Transit Safety in Calgary and what is being done to improve it

Transit is essential to the freedom and mobility of many Calgarians and residents of Ward 12. Alongside reliability and convenience, safety and security are paramount to a functional and attractive transit service.

There are many articles speaking to the recent challenges on Transit, and stories and images of people in distress, causing disturbances or even assaulting other passengers. While the stats and historical data reveal a small increase in reported crime, the user experience has seen an outsized negative impact. We are hearing stories from many Ward 12 residents that transit users feel less safe than they used to, and it impacts their likelihood of using any of our modes of public transportation. In order to bring confidence back, changes are needed.

For good or bad, transit connects all corners of the city and provides pathways of connection. Along with that come activities or behaviours that can make people feel unsafe. This is not new, as there were no doubt undesirable experiences on the first streetcars in 1909, and late-night revelers after a Flames game or Stampede would be relatively common in recent decades. Nor is this problem unique to Calgary. Cities all over the world grapple with the same issues on these public modes of travel.

https://calgarysun.com/news/crime/calgary-transit-sees-spike-in-violent-crime-on-the-rails-in-2018

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/25/us/public-transit-crime.html

Calgary Transit has a big network to keep safe. With two, going on three C-Train lines spanning over 118 km, containing 45 stations of various designs, plus 166 bus routes and with many vehicles in service at any given time, there is a lot to keep an eye on at any given moment. The convenient feature of the 7th Ave Free Fare Zone (now TD Free Fare Zone) adds to the challenge, as the pieces put in place for the system to be attractive to residents and visitors alike is what also allows an open path for the things we would rather not see in and around the trains.

First, I’ll share with you what is currently being done to try to improve safety on Calgary Transit. Later, I’ll discuss why this will be an uphill climb and how Transit itself cannot solve these issues in isolation. Since well before taking office, social disorder on Transit, particularly around the C-Train and its stations was a major, growing concern. Even prior to the pandemic, many groups would form inside stations and shelters, which concerned some members of the public. The pandemic has made it worse. So, in November 2021, less than a month after taking office, Transit security was on the table. Below is a summary of that adjustment and others

November 2021: Council approves an additional spend of $1,250,000 for 10 additional Transit Peace Officers for the 2022 budget mid-cycle adjustments

July 2022: Transit announces boost to security, using current funding. This will add 25% more Transit Peace Officers, bringing the total to 141

 https://calgaryherald.com/news/calgary-transit-set-to-boost-security-to-address-safety-issues

The increase in security will cost $5.9 million in annual funding as well as $370,000 in one-time capital expenditures. It is being paid for in part by a re-allocation of unspent growth funding originally approved by council for 2020-22 service investments.

November 2022: Council approves the 2023-2026 budget, which includes increases for security costs, station upgrades, and additional staffing in their Operations Centre

December 2022: Officials told Council that six peace officers are set to graduate that week, with another 14 later in the month. Fourteen more are set to complete their training in early 2023.

In addition:

  • Transit Ambassadors were launched in December, using current Transit employees to be visible around platforms and provide additional sources for reporting issues
  • All Seventh Ave platforms will be getting lighting upgrades, to be completed by March
  • Additional staffing to be added at the Operations Control Centre, to monitor cameras and inbound reports

January 2023: Transit Ambassadors are now seen in shifts of 14, during the mornings and evenings, and over two dozen corporate officers have also been contracted out

 

 

All of this adds up to a lot of attention on this matter and significant investments to help make people safer. Is it enough? We’re going to have to give it some additional time to see how a lot of these changes play out. We are still waiting on an entire graduating class of Peace Offices to join the team. They would boost the overall staffing by 10%, and we expect them to roll out in February.

On top of the contingent of Transit Peace Officers, there are several Calgary Police Service (CPS) officers also assigned to the transit corridor at any given time. They have been actively involved in the focus on reducing and removing gang and criminal activity that follows. In a recent week, an additional six CPS officers were paired with Peace Officers on overnight patrols on the heaviest days. In addition, there were 12 security guards assigned to patrols.

In that same week, they responded to 1,469 calls, 20 arrests were made, 279 charges were laid, they responded to 13 overdoses, and referred 18 people to social services organizations. On top of that, they were able to help find sustainable housing for two individuals in partnership with other agencies. Talk about a busy week.

One specialized team that supports safety on Transit is the Transit Community Outreach Team (COT). Originally created in 2018 as a pilot, COT was a partnership of one Transit peace officer and one outreach worker from the Downtown Outreach Addiction Partnership (DOAP) team from ALPHA house. Its mandate was to connect Calgary's most vulnerable Transit users with services. 

Four years later, that lone Transit peace officer, Sergeant Kitty Aalders, leads a COT team staffed by four officers. Each officer continues to partner with a DOAP member.

On average, each month, the COT team connects with more than 300 individuals, filling out 21 housing assessments and completing 88 agency referrals. Officers advocate for clients, help them to attend appointments, and connect them with detox treatment and healthcare. The COT team works closely with Calgary Police Services (CPS). Often, the COT team and CPS teams deal with the same clients. These individuals may be the victims of hate crimes, a missing person who has ended up on Transit, or someone whose behaviour on the Transit system is generating regular concerns raised by other riders

 

Other initiatives downtown

Having a thriving and attractive downtown is important to The City. The Downtown Strategy, East Village revitalization, Stephen Avenue planning and office workers returning downtown are all drivers for a better economic environment in our core. There is an incredible amount of investment being directed at this important area, but it will be all for naught if people don’t feel comfortable making the trek down, especially families. Where we will find the most success with these challenges, is with collaboration between organizations and different levels of government. There is a Provincial-Municipal task force to deal with many of the surrounding challenges, as well as local cooperation between The City, Calgary Police Service, and many partner organizations

https://calgaryherald.com/opinion/columnists/collaborative-approach-is-key-in-addressing-downtown-disorder-say-mayor-police-chief-and-police-commission-chair

 

External factors and root causes

Why is it that we see so much of this activity in and around transit lines and stations? A lot of it is because the system is designed to be where people are or want to be. It’s supposed to be open and welcoming to regular users and visitors alike. But that welcome feeling also extends to those with nowhere to go or who choose to be around others in similar circumstances. A transit system provides shelter from the elements, and sometimes heat and/or seating. There is also the very important aspect of safety, but not the safety that has driven this discussion thus far. For vulnerable individuals, their own safety needs are what bring them to well-lit and well-travelled areas. The same forces that make many of us uncomfortable in places like our downtown also cause alarm for them. Being homeless is not a crime, and for whatever reason they find themselves in this position, they deserve to feel safe too. They are often preyed upon by criminal elements because they have nowhere to hide. For those that are using drugs in these areas, safety is also of concern for most of these individuals. As we’re seeing more and more toxicity and unknown substances in the drug supply, staying alive becomes more challenging. Closed-circuit cameras, patrolling officers, and public bystanders provide layers of safety and help to prevent and treat overdoses.

The simple way to make a C-Train station or a bus shelter safer is to remove those that are not paying customers or using the network. By request or force, ejecting those individuals provides temporary relief for those that feel unsafe by their presence. Obviously, the larger problem isn’t solved but moved elsewhere, and there aren’t enough resources to keep them away for good. They can move to the next station or come back once security moves on. Consider the colossal number of employees and funds that would be required to provide two trained officers at each of the 45 stations, 24 hours a day, plus on the trains and covering bus shelters as well. And the issues have just moved down the street.

Green Line

Future investment, especially in infrastructure like the Green Line, will require a change in thinking. Initiatives like Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (https://www.calgary.ca/cps/community-programs-and-resources/crime-prevention/crime-prevention-through-environmental-design.html) will prescribe structural and design changes to help reduce issues of concern and allow resources to be directed elsewhere. Transit-Oriented Development (https://www.calgary.ca/planning/transit-oriented-development.html) will also have the added benefit of reducing crime by putting more traffic around stations and eyes on public spaces.

 

Incoming Work

The City of Calgary is currently working on scoping out the cost of adapting the stations of our LRT system to more of a closed system utilizing turn-styles and other such infrastructure to limit who can access train platforms. This approach would likely enhance safety but would present other challenges including a large price tag. The problem, however, warrants this scoping work to get a better sense of just how viable the option may be.

Transit has increased spending on Safety from about $19.5 million a year up to around $27.3 million. The $7.8 million per year recent increase in operating costs for safety, when combined with increases to maintenance and other associated costs may make the infrastructure upgrades a good long-term solution. 

On the larger systemic issues that are feeding into the safety issues such as homelessness and addiction, The City and Province are currently working on providing better support. Both of these problems feed into the other and you can learn more about the GoA's plans with this link (Click Here). 

 

Summary

Calgary Transit has a historically strong position as a reliable, safe, and convenient transportation option for Calgarians. It has been a leader in North America for ridership and network coverage, and prior to the pandemic, it had a long pattern of growth. In 2019, we had the third-highest total annual ridership and daily boardings of light rail transit systems. And by population, Calgary has led its North American peers in terms of ridership figures. We have an enviable network, not without faults of course, but worth devoting efforts to protect it. As a city, we have made strides in improving safety and investing in the tools to get us where we need to be. There is still a long way to go, and many of the investments have not yet had time to come to fruition. Solving the greater issues at hand and tackling the social disorder and groups congregating at transit stations, will require cooperation from all levels of government and building stronger partnerships with local organizations. These are societal concerns and will need multiple levels of support and services. As a city, we are committed to forging a solution to this problem, and as a Councillor, I will continue to advocate for and hold accountable our efforts to solve many of these issues.

If you would like to engage further on this subject with me please email [email protected] with your feedback and I would be happy to connect. This is a massive priority for our City and I am always open to ideas.

 

Sources:

https://www.calgarytransit.com/content/transit/en/home/rider-information/safety-on-transit.html

https://www.calgarytransit.com/content/transit/en/home/rider-information/ct-ambassadors.html

  • Evan Spencer
    published this page in Blog 2023-01-24 16:38:27 -0700

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