OC Transpo is investigating after a bus driver laughed at a passenger and refused to let her off at a “safe stop.”
Passengers are supposed to be able to ask bus drivers to let them off at a spot other than a bus stop after 7 p.m. OC Transpo began promoting the program in December after a number of highly-publicized sexual assaults at transit stations.
But when Carleton University student Sarah Douglas asked to disembark at Rideau and Cobourg streets around 9 p.m. on Sunday evening, the bus operator “kind of laughed and then sighed.”
“She said if everyone asked for it, she would have to let people off all over the route and that she’d have to make exceptions for everyone if they asked,” Douglas said.
When a surprised Douglas responded that it was after 7 p.m., when the service kicks in, the bus operator said the program is “only for people in danger.”
“She asked me if I was in danger and I said, ‘Well, actually, yes, my neighbourhood is dangerous. It’s nice, but it’s not the greatest neighbourhood,” Douglas said.
Less than two weeks earlier, police charged a 27-year-old man with sexual assault after a woman was assaulted blocks away, at Wilbrod and Chapel streets.
When the driver retorted with “If you think so,” Douglas said she was taking note of the bus number to report the incident. She got off the bus at the regular stop, about 250 metres away from the intersection near where she asked to be let off.
“I was in shock,” Douglas said. “This is a program and they have announcements on the bus that you hear sometimes … You don’t have to give justifications for why you want to get off the bus.”
Douglas said she was disappointed the bus driver who refused to let her use a safe stop was a woman.
“As a woman, you kind of empathize with other women. You know the extra precautions we take before we head out at night. You know – having your cell phone in one hand and your car keys in the other, being prepared to run.”
The interaction doesn’t meet OC Transpo’s customer service expectations, David Pepper, OC Transpo’s manager of business and operational services, wrote in an email.
“Upon receipt of this customer’s complaint, OC Transpo immediately began investigating the concerns raised by the customer in order to take the necessary corrective action(s),” Pepper wrote.
It’s the 16th complaint OC Transpo has received since a promotional push for safety initiatives began in December.
It’s also not the first complaint sent to Hollaback Ottawa. The group has been working to build awareness that street harassment is an issue and Hollaback organizer Julie Lalonde said one person is too many to be treated like Douglas was.
“It shows an ignorance of women’s perceptions of safety,” Lalonde said.
While the top brass at OC Transpo have recently shown a willingness to talk to Hollaback about safety initiatives, Lalonde wondered if that message was trickling down to bus drivers.
Transit commission chairwoman Coun. Diane Deans insisted the “culture of safety” she and OC Transpo general manager John Manconi promote is having an impact on the frontline.
“I think we’re setting the tone,” she said.
Douglas said it’s the first time she’s had an issue using the safe stop program, which she has taken advantage of about six or seven times since January. While some drivers have told her it’s not safe to let her off at the exact spot she asked for because of traffic, they have always let her off as close as possible.
Last week, OC Transpo released survey results showing that 49 per cent of women said they felt “safe and secure” waiting for a bus late at night.
OC Transpo is currently looking at different ways to improve safety, OC Transpo general manager John Manconi told the transit commission on March 19.
Ideas include investigating the possibly of solar panel roofs on bus stop shelters to provide lighting after dark, and dressing the around-the-clock maintenance staff in uniforms that identify them as OC Transpo workers.
With files from Brier Dodge.