City extends para-transit service
Sadly I must quickly disabuse you if you jumped to the same conclusion I did. This story is about Richmond VA not Richmond BC.
Para-transit is the term of art for services that we call “handyDART”. Which, as its users never cease to point out, is not “handy” at all. In Richmond VA they call it “CARE”.
“CARE” vehicles can accommodate customers using wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, canes, guide dogs, or other mobility aids.
“The need for this service has grown beyond our expectations,” said GRTC Chief Executive Officer John Lewis. “Providing access to transportation services to those with disabilities provides access to opportunity and independence.”
I don’t know enough to make a specific comparison, but the US system is required to provide paratransit wherever there is conventional transit. This is actually, in geographical coverage, less onerous than the service area that handyDART provides. There are some places in this region where handyDART users can ask for a ride where conventional transit does not reach.
The main shortcoming of handyDART is that it manages to meet only the needs of a few of its potential clients. A lot more people would use it if the chance of getting a ride was better. Yet the rate of expansion does not meet the established need, let alone the growing needs of an aging population, and one where more patients are being given care in the community rather than in residential institutions.
At the same time, much of the development of the suburbs continues to be of low density, single family neighbourhoods. The most difficult type of development to serve well with conventional transit: a big bus with a well paid driver on a fixed route. handyDART uses small vehicles, the drivers are paid much less – but provide a lot more help to passengers – and they provide ” door to door” service. The bus comes to you. The cost per passenger of this quality of service is much higher than conventional transit, and since the fare is comparable, cost recovery much lower – or, if you prefer, the rate of subsidy much higher. So getting more handyDART service in a system which is already below essential capacity levels to meet existing conventional demand is very difficult.
Community shuttles were supposed to make a difference. The vehicles are roughly the same size as a handyDART van: the main difference is the lift – on the side on a shuttle, at the rear on a van. This enables handyDART to serve people who do not happen to live next to an accessible bus stop. Originally, the first shuttle routes were flexible: the bus could leave the fixed route to drop people closer to where they needed to be – a bit like the way conventional buses are allowed to drop women closer to their homes at night – except the small vehicle did not have to stay on the arterial road.
As part of the price to win labour peace in the wake of the four month transit strike, Translink committed the Community Shuttle business to CMBC and abandoned the idea of competitive tendering – which the strike had been about and which Translink “won”. That meant that although Community Shuttles retained the wage differential – and showed that you could recruit bus drivers without having to pay them so much – everything else about the shuttle routes was the same as a big bus. The cost per bus is cheaper, but I would expect that the cost per seat is probably comparable. The main benefit for CMBC was that it released some big buses from low ridership routes to use where overcrowding is the problem.
I think that one way we could make transit more attractive in places like Langley – or Richmond BC come to that – is to have a bus service that will come to you. Even if you are not disabled. In some places this has been happening for years. Rimouski, Quebec has a system called taxibus, for example. For some markets, paratransit has been very successful commercially – airport shuttles for instance, which work like shared ride taxis. Seattle has those – as do most major US airports. Firms compete to get the concession from the airport.
Increasing the number of potential riders actually helps solve one of most difficult problems of a shared ride systems. The more potential users, the greater the potential of finding “matches” in trip demands. Scheduling shared rides is not easy – but the falling cost of information technology and it’s increasing sophistication has made it easier. And there are some systems which work really well. Think of pizza deliveries, for example. Or parcel pick up by courier companies. It can be done.
It is not going to be cheap. But there will be social benefits that are well worth paying for. Mobility for people without cars will be improved significantly, ending a problem of social isolation that we do not seem to care about as much as, say, the UK. It could even improve labour participation rates (so we can appeal to the right wing a bit). It would reduce the need for able bodied people to own cars well past the age when it is safe to drive them – age of the cars as well as the people. (We do not test the cars of course, for safety. We do test the people but are reluctant to recommend they have their licences taken when they have no other alternative to get around.) We could increase the effective area that high speed transit systems can serve, by acting as a feeder to SkyTrain and West Coast Express. It would reduce the need for ever more parking space at WCE stations. It would increase transit mode share in the outer suburbs, where it has been persistently low for many years and is most difficult to change. And increasing transit mode share reduces the “need” for more roads. And above all it would
provide access to transportation services to those with disabilities – and thus provide access to opportunity and independence
Which is where we started.