Public transportation in Metro Vancouver is the envy of much of the world for its accessibility, reliability and safety. But it is not perfect, and there is always room for improvement, as highlighted by the current debate over the TaxiSaver program.
As most of you have probably heard, TransLink announced in May that it was planning on cutting the TaxiSaver program in Vancouver, which subsidizes 50 per cent of cab fares for people who cannot access conventional transit services without assistance. Although the decision has since been put on hold, it continues to spark a great deal of emotion and public debate.
TransLink’s board initially voted to cut the program in order to redirect the $1.1 million saved towards improving the HandyDART system, a shared-ride transportation service which is struggling to keep up with demand.
TransLink spokesman Drew Sneider told the Vancouver Sun that the decision was partially made because about 85 per cent of people using the TaxiSaver program now don’t necessarily need the program, adding that there’s nothing to prevent people from giving coupons to friends or family.
“This was becoming an uncontrolled cost for us,” Snider told The Sun. “The funds will go into HandyDART so if we’re in a situation that cannot accommodate [passengers], there will be more resources available to a call for a cab for them … we’ve got more and more people who needed HandyDART and that kind of service.”
In the first year alone, TransLink estimates these new funds will allow them to redirect $200,000 towards providing taxi service to approximately 19,900 HandyDART requests which would otherwise go unfulfilled.
TaxiSaver programs outside of the Lower Mainland will not be affected.
This controversial decision has not been met lightly by those who depend on the TaxiSaver program. On Tuesday, July 3, an estimated 130 people showed up over the course of a three-hour community forum at the Dunbar Community Centre on the issue.
Organized by the City of Vancouver Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee, the forum attracted seniors, people with disabilities, caregivers, family members and at least one concerned HandyDART bus driver. Members of TransLink’s board were also present, including TransLink Director, Howard Nemtin, who sat in the audience.
TaxiSaver more cost-effective than alternatives
Throughout the afternoon, audience members echoed similar concerns. One reoccurring point was that financially, the decision just doesn’t add up.
Jill Weiss, the Chair of the Vancouver Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee says that it doesn’t make sense to cut the most “cost-effective part of the Custom Transit system”, noting that the TaxiSaver program costs TransLink only $8 per ride, compared to $30 for a ride on a HandyDART vehicle. As a result, Weiss says, “at least 80,000 rides will be lost, even if all of the funds are transferred from the less expensive TaxiSaver program to the more expensive HandyDART system.”
Spontaneity is a safety and health issue
On a more practical level, many people emphasized that HandyDART services—which need to be booked at least one day in advance—are not equivalent to the TaxiSaver program, which allows people to travel spontaneously.
For most seniors and people with disabilities, this is an important safety concern. “Power wheelchairs do break down,” said Craig Langston, the vice chair of the TransLink user advocacy committee, “and when they break down we’re stuck.”
Even when one does book ahead, many noted that things didn’t always work out as planned. “I had an appointment at 1 p.m. and HandyDART couldn’t pick me up until 1 p.m. so by the time I got there, someone had taken my appointment,” says Elaine Woodhall, who uses a wheelchair, “I had to wait for four hours.”
Others told stories about being left stranded after missing a HandyDART ride because of unavoidable delays and some said that occasionally, their rides just couldn’t be accommodated at all. A TransLink press release from April 2012 says that 24,732 client trips were refused or denied in 2011, about 2 per cent of the total requests made.
Baggage limit a problem on HandyDART
Another concern expressed was that the amount of bags that people can carry on HandyDART rides isn’t sufficient—passengers are allowed a maximum of two bags with them and they must be carried on their lap. For Claire Ireland, that’s a big problem. “I frequently use TaxiSavers to get home from the grocery store,” says Ireland, who sits on the Access Advisory Committee in Burnaby and has cerebral palsy. “Maybe we shouldn’t think of them as TaxiSavers, but as life savers,” she says.
The vulnerable don’t need more challenges
For some, the issue is one of principle. Seniors and people with disabilities already live with many obstacles in their lives—both physical and financial—and limited mobility is another challenge they shouldn’t have to face, said Tasia Alexis, the assistant director of The Developmental Disabilities Association of BC. “We do not need to make things harder for people who need community access and community services,” said Alexis.
An elderly woman added that many HandyDART and TaxiSaver users are already isolated. “The opportunity to take a cab out for a social outing once a week can make a big difference in my quality of life,” she said.
Not all feedback was negative
While the mood was tense at times, not all the feedback shared was negative. Peter Stancer who uses a power chair praised HandyDART drivers. “When I use HandyDART, the drivers are just incredible. You can tell they have real compassion for the people they serve,” said Stancer.
After noting the importance of the TaxiSaver program in the lives of her clients, Katherine Collins, a caregiver and volunteer at the Residences for Independent Living Society finished off by thanking TransLink for their efforts. “I’m so impressed with TransLink and the accessibility of the whole system,” she said. “I’ve lived in many different cities and I can tell you it’s not a terrible system, it’s an excellent system,” says Collins.
Several of TransLink’s board members were present, during the community forum, including Peter Hill, the manager of access transit, who responded to questions.
TransLink Director, Howard Nemtin, praised the forum, noting that: “It is so incredibly helpful for us to have this kind of direct response. We take great pride in our system and we obviously have more work to do to take care of people who are the most vulnerable, but we are listening and we do appreciate your feedback.”
The public voice can make a difference
On June 13th, TransLink’s Board of Directors announced that decisions regarding the TaxiSaver program were put on hold. “TransLink has launched an engagement process with additional stakeholders to listen to concerns, hear ideas and determine if and how to move forward with this decision. No changes will be made to the TaxiSaver program while this process is underway.”
This process by Translink is commendable. Having worked closely with TransLink for more than a decade on our annual Bus Stop Hop event to improve the quality and awareness of accessible transit in Vancouver, SCI BC recognizes that TransLink has worked hard to improve the accessibility of our transit system over the years.
“Overall, the Metro Vancouver area has done a really fantastic job in creating accessible transit options, especially when compared to a lot of other cities that don’t have the same range of accessible transportation options,” says SCI BC executive director Chris McBride. “Vancouver is really unique in the world for its level of accessibility.”
The response of the disability and seniors communities has also been commendable, and TransLink’s response to the concerns raised by so many members of these communities shows that the public voice can make a difference in public policy. Clearly, the TaxiSaver issue is not settled and valid arguments from both sides of the debate will need to be fully contemplated before any final shifts are made.
What do you think?
Spinal Cord Injury BC (SCI BC) is always closely following issues that affect people with spinal cord injury or related disabilities; however, although we do not have the resources to engage in direct advocacy, we feel it is important to give our members and supporters a voice on priority issues. Transportation is definitely one such issue.