The wheels on the bus: The working poor make hard choices between transportation and basic needs

Despite the City of Ottawa’s October announcement introducing a low-income transit pass, some of Ottawa’s most frequent transit users are still choosing between food or transportation.

Bayshore residents use transit much more than most of Ottawa’s population, according to an analysis of data of Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey.  Avalon and Bayshore neighbourhoods have the highest number of transit users.

The data also shows that the median income in Bay ward, which contains the Bayshore neighbourhood, was about $56,000 per household.  It falls far below the city’s $79,000.

With an OC Transpo monthly pass costing $130, an expert says the amount isn’t possible for many of the city’s residents.

“People can’t access public transit because it’s insanely expensive,” said Julie Burnett, a social worker at Legal Aid Ontario. “And there’s a loss of dignity when you can’t access transportation.”

She explained that many families on social assistance receive just $1,000 monthly from programs like Ontario Works. With rent and food to cover, this leaves little for transportation.

Katya Gallant knows this struggle.

The 21-year-old Bay ward resident has been working at a data collection company to put herself through school at Algonquin College.

“It doesn’t even pay for rent,” she admitted.

Her dream to become a corporate lawyer in Germany takes a hefty blow with every bill that comes due.

“It’s so stressful not to be able to make ends meet.”

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Katya Gallant, a transit user in Bay ward, says the current passes are too expensive and cause stress to lower income users (Supplied).

Gallant’s dilemma is quite common in Canada. About 14 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line –more than 100,000 people in Ottawa alone, according to a report from the city.

Councillor Mark Taylor, who oversees the transit-savvy Bay ward, agrees that many of his constituents fall into that category. Bay ward’s unemployment rate is nine per cent, compared to the city’s average of six per cent.

“Folks need help getting to work or getting to their education because they can’t afford it,” he said.  “They might not be on social assistance, but they still need to afford transit.”

The City of Ottawa announced in October that they will introduce a low-income transit pass for people making minimum income, which is defined as a single person making less than $20,000 annually.

Starting in April 2017, the pass will cost users $57. Half the price of a regular pass, it’s still more than the $42 seniors pay.

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Created with data obtained from the City of Ottawa and OC Transpo (Elise von Scheel).

Taylor said the cost of discounting the pass will be covered by the tax revenue the city collects each year. The city also voted to petition the provincial government for $3.3 million to support the initiative.

“This is not a pilot; we’ve embedded this as a full piece of the budget,” he added.

Though Gallant said she would “absolutely” use the pass when it comes out, she said she and others will still feel the financial squeeze.

“You’re still trying to decide whether you have food on the table or a bus pass,” she continued. “I’ve lived with it and it’s not healthy.”

Taylor, who also serves as deputy mayor, acknowledged Gallant’s fears saying he agrees that services for those struggling with income aren’t as well integrated as they could be.

“We are providing a patchwork quilt of services that has gaps in it,” he said, adding that as the city and province work together the gaps will slowly be filled.

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