Transport lags in fast-aging city
Another one of those “so what else is news?” stories. There is nothing new in this: handyDART has always been inadequate. Demand for its services has always exceeded supply. The addition of additional types of service – accessible buses, community shuttles, taxi savers – helped a bit, but not much. And, by the way, this is probably true in every transit system in North America. At least, in seven years of research, I never came up with one that had succeeded to any great extent. Though there are plenty of examples of urban areas that do much better than Greater Vancouver.
Why are we so bad at this? (And, believe me, we are pretty bad.) First of all because it is a political minefield. You cannot step into this field without risk – and our politicians are highly risk averse. The provision of specialised transit service to provide door to door service is very expensive indeed. This region has never had enough resources to provide a decent conventional system, let alone a specialised one. In the United States this is common and institutionalised. If you don’t live in an area that has conventional transit service, you cannot get specialised service either. Simple. Equally bad for everyone. Not a solution that I would advocate, and not one that operates here.
Many systems look carefully at who is entitled to specialised service. The idea is that if someone can use conventional transit the they should not be accepted onto the specialised system. This has been refined to actually looking at the trips the individual needs to make, and determining if the specialised system is needed – on a trip by trip basis. Calgary uses that system. Easier there than here since the City of Calgary provides both the transit system and social services. So integrating the two is organisationally efficient – or maybe the word I want is “possible”.
Talk about “eligibility” for handyDART here, and you empty the room pretty fast. Just about anyone can get onto the register – all you need is a signature on a form. From your doctor, or indeed any health care professional. And most people in the caring professions are quite happy to sign such forms. Some even charge you for it, so they have a financial incentive not to say “No”. So many people have registered, and so many demand trips, that they have to be rationed. Anyone wanting a a trip for work, post secondary education or for healthcare gets priority. If the trip is needed on a regular basis, it can be block booked. So if your trip is for some other purpose, or you don’t do it regularly, your chances of getting the trip you need is pretty low. It is also of no surprise at all that many people who want trips make sure that they fit this category. Their doctor, dentist or optician will, of course, be located in a shopping mall. Recreation is not a priority – so “swimming” is a “no” but “hydrotherapy” is a “yes”. Small wonder that health oriented trips dominate the service. Indeed, health services (and adult day care) are designed on the basis that handyDART will bring the patients to the facility. So that gets client/patient transportation off the health care budget, and the funds can be used for MRIs – or doctors’ fees. They don’t get transferred to Translink.
Taxi savers were meant to fill the gap for these “spontaneous” trips, and to some extent they do. Although ask most people with disabilities about their experience with taxis and you will hear some hair raising stories.
A centralised booking system was supposed to help and contracts were even let to set one up. From this article I conclude that this still has not been achieved. As I said, this type of service is expensive to provide (compared to conventional transit) but at least costs in this sector are contained. Contracts are let by competitive tender on a regular basis, and most providers come from the not-for-profit sector (community assistance societies). Indeed in Vancouver, handyDART has been provided for many years by a collective of people with disabilities.
Translink has been faced with a painful dilemma. Given that resources are inadequate, and demand is growing, do they try to limit demand or increase supply? Well they do both, but neither with any great conviction. To some extent, lack of service in itself acts as damper on demand. People who ask for trips but never get them give up asking after a while. So the measure of “refused trips” doesn’t actually reflect reality. The service providers have got pretty good at determining whose needs are really top of the list, but of course if you don’t make that list, you feel pretty sore. People don’t complain nearly enough because the popular notion is that those who complain will be denied service in future in retaliation. I hasten to add here, that I have never seen any evidence to back this up. It is an urban legend with a life of its own.
Some brave souls have even tried to get into the market. I have given evidence on their behalf to the Motor Carrier Commission – because the taxi companies objected strenuously. By the way, the same companies also asked me to give the same evidence to support their application for more accessible taxis.
Four additional handyDART buses is really such a small addition as to be insignificant. But then Translink cannot afford to buy enough new buses anyway, so the handyDART system is only getting the same inadequate response as the rest of the bus system. Trouble is the people who really need it, really have no alternative. People are even less willing to give their own relatives a ride when they need it. It’s called “family fission” in the trade. Kids move away. People separate or divorce. The extended family is now extended geographically too.
There are no easy answers. But at least there ought to be a plan to tackle the situation. I know because I tried to write one. It was simply ignored. Not a priority. Go away and do some more research. Don’t ask us to do things that might call the wrath of the human rights brigade down on our necks (whether justified or not).