When I was younger, considering my options for a future career, I thought of being a bus driver. I enjoy public transit, and thought it would be fun to spend the day driving such a big vehicle around town, meeting a bunch of people, turning that giant horizontal wheel.
And having people spit in my face.
I didn’t imagine that last part, and thankfully it doesn’t happen too often, but there seems to be this mentality in this city that bus drivers and other employees of our mass transit system are scum of the earth, seen with disdain by the blowhards that seem to make themselves heard the loudest in our media (social or traditional).
For left-wing activists, there’s the expression “ACAB”, which stands for “all cops are bastards”. For the soccer moms and dads out there, it seems like “all bus drivers are bastards” is the common refrain.
It’s not just that this is a generalization based on an exaggeration, but the actions it’s based on are often simply the drivers doing exactly what they’re supposed to.
When doing your job makes you a bad person
Take Pauline Tantost. She’s the Montreal woman who boarded a bus without exact change and got fined for not paying her fare. Based on media reports, the undisputed facts of the case are as follows:
Tantost and her two-year-old child boarded the 108 bus at the Atwater métro station. Not having exact change for the $3 fare (her child rides free since he is under 5 years old), she tries to pay with a $5 bill. The driver refuses, because the machine does not take paper money. He allows her to stay on the bus, but warns her that if the bus is stopped by inspectors, she could be fined $200 for not having a valid fare.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what happens. At Bannantyne and 4th Aves., inspectors board the bus and check fares, starting with hers since she is sitting behind the driver. Discovering she doesn’t have a valid fare, they take her off the bus and give her a $219 fine for not having a valid fare.
Upset at this turn of events, Tantost goes to the media, which are all too happy to recite her story and present it as some David vs. Goliath story.
Nowhere in this story is there an allegation that Tantost was treated disrespectfully, or that she was intimidated, or insulted, or yelled at, or treated in anything but a professional manner by STM employees. Nowhere in this story is there an allegation that she was tricked in some way. But everyone and their mother blames the driver for not helping her by taking her $5 bill.
There are some things that are alleged in these stories. It’s alleged, based on zero evidence, that the driver may have somehow arranged for the intervention by the inspectors. According to Google, the 10 pm bus arrives at 4th Ave. at 10:17pm, which means it might have been possible to scramble a team of inspectors and have them rush to that intersection, provided the inspectors were on standby in the area, waiting like an ambulance for a snitch to call them to duty. (And the driver would have to do so without the passenger sitting right behind him hearing about it.) Both the STM and the union say there was no move of inspectors to intercept the bus.
In short, nothing in this story suggests that any of the STM employees were doing anything other than their jobs. It’s unfortunate for Tantost that she didn’t have exact change for the bus. It’s unfortunate for Tantost that STM buses don’t take paper money or provide change. It’s unfortunate for Tantost that her bus happened to be checked by inspectors. And it’s unfortunate for Tantost that those inspectors decided to fine her.
But nobody forced her to stay on the bus, ignoring the driver’s warning, when she did not have exact change. Nor is anyone denying her the right to fight her ticket, if she believes she can convince a judge that the STM inspectors did indeed act incorrectly.
All generalizations are bad
Now, I’m not saying all bus drivers and STM fare inspectors are saints. Like the rest of society, there are good ones and bad ones. Some are exceptionally polite and friendly. Some are so grumpy and unhelpful that you wonder why they’re in these jobs. But most do their job with the same amount of enthusiasm as anyone else in the public service industry: polite, patient and courteous, occasionally gusting to friendly, with scattered grumpiness.
But to the peanut gallery, the STM is evil, and this is just another demonstration. Letters written to The Gazette included two that suggested that she and others like her should have ridden for free. One letter writer even suggested the driver should have paid the fare himself. Most comments on Facebook and Twitter said the employees all showed a lack of sympathy, with many seeming to imply that because she was a mother, travelling late at night with a young child from a hospital, that she should have received special treatment, as if treating a young mother differently from a teenage boy is somehow an example we should be setting.
One commentary online really got to me: This story by Martine Turenne suggesting that the STM sees its users as annoyances. She cites other examples of widespread misconduct, including buses not stopping for people running after them, or failing to stop at bus stops, or how the STM ignores complaints against its employees.
I can’t really comment on buses driving past stops, other than to say that in my years of public transit use it’s only happened a couple of times to me. But I can certainly say something about why some bus drivers won’t stop for people running after a bus they just missed: They’re not trying to be mean, they’re doing exactly what they’re instructed to do by their bosses.
And their bosses don’t instruct them to do that because they want to be dicks, but rather to prevent people from being run over and killed by the buses they’re running after. You only need to witness a couple of instances of reckless people running along buses, inches away from huge, accelerating wheels so they can pound on the side to get the driver’s attention away from a left-side lane-change to realize how dangerous it is to encourage the behaviour of running after buses. And so long as that dangerous behaviour is rewarded by opening the doors and letting the person on, it will continue.
There’s also the often repeated complaint that complaints to the STM go nowhere. The problem isn’t that the STM doesn’t care about complaints, but rather that their hands are tied by the law, which states that employee discipline is a confidential matter and cannot be announced to the media. Maybe the STM takes that legal interpretation too far. Maybe there’s some wiggle room that it could use to provide people with more information of what happens after a complaint is made. Maybe the STM should have some provision in its collective agreement that allows for the company to publicly disclose disciplinary measures that come from interactions with the public. But to conclude simply that the STM never acts on complaints is, I think, irresponsible.
Some real scandals to consider
There are people out there whose opinion of our public transit system is impervious to data. It doesn’t matter how many studies come out showing that the STM is efficient, well managed and inexpensive, there are those who are convinced based on their gut feelings that the agency is incompetent and overpriced.
There are those who blame every single metro disruption on incompetent management, even if it was caused by a suicide attempt, or a police intervention, or flooding, or a major power failure.
But as much as I’m defending the STM here, I should make it clear that there are some things that they do from an organizational level that we should feel are scandalous. Things that they should be correcting but haven’t.
- Communication failures: The STM is, at least, improving on this slightly. It’s embracing Facebook and Twitter as communications platforms, and providing more detailed information about things like metro disruptions. But it still has a long way to go. As recently as a year ago, it was including a pager number in its press releases, and representatives would be notoriously difficult to contact when news would break. A few cases where major metro disruptions happened outside of business hours meant the media had no information to pass along to transit users.
- Lack of transparency: I went to an STM board meeting once, and asked to see a document that had been approved by the board. I was told by the secretary that I would have to file an access to information request to get any such document. It doesn’t matter that the document was approved in a public meeting, its contents are not available to the public without them having to go through a formal process of asking for it.
- Lack of accountability: Speaking of the STM board, it has a representative who sits there on behalf of transit users (actually, it has two, the second one representing adapted transit users). Unfortunately for us, that person is STM chair Michel Labrecque, a politician who was given the seat as a loophole when he failed to become a city councillor. I like Labrecque, and think he makes a good STM chair, but he’s not a users’ representative. He is not, as far as I can tell, active on social media, and his contact information is not available on the STM’s website. So if you want to express your concerns about STM policy with the person put on that board to represent your interests, you’ll have to track him down.
- Fare integration problems: This issue has more to do with the AMT than the STM, but there are some annoying problems that people run into when using more than one transit network. Going from Carrefour Laval to the Quartier Dix/30 requires using three separate networks and paying $9.25 in cash (all coins). We’re still discriminating based on mode of transportation, charging more for the train than for buses. And the AMT and STM have separate but similar-looking Opus card machines that don’t provide the same services or offer the same fares for sale.
- Overnight metro service: The hours between 1am and 5am are when the STM services the metro tunnels, which is why the system has to shut down at night. But it has shown, during the Nuit Blanche and at other times, that the metro can run all night on special occasions. Why, then, it chooses not to do so on New Year’s Eve is a mystery. Since the service is running at the stroke of midnight on all four lines, it’s not like more employees will be missing out on the fun by having the metro run later than usual.
I’m sure there are others, and I’d be happy to add them if you have suggestions in the comments.
There is one issue that can be considered a legitimate complaint in the Pauline Tantost story: The STM’s fare boxes should be able to accept paper money. In the days before Opus, fare boxes were simple glass boxes with a slot at the top, that accepted coins and tickets. Those paying multiple fares or who didn’t care about getting change would occasionally fold up a $5 bill and stick it in there, and there was no problem. The new Opus fare boxes, however, are designed to count coins that are placed in them, and sticking paper money down that slot isn’t an option. The boxes were originally designed to also accept those small coloured paper tickets that were used before Opus, and allowing the insertion of paper money into those slots shouldn’t be too difficult if no other option is available.
Ideally the machines would accept paper money and even give change.
As single fares climb past the $3 mark, and other bus system fares even higher than that, something will need to be done here. The STM was supposed to test a solution whereby fare boxes were installed at bus stops instead of on the buses. Though those machines would accept credit cards, not paper money.
Hopefully the agency is looking at possible solutions to that problem. At least, while they’re not killing babies and diving into their swimming pools filled with gold coins.
UPDATE (Aug. 23): The STM has cancelled the fine after the media attention it got. It maintains the fine is legal and everyone did their jobs, but made “an exceptional decision, based on the circumstances” after concluding that “everyone was acting in good faith.”