On the bus for the end of fossil fueled capitalism

Ivan Drury Zarin

Posted November 3, 2023

Notes for a talk delivered at the Council of Canadians “Transition Tuesdays” panel on October 24, 2023

I want to begin by acknowledging that I am calling in from the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil Waututh, and Squamish nations. There can be no justice on these lands so long as they remain occupied by the settler colonial state of Canada. A “just” transition must begin with the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous nations for social and economic development.

Thank you Chris and the Council of Canadians for inviting me to speak on this panel, and thank you Cassidy for chairing, and to the other speakers for your work presenting here. I am speaking as a HandyDart paratransit driver, and a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1724, but I am not speaking as a representative of my union. And while I am trying to reflect my experiences as a driver, which inevitably are similar to the experiences other drivers have, I am alone responsible for my analysis and conclusions.

Overall argument

In this presentation I’m going to argue that fare-free, widespread, accessible public transit is fundamental to a just transition from fossil fuelled capitalism.

A term I am going to refer to throughout this presentation is “social reproduction,” or just “reproduction,” by which I mean the unwaged labour that all workers have to do when they are off work in order to “reproduce” the workforce. Workers must reproduce their own energies constantly to return to work each day and also must reproduce the working class by creating new generations of workers. (Thanks to my partner Stacey for doing the reproductive work of taking care of our baby son Olexiy while I do this presentation!)

Electric buses

The way transit is currently organized serves the interests of bosses, who need access to low-waged workers. The default expectation remains that the responsibility and cost of transit is offloaded to individual workers, who commute to work on public roads, but in vehicles that they pay for as a portion of their wages. In Metro Vancouver, the 2016 census found that only 20.4% of commuters travel by public transit, with 59.6% travelling by their personal vehicles. Roads remain oriented to use by private vehicles. We can think of those roads as a public subsidy for privatized reproduction — as workers continue to bear the cost of transporting themselves to work.

Canada’s current plan for a transition to electrified forms of transportation broadly keeps this standard intact. The government of BC offers a $4000 rebate for the private purchase of a personal electric vehicle, and is investing $26million this year alone in creating electric charging stations for personal electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, HandyDart buses all run on gas or diesel. Our job providing accessible public transportation for people with disabilities and the elderly often means picking up and driving a relatively small number of passengers — sometimes just one person — all the way across town. You would think that electrifying the HandyDart fleet would be a high priority for a government that claims to be interested in introducing a greener economy and society. But the priority remains to accommodate a turn from a privatized commuter system based on the use of personal vehicles that run on gas, to the same system, run on electricity.

Besides maintaining the transfer of transportation costs from the capitalist society as a whole to the individual worker, this plan also continues the problem that this capitalist society is destroying the planet by mining and logging and stealing Indigenous lands globally — but with fewer emissions.

Accessible, fare-free transit

Electrifying public transit is one obvious necessary step in a just transition, but not if we don’t also make transit fare-free, well-organized and dependable, and universally accessible.

The benefits of having buses and trains run on time and on regular, dependable schedules are obvious. It would mean that you would know when the bus is coming and you would be therefore more likely to use it.

But a chronic lack of funding breaks the public transit system, and makes it feel like a punishment to use it. Onboard HandyDart buses, the most common complaint I hear from passengers is that they had to wait a terribly long time for a bus. Often times, these are regular passengers who take the bus to and from the hospital for dialysis treatments three times a week. When the bus is late taking them to the hospital, and picking them up afterwards, it turns this regular appointment from a 4-hour appointment in a hospital bed into an 8-hour trip, consuming their entire day. It is not uncommon for me to hear that someone finished their dialysis treatment and then waited 2 hours for their bus ride home.

The reason that people have to wait for HandyDart buses for so long is that there are not enough buses on the roads. This system of “public transit” is also privatized, and at multiple levels. Translink contracts out the operation of HandyDart to Transdev, a private French corporation that has made its fortune privatizing transit throughout Europe. The less Transdev spends on buses, the more of the money it receives from Translink it keeps for its shareholders. So privatization forms the logic for Transdev putting fewer buses on the roads and subcontracting more and more to private taxi companies. Ten years ago, about 6% of HandyDart runs were sub-contracted to taxis — today it is over 20%.

But higher fares are not the solution to the problem of underfunding and the logic of austerity in the transit system.

At HandyDart, I am convinced that fare collection does not add a dime to the budget of operating the buses.

The cost benefit of the Compass card system, and fare collection generally, is a matter of contention in the Translink system. It cost $194 million to set up the Compass system, which was finally launched in 2015, and in 2022 Translink announced it will cost another $216 million to “upgrade” the system. Add to this the more than $35 million a year cost of policing transit fares, and it has cost about $690 million between 2015 and 2023, or $98 million a year to collect fares in the Metro Vancouver transit system, which amounts to about a quarter of the money collected through fares in that same time.

For HandyDart the question whether there is a positive revenue stream from fare collection should not even be a question at all. Ridership on HandyDart is a tiny fraction of overall transit ridership, and riders access an individually specialized service — as I said, often with a single rider on board a bus for a long distance. For HandyDart, the idea that a $2 or $3 fare covers any portion of the trip is laughable. In many cases, the cost of the time required for a passenger to fish out their Compass card or count out their change probably exceeds the amount of money collected from their fare.

So why collect fares on HandyDart? What’s the purpose?

The answer is that, while HandyDart fares don’t mean much to the operator, Transdev, they do often mean a lot to many riders. Most regular HandyDart riders are regulars because they have equally regular medical appointments, often their three-times-a-week trips to a dialysis clinic. Say that costs them $3.10 per trip; that’s $6.30 a day, and $18.90 a week, and $75.60 a month. For someone on regular social assistance, that’s 14% of their $560 monthly support cheque, in the unlikely event that they don’t spend any of their allotted support monies on rent.

I make a practice of asking riders what the fare means to them, and most tell me that it means they don’t take HandyDart outside of those mandatory trips. They can’t afford it. I tell them that some riders use HandyDart to go to the beach or the bar. One young woman told me, “that would be nice.” But, for her, it’s out of reach.

In practice, the effect of collecting fares is to reduce ridership. The BC disability bus pass, which allows people on disability welfare to ride all other transit in BC fare free (that is, all transit they’re unable to access because of their disabilities), is not accepted on HandyDart. You have to ask if the fare system is in fact a strategy by the operator to reduce ridership. Eliminating fares on HandyDart would, therefore, increase ridership.

Increasing ridership by eliminating fares on HandyDart would benefit HandyDart clients by increasing their mobility, improving their access to recreational and social events, and opening avenues to access parks, beaches, and the natural world. Increasing ridership would also be in the interests of HandyDart workers, by putting and keeping more buses on the roads, and improving our workplace atmosphere with a more diverse set of destinations and happier and more fulfilled riders. Who wants their shift to be an endless ferrying of frustrated people to hospitals and dialysis clinics? I know my preference is to take old timers to the Ivanhoe bar!

Socialized reproduction

Our current, privatized transportation system offloads the responsibility for the reproduction of workers’ energy to workers themselves. A fare-free, public, just transportation system of electrified transit is an example of how our society can take the burden of social reproduction off women in the privatized domestic sphere, whether that’s transporting their children to school or ferrying the elderly to medical appointments, and relieving workers of the drain on our wages as we are compelled to pay for our passage to work by socializing reproduction.

By socializing the cost of transportation with good quality, accessible, fare-free public transit, workers would also reduce our cost of living, and would be able to work less — increasing our free time, which we could then also use more productively because we could take this good public transit to visit friends, get involved in community struggles, and go to the beach, mountains and bars.

The principle I want to insist on that should guide a just transition for public transit is to centre electrified, fare-free, public transit, abandoning the failed and exploitative model of publicly subsidized private transit.

I do not have any hope that policy makers operating under our current capitalist system can or will implement such a turn away from privatized to socialized reproduction. For a glimpse of what’s possible, I look instead to the knowledge and cooperation of my co-workers on the buses and in the dispatch centres, and to the members of communities that I see every day — those I transport on the bus and their loved ones.

The CEO of Transdev in France does not know or care what just transit would look like in Metro Vancouver. The ones who already know what a just transit system means are the drivers, dispatch operators, and the communities that make this transit system work today, despite the privatized constraints. We do this together. Cooperatively. But without formal organization or structural power. It is that organization and power that we need in order to build the just transit that a just world needs.


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