Sunday, July 8, 2012

Improving safety on buses for wheelchair users

Warning: There is a lot of technical bus-speak (jargon) in this entry. If you don't know your bus manufacturers and models... well, good luck to you.


Recently there was a survey about wheelchair access on buses. In particular, it was asking about what can be done for buses to make them safer for wheelchair users. The results of the study are meant to guide bus manufacturers in future designs.

It is encouraging that wheelchair access is being taken seriously. I find that too often, people with disabilities are neglected in the public transportation industry and when studies like these are done, it is a good sign.

However, sometimes I wonder about how such studies are being done and how certain things can undermine their usefulness.

The survey I saw asked a lot about wheelchair ramps for buses. In particular, the people behind the survey wanted to know whether there were any issues with the steepness of the ramps, the width of the entrance, and so on. It did not seem to be very specific though, and did not take into account the different types of buses that are already in existence.

Near the end of the study, it asked for the participant's state. Being from Canada, "British Columbia" was not one of the choices on the list. I suggested to someone that perhaps selecting "Washington" might make sense, since their major city, Seattle, uses literally the same bus manufacturer as Vancouver (New Flyer Industries from Winnipeg, Manitoba).

That was when things got a bit testy. I was given a "lesson" about how surveys must be completely accurate and approximations such as these are not acceptable.

I understand that, but given the content of the survey (which deals mainly with the functions of the bus) and the fact that the two major cities share the same manufacturer AND make/model (New Flyer D40LF) and, in fact, the same wheelchair accessibility mechanisms, I wonder if it would have affected the survey's results.

In addition to that, though, I also question the validity of the location question itself.

Within the state of Washington and the province of British Columbia, I have taken public transit in more than a few cities under different transit agencies. Even when they are neighboring agencies, their vehicles can be quite different. It is actually more of a freak coincidence that Seattle and Vancouver use the same make/model.

An example is Washington state's Whatcom County. Their vehicles are very different from Seattle or Vancouver's. The procedures required to accommodate the vehicle are VERY different. In this case, if I was indeed living in Washington and in Whatcom County, my answer of "Washington" would not have been helpful at all because it is so different from Seattle, another city just down the highway in the same state.

Similarly, in British Columbia, Vancouver's transit agency has different vehicles compared to its neighbors in the Fraser Valley and Greater Victoria. If the survey had asked for a province, answering "British Columbia" would not have been helpful either due to the differences even though they're all geographically next to each other.

The problem with that survey is that it fails to ask what type of bus the participant tends to use. As a survey geared towards bus manufacturers, one might think that would be a helpful thing to know. The accessibility functions of a New Flyer D40LF bus are very different from a New Flyer D40LFR, Orion V, NovaBus LFS, Dennis Trident and so forth. Not every person knows the difference between those buses but knowing at least "high floor or low floor" or "single front door or double front door" would have made a big difference.

This is not to completely justify using a state/province approximation, but isn't this information a LOT more important than location? Shouldn't the focus be on that instead of something petty (and ultimately unhelpful) like location?

I like this survey. I really do.

...but the problem is that it still has a lot of wrinkles to work out, and I feel that the people behind the creation of the survey does not have a full understanding of how there is a lack of standard in public transit vehicles in North America.



I have also taken public transportation in a few other countries and paid attention to the vehicles there (since I am a bit of a transit geek). Other countries seem to have a standard for buses, even if the manufacturers are different.

The bus manufacturers I have seen abroad include: Gillig, Dennis, Neoplan, Hino, Volvo, Leyland, Hyundai, Daewoo, Kia and Toyota.

Many of the countries use a larger variation of these manufacturers than a state/province does in North America, yet they have managed to standardize things such as wheelchair access throughout the country. Thus, it is ironic that this survey would work PERFECTLY in those countries but not in North America. What gives?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Save the TaxiSavers

One news story that has been making the rounds recently is TransLink's cancellation of the TaxiSaver program.

For those who do not know what it is, the TaxiSaver program is designed for people with disabilities who are eligible for HandyDart, Metro Vancouver's para-transit service. TaxiSaver is supposed to complement that service for instances where HandyDart is not an option, such as for last-minute or unplanned trips, by subsidizing 50% of the cost of a cab fare.

Even though I do not use HandyDart or TaxiSaver myself, I know some people who do. It did not surprise me one bit when the news was met with outrage.

One of the biggest issues facing people with disabilities who take public transit is planning. Able-bodied people can "hop on" and "hop off" whenever they want, but people with disabilities have to consider multiple factors:

  • How accessible are the bus stops? (In the City of Vancouver, over 50% of the bus stops outside the downtown core are not designated as accessible.)
  • How accessible is the destination? Is there an accessible place to get off the bus?
  • Do the vehicles' accessibility features work for the destination? (ie. A ramp/lift may not work well for a rural road or roads without sidewalks.)
  • Are the bus stops on a slope? Can a wheelchair user handle that slope?
  • For people with other conditions (such as vision impairments), are there dangers around the bus stops that the person may not be aware of?
  • etc.

As you can see, it is not a simple procedure. This is where HandyDart would usually come in, because they would have specialized service that would drop off the passenger at a safe spot.

However, there are major shortcomings of HandyDart:

  • Trips must be booked well in advance: at least 24 hours and sometimes up to a week.*
  • Trips make multiple stops and detours throughout a city to pick up other passengers. It is not unheard of for a simple one-way trip to take hours.
  • Despite the duration, regular adult fares apply for the trip (while concession fares can be used for trips using conventional transit).
  • Trips operate on strict schedules. If you miss your outbound or return trip, you missed it. It is not as simple as "waiting for the next one."*

I italicized several points because those are the most important ones.

TaxiSaver's major advantage is countering HandyDart's required advanced booking. Unlike HandyDart, TaxiSaver does NOT require a booking well in advance. It allows for spontaneous last-minute trips. This is especially important for people who may be called in to work at the last minute, people whose doctor just opened up a last-minute appointment and younger people with disabilities who have active social lives. Without TaxiSaver, many of these people would not be able to make it to their workplace, doctor's offices or friends' gatherings.

The other major advantage is not having to adhere to a strict schedule. How many times have you gone to a mall and found something cool and need to spend some unexpected time to take a look at it? Or how many times has something happened (ie. you lost your wallet) and need to spend extra time to resolve the situation? HandyDart's strict schedule does not allow for this kind of flexibility, and once the ride is gone, it is gone. It is not like a bus, where you can wait for the next trip. TaxiSaver would allow for things like these, and allow someone to find his/her way home even if the HandyDart ride is gone.

One of TransLink's reasons for eliminating the TaxiSaver is that the fleet is now accessible, unlike a decade ago.

However, they are forgetting the very fact that HandyDart (and, in turn, TaxiSaver) exists. The service exists for those who cannot take conventional transit without assistance due to age or disability. Therefore, if a last-minute trip is needed, then you are effectively "throwing the person to the wolves," so to speak.

It is not a secret that many of TransLink's routes are overcrowded. For someone with a disability, that is a near insurmountable challenge. If a person with a disability is "thrown to the wolves," he/she may be jostled (especially startling if you are blind), there may not even be space for someone to get on (especially for wheelchair users who cannot "squeeze on" like able-bodied people), there may be too much noise around to pick out individual noises like stop announcements (bad for those who have hearing or visual impairments) and so on.

Imagine if you fit into one of those examples I just listed. How would YOU cope on conventional public transit, if you were forced to?

You probably would not cope well at all.

Over time, the bad experiences may pile up and you may decide to simply stay home instead of joining your friends.

You may decide to say "no" to your boss wanting you to come in for a last-minute shift. This may cost you your job.

You may not be able to go to a last-minute doctor's appointment, and continue to suffer from an illness, an injury or pain.

Is it not obvious, then, why getting rid of the TaxiSaver program would be catastrophically bad?

(Ironically enough, TaxiSaver costs TransLink less to run per trip than HandyDart; in other words, TaxiSaver is MORE cost-efficient than HandyDart!)

This is yet another situation where it is obvious that people without disabilities are automatically assuming that they know what is best for people with disabilities without any knowledge of the issues that they face. It makes me wonder why people without disabilities are often put in charge of many services for people with disabilities. The outcry in response to the TaxiSaver's proposed cancellation is proof of a situation where those without disabilities simply "don't get it" sometimes.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Unhappy driver

As a person with a disability, there are often moments when something happens and it bugs you. You may not know why but that feeling usually does not go away. This is one of those times.

The other day, I was headed to the University of British Columbia's bus loop. I had a connecting community shuttle bus right before; because of the boarding procedures for wheelchair users on those vehicles, I was racing to catch my connecting bus.

The bus was still there and people were boarding. Several others were chasing the bus as well. The front doors were still open. I got there and some of the people chasing the bus cut in front of my and hopped on. The driver let them on, no questions asked. He then realized that I wanted to get on too, and lowered the ramp. He was visibly unhappy.

For the first minute or so after I got on, he kept mumbling about how he was about to leave and I'm making him late, and how I should've waited for the next bus (even though the front doors were still open and the bus did not pull away).

I usually would understand the frustration but he proceeded to let other "chasers" on to the bus, both at the bus loop and for the next few stops – none of them got the third degree like I did. And in fact, one of the "chasers" got to the bus AFTER the doors had closed and the bus was pulling out. The driver stopped and let him on without giving him any sort of comment or remark.

I am not sure if I have a case here but this situation bothered me a lot. He was letting able-bodied late-comers get on the bus but because I'm in a wheelchair, he thinks I should be denied the ride and forced on to the next bus. It felt as if everyone else has a higher priority to board than I do, even though the bus was quite empty at the time.

I think I would've been less bothered by this if all the other late-comers got the same treatment.

So... Should this situation even bug me?