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Spotlight on Wheel-Trans and AODA at TTC Accessibility Forum

September 19, 2016
by Sophia Reuss

On September 15, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and Advisory Committee on Accessible Transit (ACAT) held the ninth annual TTC Public Forum on Accessibility at the Allstream Centre at Exhibition Place. Serving to connect TTC and ACAT with the general public, the open Forum offered participants the opportunity to directly share their thoughts and concerns with some of the City’s top transit executives.

This year, Andy Byford, Chief Executive Officer of the TTC, Chris Upfold, Deputy CEO and Chief Customer Officer of the TTC, Eve Wiggins, Head of Wheel-Trans, and Mazin Aribi, 2016 ACAT Chair, gathered feedback about the status of and possible improvements for TTC accessibility initiatives, including the Wheel-Trans Modernization project and Easier Access.

Moderated by Avril Fisken, much of the discussion revolved around outstanding issues with the Wheel-Trans program and compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). “We not only want to comply with AODA, we want to comply with the spirit of AODA,” Byford expressed to the Forum participants.

While Toronto’s transit network has improved significantly with respect to accessibility during the past several years34 of 69 subway stations, all conventional bus routes, and the entire bus fleet are now accessiblethe city has a long way to go until its transit network is barrier-free by 2025, as mandated by AODA. Despite recent improvements, half of our subway stations are still not fully accessible, requiring improvements including new elevators, as well as retrofitted fare gates and ramps.

Meanwhile, the last five years have seen demand for Wheel-Trans service increase by nearly 30 per cent, with what the TTC deems an “unprecedented” increase of 12.4 per cent in 2015. Combined with an aging population and the AODA-mandated changes to eligibility for services like Wheel-Trans, growing accessibility demand will require a significant overhaul of the program, Wiggins acknowledged at the Forum.

Introduced in February this year, the Wheel-Trans Modernization initiative is a ten-year strategy that aims to ensure the program’s long-term sustainability, improve compliance with AODA, and expand and improve Wheel-Trans to offer differently abled customers efficient, easier, and dignified opportunities for travel. While many attendees praised Byford and Wiggins for their commitment to accessibility, they also noted that Wheel-Trans program is far from perfect. “If we were meeting AODA standards, we wouldn’t have to be here tonight,” one participant commented.

One participant also suggested that a notification service be implemented, allowing customers waiting for Wheel-Trans vehicles to avoid spending either too much time waiting outside or rushing to get outside once Wheel-Trans arrives. An app similar to Uber is one solution, a participant suggested. “We are looking at smartphone applications and updated technology,” Wiggins responded.

Many participants noted that new bike lanes, like the ones on Bloor, have obstructed Wheel-Trans vehicles and created new accessibility barriers. Wheel-Trans vehicles are ticketed for parking in bike lanes, but often have no other way to pick up customers. “Wheel-Trans is not always consulted by the City in advance of bike lanes,” Wiggins explained, emphasizing that greater collaboration will be crucial to creating an accessible city.

Other suggestions for the Wheel-Trans program included affixing decals or magnetic siding to participating Wheel-Trans vehicles, overhauling the registration process, changing the regulation around suspensions from Wheel-Trans services, increasing the size of the call centre to decrease wait times for registration and customer service, and allowing users to customize and update their preferred routes and destinations online. ?”We have doubled the size of our call centre in the past three years [to deal with increased demand for Wheel-Trans services],” Wiggins said, but acknowledged that “we’re not serving you as you deserve to be served.”

While Wheel-Trans related comments dominated the Forum, many participants expressed frustration over the stigmatization of disabilities. “The TTC should put an anti-ableism policy in place,” one participant suggested. “Accessibility is a right not an option,” said another participant, echoing the language used in AODA advocacy circles.

Wiggins acknowledged the need for improved communication between Wheel-Trans drivers, operators at the call centres, and TTC employees. “We need training for Wheel-Trans operators to be sensitive, and that training will come this fall,” Wiggins announced.

Beyond sensitivity training, the Forum participants grilled Byford about inaccessible subway stations like Warden and Islington, which Byford said “need to be completely rebuilt… They are the most difficult stations to do, but we guarantee that we will be able to finish the elevator program,” Byford said.

At the end of the Forum, Byford laid out five TTC commitments that came out of participants’ concerns. Byford committed the TTC to “continuing to put accessibility at the heart of the TTC’s growth, ensuring that the 2025 deadline of completely accessible transit systems is met, ensuring that funding remains guaranteed and fighting for more funding, acting on public feedback, and continuing to demonstrate personal commitment to accessibility.”

“I think the Forum today went very well, it was well attended with a lot of good feedback, suggestions, and some complaints that need to be addressed,” Aribi told UT in an interview. “Some are an easy fix, and some are a longterm fix, [but] all in all, it’s public transit, and it should be accessible to all,” Aribi concluded.

“[The Forum] has changed so much since I joined the TTC three years ago. There used to be a lot of yelling and a lot more upset, unhappy customers venting frustration. It’s really more of a dialogue now, customers are coming up with some amazing suggestions. We know that we don’t have all the ideas,” Wiggins told UT.

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