The Price of Public Transit: How Social Assistance Rates Prevent Access


Transit prices are unaffordable for an increasing number of people in British Columbia. But they’re especially costly for recipients of welfare, who today receive only $375 for housing and $235 for everything else, including groceries, bus fare, clothing, emergencies, and otherwise.

The expectation is for recipients to budget (somehow) for transit costs, despite their low income. In British Columbia, while we’re seeing rising MSP costs and ferry costs, we’re also seeing the wealthiest residents in the province receive tax breaks. Last year’s provincial budget implemented a tax cut for the richest 2%.

For those receiving welfare, a $2.75 bus ticket is a big deal. I’d like to put this in perspective.

  • A $2.75 bus ticket totals 0.45% of a $610 monthly welfare-rate income
  • If you are paid $3,000 per month (or $36,000 per year), that’s like asking you to spend $13.50 on a single bus ticket
  • If you are paid $5,000 per month (or $60,000 per year), that’s like asking you to spend $22.50 on a single bus ticket

Or consider the cost of a $91 one-zone monthly bus pass in Vancouver.

  • For someone receiving $610 per month, a $91 monthly bus pass is 14.9% of their monthly income
  • For someone paid $3,000/month this would mean spending $447 on a monthly bus pass
  • For someone paid $5,000/month this would mean spending $745 on a monthly bus pass.

If the transit police find someone on the bus or skytrain without a valid fare, they can give them a $173 fine. If unpaid, the fine prevents people from renewing their driver’s license and often refers them to a collections agency.

The government has made adjustments for some people receiving social assistance in the past. Until September of this year, people receiving PWD assistance (Persons With Disability) could choose to pay $45 annually for a 3-zone bus pass.

Not surprisingly, the 2016 provincial budget includes no plan to to improve the lives of people receiving social assistance. The BC Liberals have decided to cancel the subsidized annual bus pass, increase PWD rates by $77 per month for a single person, offer a $52 subsidized monthly bus pass, and charge $45 a year fee for this service. All fees and “increases” considered, someone receiving PWD and paying for the new subsidized bus pass will receive an increase of only $25 per month, after being without any increase for almost 9 years. But even the Liberals’ own finance minister, Michael de Jong, recognizes that this increase won’t make life any better for PWD recipients. Not only does this increase not catch up with inflation, but the rates were already too low to begin with. Welfare rates have still not been raised.

At the homeless shelter where I worked many shelter guests were receiving welfare. Each time they had to get to an appointment they always had to worry about getting stopped by transit police and receiving a fine for evading bus fare that was too expensive to afford multiple times per week.

Here’s another obvious example of a non-profit filling a gap that the government created. As shelter staff, we had a limited number of bus tickets that we could give out. As a result, we were told to give bus tickets only to people with confirmed medical appointments. If someone asked us for a bus ticket to get to a medical appointment and if they had no written appointment slip to use as proof we had to call their medical clinic, identify ourselves as shelter staff, and confirm if there was an appointment. This practice of phoning the clinic prioritized “outing” people as homeless over trusting their word and giving them a bus ticket. It also meant that housing appointments, job interviews, visiting family, and otherwise weren’t seen as a priority for receiving a bus ticket.

Transit is just one of many ways that we see unjust costs imposed on people living in poverty. Our taxes are intended to be used for our shared benefit, not just to survive but to thrive, and to remove barriers preventing us from living healthy, fulfilling lives. Instead we have chosen to prioritize the wealthiest residents, raising costs elsewhere, including transit fees, and then shaming the poor when they can’t win against these systems designed against their best interests.