Gwen Lee said she lives in fear of the times when HandyDART calls her to say that a taxi has been sent, instead of a HandyDART, to pick up her disabled son from his day program.
Lee spoke at TransLink’s board of directors meeting, held Wednesday (December 9) at TransLink's head office. Representatives of the HandyDART Riders’ Alliance and the HandyDART drivers’ union suggested that TransLink not renew its contract with MVT Canadian Bus Inc., the company that currently runs HandyDART. It was the second time that TransLink made its board meeting public, and HandyDART riders, their caregivers, and family members packed the audience.
“Taxi service is not a safe and appropriate mode of transportation for people with special needs,” said Lee. Her son Geoffrey sat beside her while she spoke to the board.
Taxis replace HandyDART
“For 25 years Geoffrey was autistic, has been travelling on the HandyDART bus, travelling to and from Vancouver and Burnaby to his day program each weekday.” Lee said that in the past taxis were used only in an emergency situation, but TransLink’s more frequent use of taxis in place of HandyDARTs means that her son is “vulnerable to emotional and psychological abuse” because he is left waiting longer and is in the care of a taxi driver, none of whom are properly trained to deal with passengers with special needs, Lee suggested.
Bob Chitrenky, president of the drivers’ union, said in an interview that TransLink took 10,000 hours away from HandyDART drivers and redirected those hours towards adapted taxi services.
Several issues raised
Nearly a dozen people who signed up to speak during the public input session were there to express their discontent with HandyDART services. Complaints included late pickups and unfriendly HandyDART phone-room employees.
Bet Thuason, a Vancouver resident and HandyDART rider, said that HandyDART riders who voice concerns to the call centre are met with aggression.
Calls to restore HandyDART funding were also made, which the Riders’ Alliance said has resulted in HandyDART service hours being frozen since 2009.
Involve riders in decision-making
In an interview before the meeting, Beth McKellar, coordinator of the HandyDART Riders’ Alliance, said that it’s not the drivers of HandyDART that she is opposed to, but rather “the inner workings of the call centre,” operated by MVT Canadian Bus. Other riders echoed her sentiments, and one woman, while addressing the board, broke into tears as she praised the drivers.
McKellar also stressed the need for disabled riders to have decision-making power within HandyDART operations. TransLink’s current Access Transit Users Advisory Committee includes disabled transit users and community support workers, but does not have decision-making power within HandyDART.
Merrilee Ashworth, the manager of Access Transit Advisory Committee was present in the audience, listened intently to the feedback from HandyDART riders. She declined to comment on the issues raised when asked after the meeting.
Bring HandyDART in-house
In 2009, TransLink contracted MVT Canadian Bus, a U.S. company, to administer HandyDART service through to 2017. Prior to the 2009 contract with MVT Canadian Bus, HandyDART was run cooperatively by multiple non-profits. Today, MVT Canadian Bus fields calls and dispatches HandyDART vehicles and adapted taxis. Chitrenky, president of the drivers’ union said to the board that once the MVT contract is up, TransLink should bring HandyDART in-house.
A 2013 report released by the drivers’ union, written by urban planner Eric Doherty, said that the freeze resulted in a 600 percent increase in trip denials.
The report said that “TransLink has cut the HandyDART service budget… in response to the transit funding crisis, and plans to keep service hours frozen for the next decade.”
In an interview with the Straight before the meeting, Doherty said that MVT Canadian Bus recently changed the criteria for what it considers a trip denial, and he has been unable to compare the latest data with the 2013 data. But, he said “the anecdotal evidence” on trip denial, “is that it’s getting worse,” adding that “if we’re going to have good service, either [HandyDART should be run by the] public sector or HandyDART riders should be directly managing the system.”
TransLink spokesperson Jennifer Morland said that the company's data shows that during the past year, it's reduced the number of unfilled HandyDART trip requests by over 80 percent. She also said that based on customer surveys, HandyDART satisfaction is increasing.
“2015 results say that 79 percent of surveyed customers are giving an eight or 10 out of 10,” said Morland, who admitted that she did not know how many riders were surveyed.
TransLink board chair Barry Forbes said that he was moved by the stories that HandyDART riders shared at the meeting and that the board is concerned.
“We need to engage with folks more,” he said. “We had an offer to want to work with us more in the future, and we welcome that opportunity.”
“It’s through the eyes and the ears and the speaking of our customers that we’re going to be able to do a better job,” Forbes said.
Forbes also noted that in 2016 TransLink will begin evaluating future plans, and that at the end of the MVT Canadian Bus contract they would consider all options, including the possibility of bringing HandyDART in-house.