For front-line workers at RainCity housing, it's a tool of the trade: a book of bus tickets, tucked into a purse or pocket and ready to hand out to people who need get to a doctor's office, a court date or some other appointment.
But there never seems to be enough to go around at RainCity, a Vancouver-based non-profit that runs shelters and supportive housing projects for people who have a mental illness, substance-abuse problems or other conditions that have resulted in their being homeless or at risk of being homeless.
"The front-line staff are definitely wishing that there would be more tickets available," RainCity spokesman Bill Briscall said on Tuesday, adding that staff in general support the idea of a regional homeless transit plan. Mr. Briscall was responding to a notion put forward over the weekend by City of Vancouver Councillor Geoff Meggs that the city back efforts to develop such a plan.
The motion, if passed, would also result in the City of Vancouver urging other Metro Vancouver municipalities to back such a plan.
Mr. Meggs said his motion was prompted by talks with service providers, who expressed concerns that a new TransLink fare system would make it more difficult for homeless people to access transit.
In the Compass system, card readers will be installed on all SkyTrain and SeaBus faregates. Units will also be mounted on bus doors. Passengers will be able to tap in and tap out using electronic fare cards.
Currently, it is common practice for some passengers, especially on buses, who don't have a ticket or fare to simply ask the driver for a ride. With fare readers, some believe, that type of negotiation will become awkward or less likely to occur. As Mr. Meggs puts it in his motion, the Compass system will "trigger a new urgency to recognize and manage the current informal arrangements."
The province – which provides the TransLink bus tickets to service agencies such as RainCity – says it already provides substantial transit help to low-income people.
B.C. is the only province in the country to subsidize bus passes for low-income seniors and people on disability assistance. That program provides passes at $45 a year. About 86,000 British Columbians are currently enrolled with the program, which is run through the Ministry of Social Development and costs about $44-million a year.
That program, however, is not available to most people on basic income assistance.
TransLink is aware of concerns and is working with service providers to develop strategies for low-income passengers who may not have the means for a reloadable, electronic card, TransLink spokeswoman Jiana Ling said on Tuesday.
Other jurisdictions take varying approaches to providing transit help to homeless or low-income passengers.
The Emergency Transportation Assistance Program is administered by United Way in partnership with municipalities across B.C. In Kamloops, where the program was launched in 2007, 70 agencies are now on board, up from 32 when it started.
Last month, Kamloops city council agreed to boost the bus-ticket contribution, adding 1,000 to provide a total of 7,660 adult tickets and adding 300 to provide 1,020 tickets for student and seniors. The cost to the city is around $15,000.
Some cities in North America have also implemented free downtown transit zones. In Portland, Ore., TriMet – which provides bus, light rail and commuter rail service – operated a free transit zone between 1975 and 2012.
Originally known as Fareless Square, the service began with buses, expanded to include light rail and then was scaled back to provide some free rail connections while charging for bus trips.
The service was discontinued in 2012 as a cost-saving measure, despite concerns that eliminating the service would disproportionately affect poor and low-income passengers.