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People board and leave at the Century Park light-rail transit station in Edmonton on Feb. 26, 2021.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

After several high-profile assaults at transit stations, Alberta’s two largest cities are working to address safety concerns as they push to repopulate trains and buses that were emptied by the pandemic.

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi has said the city will hire more enforcement officers and launch a short-term foot patrol program. The city had already committed to improving safety on public transit by growing existing outreach and opioid response teams, upgrading video surveillance and launching a bystander awareness plan.

In Calgary, enforcement and patrols have been boosted on transit in recent months and there has been a significant decrease in major incidents, such as assaults and drug overdoses, according to Calgary Transit spokesperson Stephen Tauro. But the agency has noted that additional security enhancements are being considered as complaints persist.

City leaders have connected rising reports of crime and disorder on public transit to worsening homelessness, the opioid epidemic and the mental health crisis, but experts and transit officials say the problem may be linked to broader societal forces.

Two acts of violence on transit platforms in Edmonton have captured public attention in recent weeks. In early March, a 39-year-old man was injured in a stabbing during an altercation on a downtown platform. And last month, a 78-year-old woman was severely injured after being pushed off a different platform. Police later determined the man charged with that crime had also threatened a man with a weapon at a different station.

Carrie Hotton-MacDonald, a manager with the Edmonton Transit Service, said in a statement that transit ridership in the city has reached about two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels over the past few weeks, its highest point since the pandemic began. In 2019, annual ridership in the city surpassed 86 million.

Ms. Hotton-MacDonald noted that increased ridership could help deter disorder and crime. Data provided by the city show a 341-per-cent increase in reported medical incidents on transit from 2019 to 2021, when the pandemic decreased ridership. The number of welfare checks increased 83 per cent over the same period. Data were not provided for 2022.

The Edmonton Police Service had responded to 596 occurrences at transit centres (meaning, not on trains or buses) this year as of Friday. The service classified 24 per cent of the incidents as violent.

Ms. Hotton-MacDonald said some of the apparent increase in crime could be related to riders reporting incidents more frequently than they did in the past. She added that these issues are “bigger than transit.”

Mr. Sohi has criticized the provincial government for inadequately funding social supports, leaving the city to deal with the consequences. When asked in the legislature on April 28 about user safety on public transit, Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro pointed to almost $159-million in funding, provided jointly by the province and Ottawa, that is intended to support Alberta municipalities. He said this money can be used where cities see fit, including on transit.

Both Edmonton and Calgary have said recently that they are stepping up partnerships with social agencies to serve vulnerable populations, as the cities balance supporting people in need with ensuring public safety.

Calgary Transit’s Mr. Tauro said the city’s approach is “compassion before enforcement.” Ridership in Calgary is now at about 50 per cent, compared to pre-pandemic numbers. There were almost 105 million trips in 2019.

In January, Calgary announced it would be closing some enclosed C-train stations overnight to prevent people from sheltering inside. Mayor Jyoti Gondek said the spaces are not equipped with basic amenities and that the move would increase public safety and encourage people living rough to seek more suitable supports.

The announcement came shortly after a string of stabbings at transit sites, which police later determined were hate-motivated. Three victims were targeted because they were experiencing homelessness, the force said.

Limited data provided by the City of Calgary show disorder calls on public transit increased by about 57 per cent in 2020, compared to 2019. But Mr. Tauro said the number of calls has since returned to pre-pandemic levels after additional safety measures were implemented late last year and this year. He links the drop, in part, to concerning behaviours being less noticeable now that riders have begun crowding stations again.

Calgary police data show calls at LRT-related locations for “crimes against the person,” such as assaults, increased over the 12 months between March, 2021, when there were 26 calls, and February, 2022, when there were 48. Drug-related calls and property-related calls have varied over the same time period with no clear pattern.

Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said the COVID-19 pandemic forced people into homelessness, some of whom have sought shelter on trains or at bus stops. He urged kindness and empathy from passersby who feel inclined to call authorities.

“Imagine yourself on your worst day, right? Imagine how you would have looked, how you might have acted whether you were scared, tired or traumatized,” he said. “Homelessness is a person’s bad day, every day.”

Matti Siemiatycki, director of the University of Toronto’s Infrastructure Institute, said the recent problems point to a much broader issue than individual malaise: a rise in anti-social behaviour across society.

“I think it’s linked to this unease coming out of the pandemic and it’s changing how people are behaving in public right now,” he said. “Transit is a key place for society and is a place where many different groups are. And, in those spaces, we’re in a moment where there’s a rise in unprovoked, kind of random events.”

He added that people should be cautious to draw clear links between vulnerable populations and safety concerns on transit, unless those links are proven. Regardless, he said, these concerns must be addressed to boost public confidence in transit systems as cities spring back to life.

“We’re faced with two options. One is a very car-based type of recovery and that will have huge impacts in terms of pollution, environmental emissions over the long term, increasing urban sprawl and spurring greater inequality for people who don’t have access to a car,” he said.

“Or we go the other way, and transit recovers alongside active transportation and greater walkability.”

Prof. Siemiatycki added that cities must ensure additional enforcement resources do not strengthen existing inequalities faced by some transit users, such as women and racialized people.

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