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No easy fix: Mayor Gondek said we need to try, and fail, to find Calgary Transit safety solution

There’s no quick fix to what ails Calgary Transit safety, the mayor said, but the city can’t be afraid to fail in examining different solutions.

Transit safety continues to be a problem in Calgary, particularly along the LRT lines. Two recently reported incidents – one at the SAIT LRT station in late April and another this past week where a man was assaulted in what police called an unprovoked attack, underscore the concern.

A litany of problems has plagued transit throughout the pandemic (2021). Low ridership has left the lines susceptible to social disorder, particularly around LRT stations. Earlier this year, several stations had to be closed because people began congregating in these areas.

In late February, Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp said improving safety on Calgary Transit was an urgent issue.

Transit wants ridership up to between 60 and 75 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. The most recent report shows it’s at 54 per cent and it’s nearly halfway through the year. Riders are posting to social media their experiences and concerns about riding.

Meanwhile, Calgary Transit is having trouble hiring operators to push service levels up and increase ridership.

No simple solution, says Mayor

In the LWC exclusive monthly Mayor and Me podcast, Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said Calgarians must appreciate there isn’t an easy solution.

“The times that we’re in are not simple. And the problems that we’re facing are wicked and multifaceted,” she said.

More and better communication is needed among the 22 partner organizations, Mayor Gondek said.

“We’re not historically very good at speaking to each other and coming up with common solutions,” she said.

“That’s where we need to be a convener as a city.”

One thing their partners have discovered is that people congregating at transit locations aren’t doing so for shelter, according to the mayor. They say people are gathering for a sense of community.

“They’re coming together to feel that they’re connected to other people. And so, if we’re not providing the spaces where people can do that, they’re going to go to places like transit stops.”

There is a criminal element, however. Mayor Gondek acknowledged established-area councillor concerns on this.

She said bylaw, social agencies and the Calgary police are meeting weekly to find solutions.

Closed system for transit?

Coun. Dan McLean had suggested in early February that transit be converted into a closed system, with turnstiles allowing only paying customers on platforms.

“Firstly, it removes a lot of the crime, which is in and around the CTrain stations almost always,” he said at that time.

“And secondly, you reduce all the fare skippers so that there’s your revenue. So again, solves both problems.”

Administration said it would be a $400 million undertaking.

Mayor Gondek said both Coun. McLean and Sharp have asked tough questions around transit safety. The mayor mentioned Coun. McLean suggesting the closed transit system.

“What did we sacrifice when we tried to make transit accessible for everyone,” the mayor said on those questions.

“With our free fares on downtown, which is a beautiful thing, and our desire to make transit as accessible for everybody as possible, did we look at turnstiles, and maybe now is the time to look at turnstiles as our city has grown up?

“Those are the types of questions we need to be posing.”

Enforcing their way out

A transit peace officer walks along the platform at 7 Street SW station in Calgary on Thursday, April 9, 2020. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

At the last Community Development meeting, Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner answered media questions on transit safety afterward.

“The challenges we’re seeing with unhoused individuals, the challenges we’re seeing around addictions and mental health, we cannot enforce our way into that issue,” Penner said after the April 29 meeting.

“And it is not a criminal behaviour to be an addict. It’s not criminal to be unhoused.”

We asked the mayor if the social disorder aspect isn’t something that can be mitigated swiftly, is enforcement the only option?

“That’s definitely something we need to look at,” the mayor said.

She added that the face of enforcement doesn’t always look the same.

“We have to look at what the outcome is that we want. If we want it to be a safer environment for all riders, let’s understand what that looks like,” the mayor said.

More peace officers have been hired. There’s been an ongoing partnership with the Calgary Police Service, they’ve paid for more LRT duty from CPS, she said.

The city has to look at what’s working and what’s not working.

“A lot of times, we’ll put solutions in place and not examine whether they worked or not,” the mayor said.

“We don’t unpack why they didn’t work. And so once again, I think this goes back to trying new things to see if they’re going to be effective, and not being afraid to fail, because there’s no easy answer to any of this.”