Vancouver grapples with bus violence

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2007, 12:00am


Vancouver is not unused to random, sudden bursts of violence. Last week patrons at a late-night Chinese restaurant were sent diving for cover after masked gunmen stormed in and opened fire, killing two men and injuring six others.

But a new round of disturbing incidents on buses has prompted discussions about how safe public transport should be - and what expense should be shouldered to ensure safety.

Last weekend in Chinatown, a man, 40, suddenly began assailing a Chinese passenger, 87, on a downtown bus with racial insults. The man then for 'some inexplicable reason' punched the old man in the face before running away, leaving the senior citizen injured, said Vancouver police constable Howard Chow.

Drivers say the problem of violence on buses has reached unacceptable levels.

Vancouver bus driver Robert Hill has sustained injuries more befitting a wardsman in a psychiatric hospital. He's had more violent encounters than many police officers face in an entire career.

Sixteen years ago he was kicked in the head, suffering serious injuries, scarring and visual impairment. He still suffers flashbacks.

In 1993 Mr Hill was grabbed by the neck and choked. A passenger punched him on the jaw in 2003 and he was threatened with a machete that same year. In 2004 he was spat on and hit in a fare dispute. Mr Hill chased the passenger off the bus, struck him and tried to detain him for the police. The bus company suspended him for a short period.

Two months later the same passenger boarded the bus and again had no money. When Mr Hill told him the fare was C$2.25 (HK$16.72), the passenger challenged him to a fight. The incident shook Mr Hill enough that he felt he could no longer safely operate a bus.

He sought sick pay while he took time off but that was rejected. In a decision released last week, the Supreme Court of British Columbia agreed with the workers' compensation board that he wasn't too sick to drive.

So where does that leave bus drivers who say violence is worsening?

The answer may lie in a bit of lateral thinking, said the Bus Riders Union, a commuters' lobby group. It points out that over the past eight years, bus fares have gone up four times, corresponding with the rising number of altercations on buses.

'We know that the majority of the altercations between riders and drivers have been over fares,' said the union's David Hendry. 'We definitely see fare increases as worsening the situation.'

A free bus system has often been discussed, but this would be an expensive option for a government which is already criticised over what are seen as spotty and inconvenient bus services.

Yet the idea is appealing to bus drivers. Bill Young, president of one of the drivers' unions, says 95 per cent of the problems that occur on buses are a result of passengers trying to avoid paying. His union is pushing for increased funding for buses and also new laws that would increase sentences for assaulting bus drivers, giving them protection similar to that of police officers and ambulance attendants.

Mr Young agrees it will be a tough order to get enough funding to improve services, then determine how to maintain that level while eliminating fares. 'But the good thing is that now it's politically correct to be involved in environmentally friendly campaigns. It's the right time to be having the discussion.'