Return of loitering bylaw looms amid response to transit safety concerns

· The Pulse

A proposed bylaw amendment beefs up the definition of "inappropriate behaviours" on Edmonton Transit Service property in an effort to improve both safety and the perception of such on the transit system.

Bylaw 19983 would amend the existing bylaw governing the conduct of transit passengers to explicitly prohibit remaining on transit property while engaging in behaviours other than the use of transit, as well as prohibiting the visible use of controlled substances.

The amendment amounts to the reintroduction of a loitering bylaw, tweeted lawyer Chris Wiebe, which could lead to excessive ticketing of unhoused people.

"Reintroducing the loitering bylaw does not solve these problems," Troy Pavlek said on Episode 180 of Speaking Municipally, Taproot's civic affairs podcast. "Of course, we know what solves these problems. It's housing. It's social supports."

As council heard last week, the scope of the problem is significant. In 2021, transit peace officers responded to 52,000 calls, a little over 1.5% of which required a call to the Edmonton Police Service for further support. In the past six weeks, security guards have deployed Naloxone 52 times in transit facilities.

"That's at least a time a day, basically, of a transit security guard having to administer life-saving medication to someone who is potentially succumbing to drug poisoning or overdose, which highlights sort of the intensity of this problem, but also the ill-defined scope of this problem," Pavlek said, noting that we tend to think of the transit peace officer's job description as one of enforcing fares or keeping people's feet off the seats, not "This station is a supervised consumption site. Let's make sure no one dies."

And yet, the response from the province, which has both the spending power and the responsibility for housing and health care, is to insist the city spend more on police, as Justice Minister Tyler Shandro suggested when he invoked the Police Act to request a public safety plan to be delivered within two weeks. Council spent considerable time on Friday discussing a response to Shandro's request.

"These problems are ostensibly solved by getting provincial help. And now the provincial government is saying you have not solved these yet, therefore we're going to increase police funding, of all things," Pavlek said. "It's a very frustrating cyclical situation where it feels like we're not learning anything nor progressing."

Tyler Shandro stands in a suit in front of an LRT station, holding papers

Justice Minister Tyler Shandro tweeted a video outlining his concerns about safety on Edmonton's transit system and downtown, invoking the Police Act to request a public safety plan from city council. (Twitter)

The podcast also highlighted data indicating safety and security concerns don't appear to be the main reason people stop using transit. A survey involving about 364 former transit riders conducted in May and June 2021 indicated that just 1% stopped using transit because of safety and security, and a lot of other enhancements were higher on their list of priorities.

"I think the perception has changed, even if the reality hasn't — it's been in the news a heck of a lot more in the last six months than it was maybe in the first part of 2021. So the survey results might look very different if they happened today, and it's not a huge sample," said co-host Mack Male. "But it is a little bit of data that is a good reminder to us to stop and think about the bigger picture here."

Tune into the May 28 episode to hear more about these issues, as well as city council's response to calls from residents and business owners in Chinatown to do something about violence and disorder in that community; the police funding formula, which council ran out of time to decide on before adjourning last week; and the inevitable return of controversy over attempts to save money by shutting down pools.