Jason Everett, President of Sail Able Nova Scotia, had a frightening experience on a Halifax Transit bus in July 2015. The bus driver made a turn so quickly, it knocked Everett’s powerchair over —with him in it. As a quadriplegic, Everett regularly uses conventional public transit so he doesn’t have to schedule service in advance and wait for a certain window for pickup.
On that summer day, Everett had to wait for paramedics and a transit supervisor to arrive before he was helped up. When he was finally brought home after cancelling his appointment, he says the bus driver said, “I hope you have a better day.”
Everett also says, on another occasion, he has been forced to power home in his chair after being released from Emergency in the middle of the night when buses were out of service. It was a 45-minute ride for Everett. He wonders what would happen if his chair’s battery died before he made it home. And he’s not alone in his transit troubles.
At age 47, Melanie Gaunt has lived in long-term care since 2010. Because of her multiple sclerosis (MS), Gaunt relies on the Access-A-Bus service, which Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) describes as a “shared ride, door-to-door, transit service for persons who are unable to use the conventional transit system.” Gaunt has been a frequent user since her transition into long-term care.
Gaunt praises the drivers as always wonderful, spot-on and says “they rock.” The dispatchers, on the other hand, she feels have only improved over the last year or so.
“Sometimes I feel like Access-A-Bus is a token,” Gaunt says, noting the cost of the service is more than a senior’s fee on conventional transit. While Gaunt calls the conventional bus a last resort, she also says the Access-A-Bus service can cause “a lot of distress in an already stressful time.”
Brian George, an accessibility advocate, began the Halifax Odyssey Tour in 2017: a series of hills he was determined to climb by wheelchair. Despite the developing shoulder pain, George plans to do a final tour this Halloween from the Armdale Rotary to the Oval on the Halifax Common.
“Someone who’s able-bodied doesn’t necessarily know what we need,” says George, “so they need to ask us more of what needs to change to make Halifax more accessible. I know they say they want Halifax fully accessible by 2030. At the rate they’re going, yeah, it’s going to take that long.”
George has run into some issues with Access-A-Bus, including when he found out Halifax Transit no longer serviced the route he took to visit his family in Eastern Passage on weekends. Despite the service cancellation, he says, the driver always drops him off.
Since the school year began, George is finding it harder to get to work on time for 8 a.m. While George recognizes the help Access-A-Bus provides to those with other disabilities, he believes the service should be exclusively for users with mobility issues. Before same-day service began, Access-A-Bus users would have to phone in a request for service in advance — at least seven days. This policy that didn’t figure in last-minute appointments, emergencies, or even social affairs.
Gaunt doesn’t understand why she is required to renew her application for service, which includes a doctor’s signature, every five years to retain access. Having lost the ability to write, Melanie needs someone else to fill out her application for renewal.
“There’s no cure for MS,” she says, “so why does it expire?”
Paul Vienneau, after clearing snow banks from his chair during a brutal winter a few years ago, was jokingly nicknamed “The Asshole With A Shovel.”
A professional musician and hobbyist photographer, Vienneau became a freelance advisor to HRM last year and is now a disability consultant for the chief administrative officer’s office.
“When I know people are being helped, I work harder,” says Vienneau.
He notes that before the city can have 100 per cent accessible buses, it must ensure it has 100 per cent accessible bus stops.
“You’re not flipping burgers here, you’re enabling people to live,” says Vienneau, who believes most of the issues with Access-A-Bus are values-based. “They owe us a certain amount of quality and service.” He says he should already be able to take the transit service in Halifax for granted.
Erin DiCarlo, Senior Communications Advisor for HRM, explained it was through “careful consideration” that the Q’POD system, a three-point technology wheelchair securement station, replaced the stabilizer in Halifax Transit buses.
The first Q’POD was installed on bus 1253 in June 2018, and Halifax Transit now has 23 buses with dual Q’POD systems and one bus with a single system.
“Access-A-Bus, which is a shared ride, door-to-door, transit service for persons who are unable to use the conventional transit system due to physical or cognitive disabilities, is also available. This service is available to provide transportation to social, personal, and recreational activities,” said DiCarlo.
The city’s Access-A-Bus Continuous Improvement Plan, brought forward in January by council staff, features four areas of focus to enhance user experience: continuous improvement, new technology, adaptable service, and integrated trips.
Vienneau says one solution to transit issues would be to revitalize the accessible taxi industry.
With Halifax Transit is over 70 per cent subsidized, the $48 subsidy per ride on Access-a-Bus could be slashed by 75 per cent if the subsidies moved to accessible taxis, Vienneau says.
According to Dicarlo, Halifax currently has 17 licensed accessible taxis, an insufficient ratio to conventional taxis, which just saw an addition of 600 regular owner licenses.
Vienneau raises concerns about limited availability with Halifax’s current fleet of accessible taxis, over two times smaller than its peak of accessible cabs in the past 10 years.
The limited amount of accessible taxis makes the alternative to Halifax Transit that much less accessible. Because taxi drivers make their own hours, there’s no guarantee any of the 17 accessible taxi drivers are on the road if a last-minute date plan or doctor’s appointment comes up.