Louise Bark attended her first TTC accessibility forum about eight years ago. “It’s been a huge change over the years,” she says. by Ben SpurrTransportation Reporter
Wed., Sept. 14, 2016
For most transit riders, problems on the TTC are an inconvenience. But for people who use mobility devices or have physical or cognitive disabilities, when the transit system fails, it can severely limit their autonomy, and even be dangerous.
On Thursday night, transit riders with disabilities will get a chance to air their concerns at the TTC’s accessibility forum, an annual event the agency holds to update customers and collect feedback on its efforts to create a barrier-free transit system.
With only nine years to go until provincial law dictates the TTC must be fully accessible, advocates say that the transit agency still has a lot of work to do, but it has made some progress.
“When I first started coming to the forums, I came to the forums out of anger. I was so frustrated,” said Louise Bark, who uses a wheelchair and who attended her first TTC forum about eight years ago. “It’s been a huge change over the years.”
Bark sits on the TTC’s Advisory Committee on Accessible Transit, but spoke to the Star as a private citizen because she was not authorized to speak on behalf of the committee.
When she first started using the transit system a decade ago, finding an accessible subway station was nearly impossible, and trying to navigate alternative routes provided by the TTC was confusing.
But now, more subway stations have elevators and accessible entrances, and as of last year the TTC’s entire bus fleet is made up of low-floor, accessible vehicles. By the time the TTC finishes taking delivery of its new Bombardier light rail vehicles, scheduled for 2019, the streetcar network will be accessible as well.
According to Bark, one of the areas in which the TTC has made the biggest strides is communications, including by providing online service alerts that notify customers when elevators or accessible entrances aren’t working.
Accessibility advocate and lawyer David Lepofsky said there are still several “big ticket items” the agency needs to address however, most significantly the fact that only 34 of 69 subway stations are fully accessible. Compounding the problem is that facilities at the accessible stations aren’t always reliable, he said, which can strand people who use mobility devices.
“People who go to work in an office building and have to ride an elevator every day don’t wonder, “Gee I wonder if the elevator is going to work today. . . You just go in and the elevators work,” he said.
“That’s not the experience with TTC elevators and escalators and so on, and that’s been an issue for years.”
Between 2001 and 2007 Lepofsky, who is blind, successfully petitioned the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal to compel the TTC to consistently provide audio announcements of its transit stops. The cases led to the creation of the annual accessibility forum.
Lepofsky said he hoped all of the TTC board members would attend the event on Thursday so that they could better understand the “front-line experiences” of TTC riders with disabilities.
The Star asked all 10 board members if they planned to go to the forum. As of Wednesday evening, four TTC chair Josh Colle, Councillor Joe Mihevc, and citizen members Alan Heisey and Rick Byers had confirmed.
Three others said they couldn’t make it because of scheduling conflicts, one gave no reason why he couldn’t attend, and another said he would go if he had time. One board member didn’t respond by deadline.
According to the TTC’s 2016 Accessibility Plan Status Report, the agency will spend $462.8 million on major accessibility projects over the next decade. The projects, which represent about 5 per cent of the TTC’s 10-year capital budget, include elevator overhauls, renovations to bus stops, and upgrades to route announcement systems.
The bulk of the money, or $429 million, will be spent on extensive accessibility retrofits at subway stations that will include elevators, sliding doors, fare gates, ramps, and signage.
According to the TTC’s latest status report, the agency has met 23 of the 41 goals laid out in its 2014 accessibility plan. It’s fallen behind on one important target however the agency planned to complete accessibility retrofits at nine stations by 2018, but the commission now anticipates it will only retrofit six stations during that time.
TTC spokesman Brad Ross said the agency will meet the deadline set by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) to make the entire system accessible by 2025.
One topic that’s sure to be discussed at Thursday’s forum is a major planned shift to how Wheel-Trans operates. Due to an aging population and expanded eligibility criteria under the AODA, the paratransit system is facing an unprecedented growth in demand that the TTC says it will soon become unsustainable. In the last five years alone, demand has shot up by 29 per cent.
Under the “Family of Services” model released earlier this year, the TTC plans to shift half of current Wheel-Trans customers onto the conventional system by 2025. According to the new model, which will be phased in gradually, instead of taking all customers door-to-door, Wheel-Trans would take those who qualify to an accessible transit stop, and they could complete their journey from there.
The model will cut costs, but the TTC says it will also give Wheel-Trans customers greater autonomy.
Terri-Lynn Langdon, and accessible transit advocate, said she’s worried the TTC is “putting the cart before the horse” by starting to integrate Wheel-Trans with the conventional system before the entire network is ready for people with disabilities. She said routes deemed accessible aren’t always accessible in practice, and the new model “doesn’t take into account what happens if an elevator breaks down.”
Ross said the new Wheel-Trans system won’t put any passengers at risk. “We will not put customers in a situation where their trip involves a station or mode that is not accessible,” he said.
Making the TTC more accessible
The subway gap
Barrier: The new Toronto Rocket subway trains sometimes leave a dangerously large gap between the door and platform.
What the TTC is doing: All Rocket trains have been lowered to be closer to the platform. In 2015 the TTC built platform ramps at Eglinton Station, where the platform is abnormally low. The TTC is looking into installing “platform gap fillers” at other stations.
Barrier: Bus drivers aren’t permitted to let customers with disabilities out at stops deemed not accessible.
What the TTC is doing: Of its 8,700 bus stops, 83 per cent are accessible, and the TTC plans to add more. The federal government has earmarked $10 million in federal transit funding for TTC bus stop accessibility improvements.
Barrier: Designated priority seating for people with disabilities isn’t always enforced.
What the TTC is doing: The agency has an ongoing education campaign about the blue priority seats. Operators can ask customers to vacate priority areas but won’t compel them to. Such customers may have an unseen disability and require the seat.
Barrier: Only 34 of 69 subway stations are accessible
What the TTC is doing: Stations are being retrofitted but each one takes five years to renovate. The TTC says the process is complicated by the need to acquire property, install power supplies for elevators, and relocate underground utilities.