federal government about a public option,” Leedham says. “So they’re not being super clear about it, but they are saying ‘ideally we would like a public option, but we will still be okay with a subsidy.’”

Leedham says nationalizing bus routes would help meet a number of policy goals.

“I think it’s a major issue for addressing climate change ... to invest in mass public transit,” Leedham says. “Moving away from this petro culture means moving away from cars and the idea that the best way to travel is for everyone to have their own individual vehicle, and that the best way to travel across the country is to fly in planes.”

“And also it helps the most vulnerable among us. Obviously, owning a car is very expensive. It’s very expensive to own and maintain, and it’s also dangerous. I think we just sort of normalize that car crashes and pedestrians being hit by cars and cyclists being hit by cars is just a normal part of our life, but mass public transit is a safer way to travel as well,” Leedham says.

Montford says some of the options available to provinces include expanding the mandate of Via Rail to provide non-rail options and allocating funds to provinces to set up transportation systems using a similar funding structure currently used for municipalities.

“I think for a lot of people, (public transportation) is a no-brainer,” Montford says.

“It makes everybody’s lives a lot better, and it connects our communities both within a city and between cities. Otherwise, we’re all just very atomized and very alienated, and I think the divides between different groups will only get larger if we’re cut off at a very basic and very visceral part of being able to move across our country.”

To get involved with Nationalize Bus Routes, check out nationalizebusroutes.ca or their Twitter or Facebook pages for opportunities to participate at events or become an organizer.

Published in Volume 73, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 20, 2018)

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