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Who Will Pay for Province’s Generous Plan for Full Accessibility?

by Mike Beggs
Posted to site January 16, 2010

With the draft report finally in and before Minister of Community and Social Services Madeleine Meilleur, Toronto taxi industry leaders say the high standards of accessible service called for in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) must be supported by government funding.

The draft report states that equivalent on-demand service standards should be met within five years; but industry members say they simply can’t bear the substantially higher purchase and operating costs of accessible taxis all on their own.

Both members of the Accessible Transportation Standards Development Committee, Royal Taxi GM Spiros Bastas, and Dignity Transportation president Lloyd Pollock agree that the taxi industry should not carry this burden by itself, nor should customers be forced to carry the cost through a more expensive fare on all rides.

Bastas argues that if it’s a public or social responsibility, the expense should be borne by all of society, and that, “the government has to provide subsidies to pay the extra costs.” He maintains there is no need for all 5,000 Toronto taxis to be accessible.

“It’s unnecessary, and 300 would be a more accurate number for the city of Toronto,” he told Taxi News in a recent interview.

According to Pollock, “As compared to a sedan (operating costs are) about 25 percent higher, and it depends on the type of conversion you get — it can be more. And I can buy a mini-van for $20,000, while an accessible is $55,000, so it’s double the (upfront) cost.”

“Then, there’s the stigma,” he adds. “I get calls from (able-bodied) people saying, ‘I can’t go in an accessible van,” he relates.

Several sources agree that in smaller communities with one or two sedan taxis, operators could simply not afford to convert to wheelchair accessible vans, without government grants.

Serving the small town of Wawa, Ontario with a single cab, Kookies Kab owner Louise Kohlbacher says that the idea of having to equip every vehicle to serve the disabled is “ridiculous”.

“In a year, I might drive a handicapped person twice,” she relates. “It’s going to put a lot of taxi companies out of business. I wouldn’t do it. It will be a huge impact on everybody. You will have to have a huge taxi company, with a big revenue.”

Although her mini-van can carry people in wheelchairs, Wawa’s disabled community already has access to the provincially-funded “Parabus” service.

“Everybody should have the right to be moved around,” she adds. “But me personally, I don’t think it’s up to taxis. I think it should be up to Parabus. I don’t think that’s very realistic.”

“I’m looking at my van and if I try to install a ramp, I’d lose seating for three people. So that puts me back into a compact car.”

Having previously driven an accessible taxi for seven years, Toronto cabby John Dufort agrees the ideals of the AODA Act are unrealistic.

“That’s really great for everybody to say have more, but who’s paying for it,” he asks. “Years ago when I started (driving accessible), you had a grant from the provincial and federal governments. Who can afford it in this day and age, and recessionary times?”

And he suggests that with a subsidized WheelTrans run only needing to be booked one day in advance, and the buses running from 6 a.m. to 1 or 2 a.m. daily, there “really isn’t that much” call for on-demand taxi service amongst the disabled.

“No, because most of the people would rather take WheelTrans,” he adds. “Who wants to pay the full cab price? Are you going to spend a bus ticket for WheelTrans, or $25 for a cab ride?”

Furthermore, he wonders, “Why can’t WheelTrans provide more rides. It’s just a matter of budgeting for them? Why doesn’t the City increase their budget and let them handle on-demand runs through TTC, instead of putting the burden on the taxi industry? The crux of the matter is to find how many requests the TTC turns down.”

The TTC’s general supervisor for WheelTrans Bill Frost could not be reached for comment.

Responsible for putting Toronto’s first accessible taxi on the road in 1990, Pollock concurs that the AODA works in theory, but that some of the goals are too lofty, and burdensome on the individual operator.

“It’s not fair. He goes out of business,” he comments. “I’ve got a disability, but by the same token there has to be some reality.”

“Then, there’s the fact if they train and make every taxi in Toronto accessible, it will drive people out of the business,” he adds. “There is a lot of training in there, everybody (including office staff) will have to undergo training. I think they’re going too far.”

Pollock notes that, “We got encouraged by the government going ahead in 1990, and within a year funding had dropped by the wayside. So tell me, was it fair?”

And while he feels cabbies would need ongoing federal funding, he doubts that will happen.

“I think Canada is one of the last (Western) countries which hasn’t come around to transportation funding, from the federal level down,” he observes. “They have it in Europe and the U.S.”

Louis Seta, likewise, discounts the prospect of any such help from the government.

“That’s what the taxi industry is here for, as an ATM for the City and the province,” he says, tersely. “They’re not going to offer grants, because they don’t care. And that’s what you always have to accept in the taxi industry.”

James Bisson, manager of vehicle licensing for the city of Mississauga is one AODA committee member who feels, “there was a really good compromise struck. It’s a very difficult piece to go ahead with, because it’s hard to make a percentage of a taxi plate accessible. I think it was a lot of work to come up with something that was (agreeable).”

Bisson says the potential burden on the cab industry was addressed by Committee chair Al Cormier to the drivers.

“I think that with the proper licensing scheme in place and the ability for them to earn a living with it, they will find ways around it,” he offers.

“It’s something they have to do. It’s a burden on all businesses. This is something we all have to carry, to ensure everyone has equal rights in Canada.”

According to Bisson, under the draft AODA, “Not every vehicle has to be wheelchair accessible, it only has to meet the needs of the disabled.”

“This could be simply lift chairs, lifted into the van, or scooters or wheelchairs put in back of the van,” he explains.

Of the argument that there really isn’t a big call for the $25, on-demand wheelchair accessible taxi ride, he responds, “It’s an option — as we get people with disabilities into the work force who can’t drive their own vehicle. I have to go to a dinner, why should I have to wait for WheelTrans when I can afford a taxi, just like any other citizen in Toronto? In some cases, right now, there’s not an option for these people.”

“As we get them working, we don’t want them to be hampered by the fact there’s no accessible vehicles to bring them to work,” he continues. “I’ve met a number of people in Mississauga who have had exactly that problem. They don’t want to be using TransHelp all the time and they want to get out.”

He acknowledges it’s “not easy” for the individual operator to meet the proposed standards, but stresses, “it depends on what the Minister comes out with.”

According to Bisson, the International Association of Taxicab Regulators has been addressing this issue for years, and that their 2010 conference in Chicago is going to be focused on Accessibility and Mobility.

Kristen Tedesco, issues and media management and evaluation, communications and marketing branch, Ministry of Community and Social Services says that, “Standards under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act will be phased in between now and 2025, allowing businesses and other organizations time to plan and improve accessibility over time, in order to achieve our goal.

“And the province is committed to supporting the public and private sector by offering education and tools and resources to help organizations understand and meet accessibility requirements.”

She suggests that, “While the AODA does not provide funding to implement accessibility initiatives, accessibility can be integrated into many investments from the province to support municipal infrastructure.”

“People who have disabilities spend $25-billion every year in Canada,” she adds. “Businesses, like taxis, stand to increase their customer bases by improving accessibility. With the number of Baby Boomers nearing retirement age, those numbers are going to rapidly increase. There’s a market no business can afford to overlook.”

Seta stresses at this point, the Disability Act is, “not a done deal.”

“I still think there’s a lot of work to be done on that. In the meantime there’s other groups across the province looking at it,” he says. “And there’s a provincial election in 2011. They will probably put a 10 or 15-year freeze on it.”

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