By Aiyanas Ormond
On April 1, bus riders in Vancouver face a 10-percent rise in the price of monthly bus passes and FareSaver tickets. The fare increase is one important aspect of the broader process of the privatization of our public transit system. This process is stripping transit-dependent bus riders of our right to mobility. It is also robbing the public broadly of an important tool for promoting social justice, public health, and environmental sustainability in our region.
Rapidly rising fares are in themselves a form of privatization. As the fares increase, the burden of paying for transit shifts from governments—using tax revenues—onto individual riders. This “user pay” model undermines the very essence of a public service—that a necessary public good is paid for by the public and user fees (if any) are set at a nominal rate that ensures broad public access. The redistributive function of public services like transit was one of the things that made it possible for low-wage workers, the unemployed, and low-income seniors and students to survive economically in a context of stagnant incomes. As we constantly hear from bus riders when we are organizing on the bus and in the community, “everything is going up except our wages”.
The second aspect of privatization is private-public-partnerships—the specific mechanism for redistributing the economic benefits of the public transit system to corporations and their shareholders. The Canada Line, built on the Olympics’ timeline and on the backs of exploited migrant workers, transferred millions of dollars into the coffers of SNC-Lavalin and includes an “operating” contract guaranteeing a profit to the private operator for 30 years, regardless of ridership.
The battle over the Canada Line exposed the lack of meaningful democratic input and accountability in the operation of our transit system. The B.C. Liberals, in conjunction with right-wing regional politicians, including Vision Vancouver councillor Raymond Louie, forced three separate votes to push through the line despite broad public opposition. In the wake of the Canada Line struggle, Kevin Falcon, then the transportation minister, decided that something had to be done about this excess of democracy. Falcon created a new governance structure for TransLink consisting of a board appointed by the province and comprised of “private individuals” with extensive ties to big business, the Vancouver Board of Trade, and regional developers. The new board meets in private and has strict limitations on public input and participation. This elimination of even the inadequate participation and accountability that existed in the previous board structure constitutes a third aspect of the privatization of public transit in Metro Vancouver.
The fourth and final aspect of this process of privatization is the regime of surveillance, harassment, and criminalization of bus riders. The South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority Police Service, created in 2005, enforce fares armed with guns and tasers. Bus riders unfortunate enough to not be able to afford a $2.50 fare are faced not only with the humiliation of being singled out and berated, but real or threatened violence, and a $173 ticket to add insult to injury. Moreover, youth of colour, aboriginal people, and people who look poor face the inevitable racial and class profiling endemic in this kind of “policing”. In this aspect of transit privatization, our public transit system, particularly the buses, has been transformed from spaces of public interaction, exchange, and dialogue into “fare paid zones” where people who are already oppressed experience additional stress, anxiety, and violence.
Taking a hard look at the process of privatization of public transit gives us insights into the broader processes of privatization happening in our society, a process that shifts the economic benefits and political control over formerly public institutions to corporations and the rich. Working-class communities are stripped of the limited (and inadequate) economic redistribution embodied in public services, and of our sense of entitlement to a public service built by working people, with taxes from working-class communities.
As organizers on the bus and in the community, we constantly hear from bus riders that “the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer”. If we are to reverse this trend toward greater inequality, we need to demand expansion of public services and greater democratic control. We need to organize for public transit, accessible education, affordable housing, people-centred healthcare, universal daycare, and liveable welfare as fundamental economic human rights.
Aiyanas Ormond is an organizer with the Organizing Centre for Social and Economic Justice and the Vancouver Bus Riders Union.