Central Okanagan buses will soon be outfitted with closed-circuit cameras and driver cages to improve safety.
“(Security) has taken on a new urgency with recent assaults in Kelowna,” said Premier Christy Clark Tuesday, at a press conference where funding for the cameras as well as a number of other transit projects was announced. The cages are being installed on a trial basis, so they aren’t included in the $160 million of federal and provincial dollars, being rolled out across BC Transit service areas, despite being announced at the same time.
Central Okanagan bus safety became a matter of local concern first in the aftermath of the Oct. 30 2014 killing of bus commuter Caesar Rosales. He was fatally stabbed by a then-unknown assailant at a bus stop, who fled into the darkness as the bus rolled to a stop.
This May the issue gained traction again when four assaults on different drivers were logged in one 24-hour period.
Since then, said Scott Lovell president of the Amalgamated Transit Union local 1722, there have been more attacks on drivers, although they’ve gone largely unremarked upon.
Lovell, who was at a transit conference in Ontario when the announcement was made, said he was pleased to hear something was happening to improve workplace safety for his fellow bus drivers.
“It’s been a couple of years that we’ve been advocating for better safety for drivers and … is the barrier exactly what I hoped for? No,” he said. “This specific barrier is not my choice. I would like to have seen a half barrier so we can maintain conversation with community.”
Lovell said that he and his fellow drivers are an integral part of local neighbourhoods, organizations and workplaces and when they’re blocked off entirely it “takes away the specialness” of their jobs.
“That said I’d rather have those barriers in place than have drivers go back to their families beaten and bruised or not go home to their families, at all,” he said.
Lovell also had some concerns about the cameras.
“What would a camera have done for (Rosales)?” he said. “I don’t want to seem ungrateful. It’s a useful tool if you used them effectively. But if we had transit police or a dedicated transit force within the RCMP, that board buses and do random checks,that would go even further in providing safety for derivers and the public.”
He pointed out that Queensway bus loop has a closed circuit camera already, and he wouldn’t recommend spending a few hours sitting there.
Above all else, he said, it’s another BC Transit program he’s heard is in the works that he’s holding out the most hope for.
“I believe BC Transit is going down a path of creating a training program for every driver in the province to deal with people who have unknown (mental health) issues,” he said. “That will make all the difference. you can have all the technical tools in the world, but if you don’t know how to use them, what’s the point?”
More than just safety measures
Safety isn’t the only way Kelowna buses are being improved.
Kelowna had prioritized the purchase of newer buses with technology enhancements that will pave the way for a better customer experience from the beginning to end of each trip, as well as much-needed transit exchange upgrades.
“Moving our transit service into the 21st century will provide a whole new level of convenience for Kelowna residents,” said Mayor Colin Basran, adding that the addition of safety cameras on buses will give passengers and drivers the peace of mind they deserve when taking transit.
New, more modern buses will also include real time tracking information and automatic passenger counters that will enable BC Transit to optimize service delivery based on gathered data.
In addition to the upgraded buses, Kelowna is set to receive a major renovation to the existing transit exchange at UBC’s Okanagan campus. This capital investment project will alleviate current capacity and over- crowding issues by building a more functional exchange that will support better service during peak hours and improved operational efficiency for passengers.
The total cost of this project is estimated to be $5.1 million, with over $1.4 million each coming from both the federal and provincial governments and close to $2.3 million from municipal sources. This project is expected to begin as early as September and has an estimated completion date of March 2018.
This announcement follows on the heels of the recent commitment to expand handyDART service in Kelowna by an extra 2,000 hours, by September.