Bus blues: Saskatoon riders share transit tips for turbulent times

Femi Serrano checks off the 2024 rules of riding the bus while he stands in the Confederation Mall terminal on a Friday morning.

"I'm very particular about how I take the bus," he said.

"Pay attention. Be aware."

Serrano said he has learned "from experience and observation" to avoid taking the No. 2 bus. It leaves the Confederation terminal and snakes its way south and east through Meadowgreen toward downtown Saskatoon.

"Unfortunately, you see people that have mental health problems, substance abuse problems, on that bus. I don't like being around that space. It makes me uncomfortable," he said.

"I'm also particular about where I sit on the bus. I've seen that, from observations, they tend to sit either at the far back of the bus, or just at the front. So I find myself in the middle trying to avoid both situations."

Femi Serrano says he's particular about which routes he takes and where he sits on the bus.
Femi Serrano says he's particular about which routes he takes and where he sits on the bus. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

The president of the union representing Saskatoon bus drivers and mechanics said Serrano is correct to be concerned about certain routes. Darcy Pederson said Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 615 identifies No. 2 and No. 60 as "hotspot routes."

"Downtown west through 20th Street, and up 22nd Street to the Confed terminal … very scary," he said. "They could see bear spray, stabbings. We've had swarming on the bus. We've had fights break out. Lots of bad things are happening."

It's been a rough spring on city buses. Police responded to four violent incidents in May — stabbings and assaults that sent passengers to hospital — and not just on the hotspot routes. One of the incidents happened on Eighth Street East and one happened on Broadway Avenue.

Darcy Pederson, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 615, says bus drivers want consequences for passengers who break the rules.
Darcy Pederson, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 615, says bus drivers want consequences for passengers who break the rules. (CBC News)

And Pederson said those are just the reported incidents. Violence is a possibility on any route in the city, he said.

The ATU hosted a conference in Saskatoon earlier this month. ATU national president John Di Nino said bus violence is on the rise everywhere.

"What's happening here in Saskatoon is being replicated right across the country," he said.

"The assaults are pretty commonplace. You know, you're seeing the stabbings, you're seeing the swarmings, you're seeing use of things like pepper spray and and bear spray. And you know, the assaults are getting much more aggressive."

WATCH | Saskatoon bus riders talk about experiences on city transit:

Matter of perspective

The degree to which violence is an issue on buses can be a matter of perspective. It's not the experience of all riders.

"I feel pretty safe for the most part," said Charmaine Peters while she was waiting at the Confederation Mall terminal for a bus to the university.

"The drivers are very good about being protective of the passengers."

Charmaine Peters has taken the bus for two decades and said her approach is to not interact with other passengers.
Charmaine Peters has taken the bus for two decades and said her approach is to not interact with other passengers. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

Peters has taken the bus for two decades and said her approach is "don't interact with people."

"Just kind of keep to yourself. That's what I do — I'm on my phone or I read a book or listening to music. I don't engage with anybody; nobody ever bothers me."

Like Peters and Serrano, 16-year-old Chloe Baron said her approach is to not attract attention.

"Stay quiet, stay to yourself," she said.

"If someone's like, I don't know, sketchy looking, just steer clear of them and try not to provoke them in any way."

The issue of transit violence was on the agenda at the Amalgamated Transit Union's national conference in Saskatoon earlier this month.
The issue of transit violence was on the agenda at the Amalgamated Transit Union's national conference in Saskatoon earlier this month. (CBC News)

Baron said she has seen open drug use on the bus, and had her share of uncomfortable encounters.

"I've had old men come up to me and ask how old I am," she said.

"I don't really know what to do. Like, I'm by myself so I kind of just tell them my age and hope they walk away. You can't do much."

And that, said Darcy Pederson, is the challenge facing transit drivers. They cannot walk away.

"If something bad is going on, happening on the bus, they are to call city emergency ... and explain the situation. We pull over; we secure the bus; we open the doors and we stay behind the barrier," he said.

The driver's seat

Pederson asked people to consider a driver's perspective.

Passengers take the bus to get to a specific destination. The bus, however, is a driver's office.

Imagine anyone able to walk into your office smoking drugs, Pederson said, or someone armed with a machete or bear spray — or someone accompanied by fellow gang members.

Day after day.

"There's a mental health and addiction crisis happening in our city, a homelessness issue, and all of this with no solution," Pederson said.

"They have nowhere to go. They go to the library. They get kicked out. They come on the buses and it's just a revolving circle."

Pederson said bus drivers want consequences for breaking the rules for riding.

"We need to be able to enforce the rules of the bus, the zero tolerance policy on assaults," he said.

Amalgamated Transit Union national president John Di Nino says that what's happening in Saskatoon 'is being replicated right across the country.'
Amalgamated Transit Union national president John Di Nino says that what's happening in Saskatoon 'is being replicated right across the country.' (CBC News)

Di Nino said transit unions across the country are struggling with the same question — how to make riding the bus safe for passengers and drivers against the backdrop of the larger social issues at play.

"If you have nowhere to go, your refuge is going to be on a safe spot, like transit," he said.

"So all of these things are intersecting with public transit."