TransLink’s decision to carry more HandyDart passengers via taxi was both jeered and cheered at the transportation authority’s annual general meeting Wednesday.
HandyDart service levels have been frozen in recent years, but TransLink last year began dispatching more rides to taxis rather than HandyDart mini-vans and has just committed an extra $1 million to boost the share of taxi rides to nearly five per cent.
Officials argue taxis are more flexible, cheaper and help the system reduce the number of service denials, which have soared in recent years as a result of a funding freeze.
But South Surrey videographer Alison MacLean said she was re-injured when a HandyDart-dispatched taxi driver jammed a senior with a walker into the same cab she was taking to Peace Arch Hospital last summer.
“Taxis should only carry one passenger, but they’re not doing that because it’s all about cash flow,” said MacLean, who used HandyDart in 2009 and again in 2013 while recovering from knee surgery.
“I saw a marked difference in the quality of service and access and everything else,” she said. “I was shocked – I didn’t understand how it could erode so drastically in three years.”
Anmore resident Kimberley Yanko said her developmentally disabled son is house-bound because he’s denied HandyDart service 40 per cent of the time.
“It’s deplorable,” Yanko told TransLink executives. “I challenge each and every one of you to get in a wheelchair and not get out of it for a week and try to access your own system and see how that goes.”
Other speakers, including unionized HandyDart drivers who have consistently fought the taxi shift as a threat to union jobs, urged TransLink to reconsider.
But Jill Weiss, chair of the City of Vancouver’s Persons With Disabilities Committee, applauded the TransLink strategy and urged officials to commit even more money to taxis.
She noted they cost half as much per ride as regular HandyDart and don’t cost TransLink money when a passenger isn’t on board.
“When you’re paying for a taxi you pay only for the ride,” Weiss said. “You’re only paying for what you get. You don’t have any waste. You don’t have any deadheading.”
A 2012 audit called for more use of taxis as a key way TransLink could become more efficient and serve more disabled and elderly passengers.
Weiss said the tactic is an international best practice.
“In San Francisco they use 50 per cent taxis,” Weiss said. “They provide the same number of rides we do for half the amount of money.”
B.C. Coalition of People With Disabilities executive director Jane Dyson also said she “fully supports” the taxi strategy, adding improved taxi driver training has made it safer.
“For many people with health issues, the shared ride service just does not work – the trips are too long,” Dyson said.
She said a passenger backlash two years ago when TransLink tried to axe its TaxiSaver subsidy program was proof to her many HandyDart clients prefer taxis.
But MacLean questioned the allegiance of the disability groups because they’ve worked with TransLink on the taxi rollout and accepted grant money.
Researcher Eric Doherty called the pro-taxi advocates “naive” and said it’s too soon to declare success.
He was the author of a 2013 report critical of HandyDart service denials in light of the region’s rising seniors population. Doherty’s report was funded by the union representing HandyDart drivers.