NDG advocates call for 'social fare' so low-income residents can afford public transit

Two organizations have teamed up in NDG to campaign for what they call a “social fare” — 40 per cent off for people who rely on social assistance or fall below the poverty line. 

Advocates say people living on social assistance or below poverty line shouldn't be paying full price

Steven Karook, an NDG resident, would like to see public transit fares be much cheaper in Montreal so people could more easily access the city and services. (Josh Grant/CBC)

Getting around Montreal has been a bit more affordable for Steven Karook ever since his 65th birthday because public transit fares are reduced for people his age and up.

So he's able to ride a bus down to the Depot Community Food Centre in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce for a free lunch and conversation four days a week.

But not everybody who relies on the Depot's lunch or emergency food-relief service can afford to pay $3.50 per trip, he said.

"Because most people, their budget is geared toward paying their rent which leaves very little for food and transportation," said Karook.

The Depot has teamed up with an affordable transit advocacy group, Mouvement pour un transport public abordable (MTPA), to campaign for what they call a "social fare" — 40 per cent off for people who rely on social assistance or fall below the poverty line. 

Advocates have been circulating a petition in NDG since August, and they've been pushing local municipal candidates to commit to the proposal, but there hasn't been a clear answer from anybody, said Houda Kerkadi.

Kerkadi, a community engagement co-ordinator with the Depot, said the food bank can give out a few bus passes every month for appointments, but the organization can't buy one for everybody.

"We've seen a surge in people asking for transportation tickets," said Kerkadi, noting the last price hike in 2019 has made it even more difficult for people who live on social assistance.

Breaking isolation, providing access to services

If reducing Société de transport de Montréal (STM) fares isn't an option, she said the city could fund a shuttle bus service to get people from low-income housing to various services, like medical aid and food. 

Being unable to afford a bus pass also leaves people isolated, she added. The Depot provides a free lunch four days a week, giving people like Karook a chance to socialize and eat, but not everybody can take advantage of the service because of transit costs, she said.

Houda Kerkadi said some people can't afford to access the food-relief service at Depot Community Food Centre because it costs $3.50 per bus ride. (Josh Grant/CBC)

"Your self-respect goes down when you can't afford to do basic things like take a bus," said Cynthia Angrave.

"We used to give double baskets because some people can only afford to come here once a month."

Angrave has volunteered and hosted workshops at the Depot for more than two decades. But she lost her job when the pandemic hit and now she's relying on social assistance, she said.

"What happens is about 85 to 90 per cent of your money is spent in rent and paying your basic bills, Hydro and telephone," she said.

"And there just isn't money left over to buy food and buy your bus pass. You cannot afford the bus pass."

Benefits for the community

Karook said a lot of his friends and the people he meets at the Depot have to prioritize bus trips for food or medical appointments. 

He said, beyond helping those who can't afford to ride, there would be benefits to making public transit more affordable or even free.

 "If the transportation were free, I'd be at the Jazz Fest every day," said Karook.

"If people were paying reduced transportation costs — or even free — well, then they would have the extra money to support the local businesses. And that would have an immediate impact on the community."

The municipal election will be this weekend, and so far debates at the mayoral level have focused largely on the relationship between cars and bicycles.

Projet Montréal has vowed to make riding the STM free for seniors and reduce fares by half for teenagers. 

Ensemble Montréal is promising to modernize the network, making it easier to buy tickets electronically and keep the system clean.

The STM, on the other hand, is saying it could be forced to make major service cuts to its Metro lines and bus network next year if it's not able to secure additional funding to balance its budget.

The STM is facing a $62-million shortfall for 2022. Without additional funding, the transit authority says Metro and bus service could be reduced by up to 30 per cent.

with files from Josh Grant