The heads of local and national transit unions are calling for municipalities to take action as violence against transit drivers increases across the country.

Shane O’Leary, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 508, said so far this year, there have been 22 acts of violence against Halifax Transit drivers. He said the incidents include physical violence and death threats.

Halifax Regional Police laid charges in one of those assaults last week. A 16-year-old youth was charged in an assault on a driver on June 2.

“They are definitely getting more serious and more often,” O’Leary said in an interview. “Right now, the supervisors out there on the road have no power and no authority and we’re not getting adequate response from the police when they show up.”

O’Leary said there are a number of reasons behind the increased violence, including lack of barriers for drivers, no enforcement, as well as the current program that allows children under the age of 12 ride for free. He said some youth taking the bus are saying they are under that age when it’s clear to drivers they aren’t. He said most of the incidents of violence are by youth.

“When you yourself could literally get on a bus and say, ‘I’m under 12’ and the bus driver is not going to ask you for ID, the bus driver is not allowed to refuse you,” O’Leary said. “You could be going downtown to the bars covered in tattoos at 10 o’clock at night and say you’re under 12 and the bus driver is not allowed to challenge you. So, there’s no enforcement of it.”

(There was an exchange about this issue of the program for children under 12 between ATU Local 508 and Coun. Sam Austin. You can read that here.)

O’Leary said the increased violence on buses is also the reason why there are now police at the Dartmouth bridge terminal. He indicated the increased violence is also why terminal hours have been reduced and the Wifi shut off so as to discourage people from loitering.

Proposed bylaw should happen ‘much quicker’

O’Leary pointed to the Protection of Property Act, which doesn’t cover buses or the transit operators that drive them because they aren’t at a fixed address.

And, he said, HRM is working on a proposed bylaw around transit, which will go to Halifax regional council this summer. But O’Leary said that’s not quick enough.

It will take three readings at council before they pass it. I would also like to see the barriers, the proper manufactured barriers, put in place much quicker. And I’d like to see some enforcement and some fines, which this new bylaw should do, but the police will have to show up with summary offence ticket books and write tickets. We can’t just let this continue to happen. It’s a poison workplace and it’s a poison work environment where our members spend every day wondering if they’re going to get beat up, attacked, assaulted, or spat on, or have coffee thrown [at them.] These things happen every day.

Need for upgraded training

Training on how to handle difficult riders and situations only accounts for a small portion of the several weeks of training transit operators get. Most of that training time is spent on the road, while a portion is spent in a classroom. Drivers in training are also matched with a mentor. But O’Leary said drivers may only take additional training on dealing with conflict as part of a disciplinary action.

“If I had an argument with a passenger and they called in and complained, I might get it as part of my discipline,” O’Leary said. “It should be on a rotational basis. I’ve literally been regarded as an operator for 24 years, but I only had that training 24 years ago. Most of our members are out there with no upgraded training for situations like this.”

He added that the current shortage of drivers means even if training were offered, drivers wouldn’t have time to take it. And incidents of violence, he said, contribute to the staff shortages.

“For a lot of [drivers], when this happens, they take a considerable amount of time off work and it’s hard to get back to work,” he said. “There are members out there on the road who get threatened and they come to work every day and don’t know what’s going to happen. You really don’t.”

O’Leary said the incidents of violence are also affecting ridership.

“We want more transit out there. We want the city to be a transit-friendly, safe situation, but this alone is turning people off of transit,” he said.

“If you want to increase ridership, you have to increase safety. Nobody wants to come to work thinking they might be assaulted, thinking they might be attacked,” O’Leary said. “We’re out there alone. You have to remember after our training, we’re out there alone on that bus.”

Call for a national task force

John Di Nino, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union of Canada (ATU), said while there have been “thousands” of assaults each year against drivers and riders, there’s been an increase “exponentially” across Canada since public spaces opened after pandemic lockdowns. 

“It’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s a more serious one with increased acts of violence. There are so many indicators, so many things we need to look at, and this is why ATU Canada has called for a national task force to deal with transit violence across the country,” Di Nino said in an interview.

“Across the country, we’re seeing a significant increase in violence, not only against our operating staff, but the riding public. And it’s pretty consistent across the country.”

The violence, Di Nino said, includes being spat on, verbal and physical abuse, and threats of violence with knives and guns.

“The reality of this is it doesn’t matter what the severity of assault is, it has long-lasting implications with PTSD and traumatic events,” Di Nino said. “None of those drivers feel safe going back on the bus and continuing to do their work.”

A balding white man with glasses and wearing a dark suit jacket, grey pinstripped shirt and a tie with a grey-and-black diamond pattern. Behind him is a sign that has a logo that says Canada on it and "One Voice. One Canada. One ATU"
John Di Nino is the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union in Canada. Credit: Contributed by ATU

In January, the ATU called for a National Transit Task Force to examine violence on transit. In a press release, ATU said it could spearhead such a task force, but it must be supported by transit agencies and all levels of government.

Di Nino said the call for a national task force isn’t “political” but a “necessity.”

The reason we said we needed a national strategy here is because we’re seeing the same kinds of assaults, we’re seeing the same kinds of stigma, and agencies are trying to understand and work on these issues on one-offs. They think they’re isolated incidents and, in fact, they’re not. There are a lot of commonalities and I think it’s irresponsible for transit companies and transit systems and municipalities to say, ‘let’s try to figure it out ourselves.’ If we can understand what are the root causes, how do we mitigate some of the exposures, understanding we’re never going to eliminate them all, and put best practices in place that we can all use, we could be heading in the right direction in how we tackle this.

Drivers need de-escalation, mental health training

Di Nino said increased policing to deal with such violence is a short-term measure, and the focus should be on enhanced driver protections, including barriers around the driver, and de-escalation and mental health training.

“But we want to be clear that transit drivers aren’t going to be the first responders when we’re dealing with a crisis. But if they can identify some of the signs of what these things look like they can then protect themselves and their riders by taking the necessary steps before a situation gets out of control,” Di Nino said.

He also called for better reporting mechanisms when these incidents happen and more support for transit operators who are affected. Di Nino said some transit agencies tell operators that dealing with difficult passengers is an occupational hazard. But for others, he said, violence on transit means those drivers will be off work for extended periods.

“How they react from that will be different in every case. Some of them have been told ‘I’m going to kill you.’ Guess what? They’re off for weeks and months, suffering from PTSD and may never be able to recover,” Di Nino said. “But I think what agencies need to do is treat every one of these incidents with the same value so that we know how to treat [it] and we know how to support those operators and those people who are affected by this. Everybody is going to take it differently.”

‘Now is the time to invest’

Violence on buses, along with the effects of the pandemic, continue to affect ridership at some transit agencies, which Di Nino said is at an “all-time low.” He said some riders are choosing instead to rely on other forms of transportation. He said transit agencies not only need to spend money to put barriers and other safety measures in place for drivers and passengers, but they have to stop cutting routes and schedules. This is especially true, he said, as municipalities want to fight climate change and get more cars off the roads.

“They’re making it even more difficult for people to use those services and get people out of their cars and deal with climate issues,” Di Nino said. “When you’re in a downward spiral … now is the time to invest, not the time to cut back.”

Response from police, HRM

The Examiner contacted Halifax Regional Police to ask about policing and transit and the presence of police of the Dartmouth bridge terminal. Spokesperson Const. John MacLeod responded with this message via email:

We take these incidents very seriously and fully investigate them and we would encourage anyone who experiences threatening or assaultive behaviour to contact us so we can investigate. I can confirm that Halifax Transit has requested Extra Duty officers to provide additional patrols in the areas of the terminals.

In an interview, Halifax Regional Municipality spokesperson Maggie-Jane Spray said there are programs and protections in the works to address the issue of violence on transit.

“Violence is certainly a concern. Safety matters certainly are a concern and it’s something we’re taking quite seriously,” Spray said.

Spray said this fall, buses will be equipped with protective barriers around the driver’s seat, which will replace barriers that were installed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spray said the electric buses that will be delivered later this year will already be equipped with barriers.

This year’s budget, Spray said, also includes money to hire four service supervisors who will work from the transit terminals. Two of those service supervisors will work at the Dartmouth bridge terminal. Spray said they haven’t yet determined where the other service supervisors will work.

“It’s really based on needs. Their purpose there will be to have another staff presence on site that’s dedicated to those locations, help build relationships at those sites with those who use terminals frequently, and to have a dedicated supervisor at a location,” Spray said.

And Spray confirmed that the proposed bylaw O’Leary mentioned will be brought to Halifax regional council this summer. No details will be released until the bylaw is presented to council.

“This bylaw is there to help Halifax Transit provide the safe and efficient transit network, as well as determining tools to help achieve that goal,” Spray said. “So, looking at further means for protecting operators and ensuring a safe space for everyone.”

Spray said HRM is looking at developing a transit safety campaign targeted at residents who may feel unsafe using transit, but also for operators to ensure they have a safe place to come to work.

“We’re actually working to hopefully release that in the coming month or two,” Spray said.

Mobile fares app on the way

The Examiner also asked Spray about O’Leary’s concerns around the program that offers free fares to children under the age of 12.

“Operators are expected to be fare advisors, but they’re not expected to be fare enforcers. So, they can advise on the program age guidelines, but they cannot request proof of age of any passenger. We understand that this can be difficult, but we encourage passengers to use the programs and services Halifax Transit offers responsibly.”

And, she said, a mobile fares app is expected to be launched later this summer.

“That will give residents the option to pay with their mobile device or to use their phone effectively as their ticket or their bus fare,” Spray said. “Where those details are still being worked out as to how that will happen, when that will happen, that may change a bit of the interfacing with operators, but in general operators will still be involved in assessing fares.”

When asked about ridership levels, Spray said recent figures show ridership is back to the 90% of ridership from before the pandemic.

“That’s fantastic to see ridership come back post-COVID because obviously through COVID there was significant disruption to ridership,” Spray said.

As for taking part in a national task force recommended by ATU, Spray had this to say:

“We will continue to work with partners, including CUTA (Canadian Urban Transit Association) on ensuring a safe place for our operators, staff, and riders,” she said.

Meanwhile, Di Nino said he wanted to make clear this issue about violence on transit is about passengers.

“Our transit workers across the country, this is a profession for them,” Di Nino said. “They take their jobs very seriously. We need to invest in our riders and we need to move, and continue to move, those 150 million rides a month in this country. This is how we move people. It’s a mobility right and governments need to invest in that.”

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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  1. Increase routes, eliminate bus fares, cut down on assaults on drivers, and benefit the environment at the same time. Spending money on hiring off-duty police to patrol bus terminals, spending money on safety barriers, etc. is OK but there is a huge political resistance to providing the public the politicians serve with free fares. Makes no sense.