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Calgary Transit safety fix is urgent, say city councillors

Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp said she’s been “inundated” with tweets, messages and emails about transit safety and a fix is urgent.

Sharp said she visited the Tuscany train station to see firsthand some of the problems people have been describing.

“I really also had to see for myself and see what was going on and it’s detrimental,” she told LiveWire Calgary.

Sharp, along with other councillors, are working with administration to come up with a concrete plan to address safety on Calgary Transit.

Social disorder and drug-related issues, including overdose, have risen during the pandemic. With transit ridership plummeting, fewer people on the system provided an opening for some of these social issues to spread.

Samuel Hope, Manager of Safety, Security and Employee Training at Calgary Transit said that they’ve seen a spike in calls for service since 2019. In 2017, peace officers responded to roughly 29,000 calls for service.  By 2021, that number had jumped to 59,000, he said.

“I think it’s really sort of connected to the COVID pandemic as well as the growing opioid crisis,” Hope said.

Hope said roughly 70 per cent of that increase is due to social disorder or opioid-related calls.

He said the response thus far is to improve the physical presence of officers at the stations, across the entire line.

“That has required our peace officers to oftentimes work overtime on their days off, to give that visibility, to provide that sense of reassurance and availability to the public to kind of hear some of the questions and concerns,” he said.

Four stations were also closed to the public, to prevent congregation in large numbers overnight, Hope said.

Can’t enforce a way out of it

Hope, Sharp and Ward 2 Coun. Jennifer Wyness agreed that this isn’t a situation that enforcement can fix.

“I think we’re dealing with a complex social problem that doesn’t have an easy solution and it requires partnerships from all levels of government to fix,” said Wyness.

What makes it difficult is there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to one’s addiction or mental health issue, Wyness said. She doesn’t think closing stations is the answer, either.

“As we’ve seen, closing down stations doesn’t stop it,” she said.

“It almost pushes it somewhere else. It’s like water – you try to stop it off one way with one solution and you realize that’s not going to fix it because it just pushes it somewhere else.”

Wyness said it’s time to get creative and come up with different solutions.

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Calgary Transit has hired more peace officers. Eighteen graduated training last week. New recruits were funded in the last City of Calgary budget adjustment in November.

They’ve also partnered up with Calgary Police to improve visibility along transit lines. Peace officers are also working with members from the Downtown Outreach Addictions Program (DOAP) team.

“Overall, it feels complicated. It feels many times that we’re moving in multiple directions, but that’s what’s needed, I think, to combat the problem,” said Hope.

‘Sense of urgency’: Sharp

If Calgary Transit wants to meet its pandemic ridership recovery goal of 60 to 75 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, action must be taken now, said Coun. Sharp.

It’s a systemic issue, but that’s not an excuse not to use some of the tools the city has, she said.

“I think we need to be able to use the tools we have right now in order to be able to make sure people feel safe,” Sharp said.

“And that is the real big thing right now- if you don’t have a safe community, you’re not going to have a safe city.”

Sharp said she and other colleagues have been taking meetings with Calgary Transit and administration to devise a plan to improve safety.  Immediately, she’d like to see more patrols during the rush hour times.

Hope said patrols have increased by 150 per cent in response to what they’re seeing.

“The fact that we’ve redeployed our community supports, who quite frankly maybe burning out themselves, in the frantic effort to connect and to understand the problem and to move it forward,” he said.

Tuscany Station in Ward 1 is the end of the northwest line. Nearby is the CPS arrest processing unit, the remand centre and Spy Hill jail. It’s a unique situation, Sharp said.

Improved lighting is also something that could be addressed. She suggested turnstiles might be needed.   Being focused on the work is important; not every station is seeing increased problems, she said.

“I have seen and heard the Tuscany Station over the last – even actually since I was door-knocking – it’s gotten substantially worse,” she said.

“Now things are bleeding into the community, and we have to be very careful.”

Update: Starting March 1

According to information provided by Calgary Transit, riders will notice increased security on the CTrain system.

Beginning March 1, there will be people located at some station entrances asking for proof of fare payment. More staff will be brought in to monitor security cameras at some locations.

The city said these measures would stay in place for the next several weeks.

“Like other major cities in North America, Calgary has experienced an increase in social disorder on the transit system during the pandemic,” said Calgary Transit Director Sharon Fleming.

“Though we have taken various measures to improve system safety over the past two years, we have heard clearly from citizens that there is more to do. This plan is intended to support a safer experience for all of our riders.”