I love living in a city, and I love visiting cities. For me, getting around is generally convenient on public transportation – we’ve come a long way from walking two miles to the once-an-hour streetcar stops of yesteryear. Sure, we all like to complain when public transit doesn’t go the way we think it should, and we have a right to complain when drivers are consistently late, give us truly terrible directions to where we need to go (“over there” is not helpful), or leave us sitting on a bus stop bench in the summer heat. But over all, I have been fairly lucky in my public transit experiences in Edmonton, in New York City, and in other cities I have traveled.
Most large cities have a Paratransit service that provides assistance to those who are unable to use public transportation for some or all trips due to a physical or cognitive disability; Edmonton is no exception. Where I grew up in BC, I took our Paratransit regularly from school because I lived too far to walk and there was no bus service available; I have chosen not to sign up for the DATS service in Edmonton, because I believe public transportation meets my needs nicely.
A comment I posted on Twitter today, and have voiced in the past, has gone something like this: Why would a blind person regularly take Paratransit when their city has a good, steady, reliable public transportation system? I have received many answers, ranging from “the bus would drop me off on the far side of a busy highway” to “I would have to take six buses and a train to get where I need to go” to “Not everyone is as mobile or independent as you.” All of these made me feel like I was a terrible person for asking such questions, and up until very recently I couldn’t figure out what got me so frustrated about the whole thing. Now that I know… I honestly don’t feel any better; in fact, I feel angrier.
Using Edmonton’s DATS system as an example, you can prebook no earlier than 3 days before your trip and must have it booked by noon the day before your trip, unless you “subscribe” to a trip you need to take regularly. If you need to cancel, you have to give at least 2 hours notice. This doesn’t give much notice for on-the-fly concerns, but is quite likely used to keep people from forgetting about their trips if it is booked a month in advance.
But what bothers me most is the seemingly consistent unreliability of DATS that I have seen in the 10 years I have lived here. I have seen people get dropped off 15 minutes late for an event, and then have their ride home arrive 20 minutes after that, so they couldn’t participate in the 90-minute activity they planned. One friend told me that he could book a DATS vehicle to pick him up at 5:00, and it could arrive anytime between 4:00-7:00. I once met someone who was waiting for a scheduled DATS vehicle when I walked into the gym for a workout and was still waiting when I walked out over an hour later. And I have seen this and heard about it over and over and over again from those who use the system regularly, usually accompanied by a resigned sigh.
Do we not deserve better?
And not only us, but those who may be unable to speak for themselves. Do they not deserve better?
It is not that blind people taking Paratransit are bad blind people, abusing the system and not using skills they should already know; I don’t think this in the majority of cases. But it is that the Paratransit systems here and in other cities seem to be rigid in their regulations and lax on their reliability, and from what I have been told it is almost always the office staff who are the most abrupt and impatient when a frustrated passenger calls to inquire about the status of their ride.
This does not appear to be unique to Edmonton, though other cities may have different problems. I would honestly like to speak to someone who has had consistently good experiences with a service like DATS in their city, because it would be great to hear some good news about it. I don’t know that there are easy answers, except to say that the idea of Paratransit is a good one, though the execution needs some work. I know my question has been all wrong…
When are we ALL going to stand up and request changes to a system that is obviously not working? Our time is valuable too.