Are turnstiles the answer to Calgary's transit woes? Cities that took the plunge tell us what they know
'You can try a karaoke bus or you can try some turnstiles,' says Coun. Dan McLean
St. Louis just committed to spending $52 million US to install gates or turnstiles at its transit stations, and many Calgarians point to Vancouver as a success story because it restricted access to its stations in 2016.
Cities across the world have taken this step, and now Calgary's city council is studying the feasibility. But talk with those in charge in other cities and the benefits aren't always as clear as they seem at first glance.
In St. Louis, the turnstiles are actually more about "curb appeal," says Taulby Roach, president of Bi-State Development, which is in charge of St. Louis's MetroLink.
"People have asked me, is this just a fancy marketing plan? Honestly, I say yes."
CBC Calgary called St. Louis because many people in Calgary say turnstiles are the solution to social disorder, drug use and crime at CTrain stations. It's been the most popular solution proposed by the hundreds of transit riders texting in for our project on transit safety.
But other transit riders doubt it will live up to its promise — they say it won't be effective without increased enforcement and/or it will just push the issues beyond the transit boundary.
So here's what we learned from St. Louis and Vancouver.
MetroLink in St. Louis is struggling with the same ridership and drug issues that Calgary has. MetroLink's ridership is down to 60 per cent from pre-pandemic levels; Calgary is at 65 per cent.
St. Louis's $52-million security project will upgrade the security cameras and install fare gates at 38 light rail stations. Calgary has 42 stations and council was told for years it could cost $400 million for a similar upgrade.
In St. Louis, the push for fare gates actually started with private business. The area's Regional Business Council (made up of companies like Enterprise, Centene and World Wide Technology) put up $10.7 million to install gates.
For them, it was self-interest, says Roach.
"They are trying to attract the best talent to run their companies, and when the region is perceived as being safe — as being progressive and looking at new ideas and always improving — obviously they benefit as well."
Roach says the gates are more about public perception than actually reducing fare evasion, since already more than nine in 10 passengers pay.
But to rebuild ridership, "I need to be sure the curb appeal of my system is right on top of everybody's mind," he said.
"Having everybody feel, 'Gosh, that system is really safe and secure and they did the simple step of putting turnstiles in because that's what we wanted' — then we're all in."
In Greater Vancouver, TransLink started installing fare gates in 2016 after intense public debate. TransLink spokesperson Dan Mountain says the goal was to reduce fare evasion as the train system expanded. The public debate was around safety, too.
TransLink's gates were estimated to cost $100 million for 49 stations.
Several Calgary residents told CBC Calgary they see less drug use on the platforms in Vancouver compared with Calgary. Plus, the barriers create a comforting separation: anyone inside has paid to be there, suggesting they're at the station primarily for transportation.
We called Const. Amanda Steed with the Metro Vancouver Transit Police. She says the gates help for safety but it would be "naive" to give them all the credit. Some people who pay their fare also commit crime, and officers on the ground make the biggest difference.
To her, the biggest benefit of fare gates is for staffing.
"[In the past], we would have several officers at a couple of different stations and we would check every single person coming in. That took a lot of time and it slowed down ridership. So it wasn't really efficient," she said.
Now, instead of checking fares, transit police focus on passenger safety. Their top priorities are reducing sexual offences on the transit system, reducing workplace assaults on employees and helping vulnerable people in crisis.
And while several Calgary visitors say the social disorder was less, Steed says open drug use on platforms is still a problem for them.
"Vancouver, like Calgary, is not unique to the opioid crisis. We're all struggling, everywhere across the world — and I don't think that implementing fare gates is going to stop drug use," she said.
Calgary transit rider Mendel Perkins recently moved back here after six years in Vancouver working on his doctorate at UBC. In his experience, the gates didn't have the desired impact.
"I personally witnessed dozens of people who I'm assuming didn't pay their fare just push their way through them," he said. "And if they're unsupervised — there isn't a security guard or transit police or someone right there — there's zero consequence."
Perkins says it was also common to see turnstiles vandalized or broken and problems from the stations spilling out into the surrounding communities. That included open drug use and violence in nearby city parks.
Would turnstiles or fare gates work in Calgary? The debate intensifies.
How would you enclose the downtown stations where the platform is part of the public sidewalk, asked one Calgary resident on CBC Calgary's text message line.
Two others asked: Would they be full human height so no one could push through? And would that be just one more barrier to navigate for people using a wheelchair?
Another person said: What if someone got on the train at a station with no barrier, then fell asleep on a platform at a station that did have fare gates? If they got kicked out at that location, they would be far away from any free shelter or food with no way to get back to the train.
Kellie Knight is a Calgary Transit rider and a theater production manager who has spent time working all over the world.
"If you're addressing it from a fare evasion [perspective] and trying to make sure that everybody has paid, sure," she said.
"But if you're looking at spending that much money on overhauling all of the stations just to try to deal with addicts or the unhoused community or mentally ill people who have nowhere else to go and no resources, you're just moving them a couple metres to somewhere else."
Knight points to Sydney, Australia.
"Guards would kick people out of the train station.… Then, instead of loitering and congregating inside, they would loiter just outside of the doors, on the sidewalk, on the pavement or on the park right next to it."
Coun. Dan McLean has been the loudest voice on council calling for fare gates in Calgary.
He says the city should start with a pilot project — fare gates at four stations — and see how it goes.
"We're talking a few million dollars.… Maybe we can get revenues to go up and it will pay for itself," he said. "If the odd person climbs over, OK. But I think the majority of people are going to say, 'I'm not going to take that chance.'"
As for shuffling the problem into another public space, McLean says he wants the province to work with the city to address homelessness and addiction.
"You're having these severe drug addictions … I mean, let's just tackle this problem, let's take that head on. And let's help them. Let's not enable them. Let's help."
St. Louis calls this a "fancy marketing campaign." McLean says in some ways it probably is. But so are other initiatives Calgary Transit tried recently.
"You can try a karaoke bus or you can try some turnstiles," he said. "Call it whatever you want. Let's just see if it works. I believe it will."
This is a community-driven project exploring safety issues on Calgary Transit. Read all of the stories in the series so far at cbc.ca/transit.
We wonder what will happen to the City of Calgary's net-zero and transportation plans if the drug use, unpredictability and disorder continue. Has it changed the way you or your children get around the city?
Add your cellphone number to join and let us know.
Series produced by Elise Stolte