Thursday, January 24, 2008

What Calgarians can't afford to let slide until the next municipal election, part 2: Transit and Public Safety

"Perception is nine tenths of a person's reality..."
- Mrs. Wilkinson, my Jr. High school Art teacher

Nation, even as the city of Calgary goes through the machinations of a Calgary Transit safety audit, the tall foreheads both elected and appointed are going out of their way to tell us what they're going to find. "Transit is safe!" they declare - which I thought was why we were spending money having the system audited. The problem, which most of these bureaucrats and elected officials seem to miss, is that the citizens of this city don't FEEL that the system is safe, and all platitudes to the contrary aren't going to change that fact - especially in light of tragic events of the past few days. Only action will.

City council has made no effort to hide the fact that it is their intention to get Calgarians to ride the rails and buses in this city, and eschew use of their cars when possible. Notably, most Aldermen drive to City Hall every day for work, even though there is a C-train station right there. Hmmm... Approved plans for buildings in the downtown core leave far less space for parking than would have been required years ago, parking rates continue to skyrocket, the one-way maze of streets and closures in the downtown core is harder to navigate than ever before...

"Take transit, it's faster than driving!" they tell us, earning snorts of derision from anyone who's had to wait for a bus that's 25 minutes late, or wait 4 trains before finding one that isn't packed full well before it arrives at Chinook Station, in minus 25 degree weather.

"Take transit, it's affordable!" they argue, as the monthly pass goes up to $75 (at least the feds give transit users a tax credit now).

"Take transit, it's better for the environment!" they cry, ignoring the fact that ecofriendly or not, most Calgarians are disinclined to spend time in freezing cold or sweltering heat on a city bus in the name of the environment, packed in like sardines (unless they work the 2-8 shift).

But for many Calgarians, what keeps them off of the Transit bandwagon isn't the cost, or the inconvenience, or the poor service... it's the PERCEPTION of a lack of safety. Long-time locals tell their new neighbours or co-workers, just arrived from out of town: "Don't take transit, it's not safe!"

Anyone who's sat alone on a mostly empty C-train after dark has done the same thing - look surreptitiously at the other passengers, trying to figure out whether they're a possible threat or not. The half passed-out drunk 2 seats down and across the aisle? The 3 teen-aged boys dressed in full wanna-G attire? The 5 young adults in full goth regalia dropping 'F bombs' every other word?

Calgary Transit dealt with this issue, they say, by installing "HELP" buttons on every car of the train, and every platform. Pressing the HELP button will put you in touch with the driver of the train, or with Transit's security office. Neither of whom can help you as you're being beaten or rolled for your wallet - but they can listen to it happen. So, Transit further showed their concern for public safety by installing cameras on the system - of course, we still can't help you stop from being mugged or raped, but now we'll have fuzzy images of the perpetrators to print in the newspaper. Fantastic - now I feel VERY comfortable putting my fiancee on the train.

Just for the record, I am over 6 feet tall, and pushing 245 pounds. I am by NO means a small guy - and many of the people on transit intimidate the heck out of me. How is my 5'4" (and three quarters, she insists) fiancee supposed to feel remotely safe in the same circumstances?

Nation, this speaks to a larger problem with the system - lack of manpower. Calgary Transit HAS security, but how often do you see them? Even when you DO see them, how effective can they be? Their presence stops petty vandalism and harassment, but as soon as they get off at the next platform, having checked everyone's ticket, you're back to square one again. We need a way to make people feel safe - if they PERCEIVE the system as safe, then the battle's already won.

The best part about this is, we can kill 2 birds with one stone.

It's a cliche because it's true: "There's never a cop around when you need one". Sure, when you had your fender-bender on MacLeod Trail at 2 in the afternoon, 3 cruisers responded within 4 minutes. But if there's someone walking just a little too closely behind you at 11 pm on your way home from Canyon Meadows station on a Friday night, what are you going to do about it? Call 911, and be told that your discomfort isn't an emergency, and to call the regular police number. So you do, after normal business hours on a Friday, and it takes 9 minutes to speak to a real human being - 9 minutes too long, when you feel threatened. By the time an officer comes on the line with you, your phone could be sitting open in a ravine, with no sign of you. Ever.

More and more, this is what Calgary has descended into - we don't feel safe. We don't feel protected from the criminal elements in our city. We don't feel as though anyone's going to be there to help us. We know the police are out there, SOMEWHERE... but we can't find them, we can't contact them, and as such, they can't help us.

This is NOT the fault of the Calgary Police Service... although some decisions made by the top brass are questionable (closing the Riverbend office at 6 pm on a Friday? Good idea - why would anyone need the police in Riverbend after dinner on a Friday?), for the most part they're doing the best with what they have. What they NEED is more - more officers, and more money. Calgary City Council, the government of Alberta, and the government of Canada all need to step up to the plate and ensure that the citizens of Calgary feel safe and protected - and the feds only get involved because this involves transit security, which is one of Stock Day's big issues.

Here's the plan:

2 Calgary Police Service Officers, fully trained and prepared, assigned to a stationary location (office, broom closet, kiosk) at every C-train platform. 24 hours a day (not consecutive - we're talking 3, 8-hours shifts of 2 officers per shift).




Every day.

Put up giant signs that tell you where to go for the police. Make sure that, even if one officer is strolling the platform or using the biffy, that there is always someone at that desk or window. Someone with a badge. A gun. And, most importantly of all, a radio.

Anyone out there in the E.S. Nation think that a police officer has to wait 9 minutes to talk to dispatch if they radio in a problem?

Didn't think so.

Now, this deals with both problems I mentioned above. For starters, it makes transit users feel safe. It lets Calgary Transit place its officers on the trains and buses, because they know the stations are covered, which makes people feel better ON the trains because Transit officers are there. And once people get OFF the train, as they're headed on their way, if they feel at all uncomfortable, they can follow the signs to find real, live, police officers who can deal with the problem, or alleviate their concerns. ALSO, it means that if someone feels a need for a police officer's attention or assistance, they KNOW WHERE TO FIND ONE - at the C-Train station. 24 hours a day. And from there, the officer can consult with their partner, call in to HQ and decide what needs to be done from there. The public in general feels better served and safer. You can't do this by stationing transit officers in these stations - how are they going to help you? By calling the REAL police. Better to cut out the middle-man, and have the real police THERE, don't you think?

And this NEEDS to be a 24-hour thing. You can't power-walk to the police kiosk at Banff Trail station only to find a "Closed until 7 am" sign... that won't do you a hell of a lot of good as a 130-pound woman with the 3 200+ pound guys following you. Likewise, having officers at Marlborough station doesn't do you any good if you're frightened and at Rundle station - by the time the police can get to you, you and your problem are long gone - and possibly, to the same place. That's the way the system "ensures our safety" at present - with transit officers 3 stations away from you checking everyone's transfer ticket, and someone sitting in front of a video screen downtown or at Anderson station watching 3 platform fights while you hit the HELP button and pray that help can get to you before the thugs at the other end of the train do.

Now, I'm not foolish enough to think that this is going to happen. Even if it's the greatest idea in the world, it's bloody expensive. Calgary has, at present, 38 C-train stations. It will cost taxpayers 1,824 man-hours per day to make this happen... 665,760 hours per year, or the equivalent of 320 full-time officers (an increase in the CPS of 20%, when they can barely meet their minimum number of qualified officers at present) - at a cost of approximately $16.64 Million, plus training costs and infrastructure (a boost to the police budget of approximately 6.8%). I don't know how to pay for that, or I would have run for mayor last October. $16 per person on their tax bill? A fare increase on Transit buses and trains of 15 cents per rider? Both would cover the cost of those officers... Maybe some of column A, some of column B... But the bottom line is, it would make our transit system, and our city, safer.

It would make our citizens FEEL safer.

And perception is nine tenths of their reality.

- E.S.

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