Six months after making sweeping changes to how disabled people get around by transit in the rural area, many people are well-served, but some are being left at the curb.
Para Transpo partnered with three rural community support service agencies in April to provide trips within rural areas, but in the process cut out people who can’t transfer out of their wheelchairs or scooters into a vehicle.
The problem has led at least one Ottawa resident to speculate about filing a human rights complaint, according to Kanata North Coun. Marianne Wilkinson.
Wilkinson referenced the specter of a human rights case during a transit commission meeting on Oct. 17
“They haven’t sent it in yet, but I have been told by someone that they’re considering it, in that people are giving differential services … based on where they live,” Wilkinson said.
Jennifer Lockyer, transportation manager for Rural Ottawa South Support Services (ROSSS), said there’s a gap in the system now that Para Transpo has stopped doing rural-to-rural trips, because the community support services don’t have wheelchair-accessible vehicles.
Lockyer said the agreement signed six months ago between the three community support services and OC Transpo provided funding for the agencies in east, west and rural Ottawa to increase transit service for seniors and adults with physical disabilities.
However, Lockyer said it was clear the agencies can only serve residents who can transfer independently in and out of vehicles.
“That very much was laid out that we can’t provide transportation right now for people in wheelchairs because we don’t have the equipment or the expertise,” Lockyer said.
But after the agencies took over rural-to-rural transportation on April 1, Para Transpo stopped providing rural-to-rural trips altogether.
Now, rural residents who can’t transfer out of their wheelchair or scooter can only get to appointments using an accessible taxi. Para Transpo offers taxi discount coupons for its passengers, but the trips are sometimes more expensive than regular Para Transpo service.
“We weren’t under the impression (the agreement) was going to replace (Para Transpo), but it kind of did in the end. Para Transpo announced after the fact that they weren’t going to continue their rural-to-rural trips,” Lockyer said.
Pat Scrimgeour, manager of transit service planning and reporting, said OC Transpo and the community support service agencies have been discussing ways to provide rural-to-rural transportation for the affected passengers, but said a possible human rights case is not something that’s driving those talks.
“We don’t know anything about a human rights claim at all,” Scrimgeour said.
Wilkinson said she is glad OC Transpo is looking at the problem, because she agrees the restrictions amount to a human rights issue.
“I’m really concerned that they won’t take them to any rural location in Ottawa,” Wilkinson said. “I just don’t know how they’re getting there.”
There is no obligation for Para Transpo to provide this type of service for that small number of customers, said Scrimgeour.
“We’re looking into how best to accommodate those peoples’ travel needs, but there is no obligation,” Scrimgeour said.
“The policy decision taken by the (transit) commission is that Para Transpo service is provided for those trips between rural areas and urban areas,” Scrimgeour said.
Last year, there were fewer than 120 Para Transpo trips made by 19 customers who must remain in their wheelchair or scooter during the trip between two rural locations, Scrimgeour said. Between 80 and 90 per cent of the trips were made by four Para Transpo customers, he said.
“So that’s the total number of people we’re talking about here,” Scrimgeour said. “It’s a small number of people.”
Most of the trips are a short distance, including one-third of the trips within the village of Richmond. Those are the types of trips that rack up a lot of mileage on Para Transpo vehicles that must drive out from the urban area to take people several blocks, before driving back into the city.
“It’s going to be expensive (to operate),” Scrimgeour said.
Another thing to keep in mind is a change to the taxi bylaw that makes it obligatory for cabs to pick up disabled passengers in the rural area.
“Certainly, for some of the short trips, that becomes a decent alternative for travelers,” Scrimgeour said.
The option of providing a requirement or incentive for rural service providers to offer more accessible, wheelchair-friendly service was discussed, Scrimgeour said, but the city and the agencies decided to go a different route.
“We talked about that issue with them,” Scrimgeour said. “Their way of operating – partly with regular cars, partly with vans, partly with volunteers and partly with paid staff – wasn’t adaptable. They didn’t have the equipment needed to move the wheelchairs while they’re travelling. But we’re talking to them about it now.
“They, and we, together recognize there is a gap,” he said.
Whether that means Para Transpo will return to providing some rural-to-rural trips or the support services will begin to offer wheelchair-accessible service remains to be seen, Lockyer said. Regardless, she said she’s confident the city and the agencies will find a solution.
“I’m amazed with the working relationship that we have in the city, and we all see there’s a gap here. It might mean bringing in another partner, but the collaboration has been very open,” she said.
Lockyer said the agreement’s first six months have been successful despite the wheelchair accessibility issue.
The agreement transferred $379,515 of Para Transpo’s rural budget to the three agencies – Rural Ottawa South Support Services, the Eastern Ottawa Resource Centre and the Western Ottawa Community Resource Centre – to help them increase their service levels.
Beginning April 1, the agencies surpassed their target by more than 1,000 new rides, providing an additional 2,512 rides as a result of the city’s funding.
The money is covering vehicle maintenance and fuel, as well as extra staff to co-ordinate rides.
At the same time, the city put in a flat fare of $8.25 for rural Para Transpo trips. That far is lower than what passengers would have paid before for almost 94 per cent of rural Para Transpo trips. Previously, fares ranged from $4 to $18.25 depending on the distance between stops. By contrast, an urban Para Transpo trip is $3.25 or $4.25.
Lockyer said the agencies are trying to use more agency vans instead of volunteers in personal vehicles, because it’s more efficient. A volunteer driver often only takes one client at a time, whereas a van can take several clients to the same day program at once.
This system is also more efficient than Para Transpo, which rarely consolidated trips with multiple clients in one van. This meant that two or three Para Transpo vans would often all arrive at the same location with one passenger each, instead of having the clients come together.
Community support services also offer an advantage because they can provide cross-border trips outside the city of Ottawa, Lockyer said.
“If you have a client in Osgoode that needs to go to the Winchester hospital, the agencies can do that, where Para Transpo can’t,” she said.
But the support services still face challenges in the next six months of the pilot program.
Basic marketing is needed to attract former Para Transpo clients, Lockyer said. The agencies are currently offering a “first ride free” program to entice new clients, and are spreading the word that community support service transit is cost effective.
Lockyer said that depending on the mileage, some trips are actually cheaper than using Para Transpo, while long distances can be more expensive.
The agencies also have a limited schedule, only operating between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays, which they are trying to change. Lockyer said they are looking at adding Sunday “church runs.”