Is public transportation a human right? How to fill Greyhound’s gap
Many have been left wondering how they will make it to important medical appointments, visit family and friends, or get to work in the wake of Greyhound Canada’s plans to axe service west of Sudbury, Ont.
Service will end on the vast majority of routes on Oct. 31 because of declining ridership, the company said this week, leaving those who either don’t have or can’t afford a car scant options besides costlier train and airplane tickets or begging rides from friends.
Those aren’t realistic alternatives, says Liz Majic, a lawyer and interim legal education and outreach coordinator with Canada without Poverty.
“Those most affected are going to be poor people living in rural areas,” she said, “particularly Indigenous people.”
But what right do Canadians have to access transportation? Do governments have a responsibility to step in and ensure alternative options for when the Greyhound routes shutter?
“Human rights is about ensuring equitable access,” Majic says.
“Although access to a bus itself isn’t a human right this has implications for a person’s ability to move to access services, for example women’s shelters, abortion services, even jobs.”
And while Canadians seem to recognize the importance of ensuring mobility and access when it comes to urban centres, Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, says that’s about as far as that recognition goes.
“What we fail to do really explicitly is apply that to rural communities.”
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Litman authored a report for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) last year that looked at the impact of public transport on rural and small towns. Although the rural population has declined in the United States, ridership is actually up: a nearly eight per cent increase between 2007 and 2015.
The report puts forward a variety of transit options that are working in smaller communities. They range from taxi subsidies and volunteer drivers to community buses, fixed route transit bus services and rural transportation network companies, a sort of “rural Uber.”
The Washington Intercity Bus Program is a great example of how declining service was turned around to safeguard access, Litman says. Private companies are contracted by the state but paid largely through federal grants and communities are part of designing what their service looks like and picking the providers.
“The state department of transportation takes responsibility for ensuring that there is bus service to small towns,” Litman says. “That’s what we failed to do here in Canada.”
We need to, Majic says.
“The federal government, provincial governments, and municipal governments have a responsibility to uphold their human rights obligations and to ensure that our public infrastructure is inclusive,” she says. “This means looking seriously at public transportation across Canada, in every part of Canada, to ensure that everyone has access.”
It’s an issue that has come up frequently during the ongoing inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, since one of the affected Greyhound routes includes a notorious stretch of Highway 16 in B.C. known as the Highway of Tears, where a number of women have gone missing.
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Numerous reports have been written over the years in the United States about how access to transportation is linked to human rights. A 2011 paper from the Leadership Conference Education Fund lays out the concerns: “Transportation policy has the potential to expand economic opportunity for low-income Americans and underrepresented workers by connecting them to highway, transit, and rail construction jobs.”
At the same time, the paper notes, “our transportation policy has the potential to exacerbate many Americans’ isolation from jobs and resources.”
That’s par for the course in Canada, says Barry Prentice, professor and former director of the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba.
“Although you may get a house pretty cheap out in the countryside, where’s your job? Where do you go for shopping?”
Growing up rurally, he says, the high cost of long-distance phone conversations were especially isolating. That’s partly why he believes technology — driverless cars in particular — could help rural ridership woes down the line.
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But in the interim, Prentice says it’s worth taking a closer look at how governments are and aren’t choosing to fund rural transit. At a minimum, he says, Canada needs to invest in rural ridership research like the United States.
That’s going to require a rethink of how we approach infrastructure, Litman says.
“They spend millions and millions, a few billion dollars a year, to build and maintain highways. But once the highway is built, they have no way of measuring the degree that it serves non-drivers,” he says.
“There is very poor vocabulary among ministries of transportation to say that this highway fails because even though the highway is beautiful, there’s no bus service on it and anybody who doesn’t have a car has to rely on hitchhiking or asking friends for a ride.”
— with a file from The Canadian Press
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