Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Disabled Canadians worry about cuts to more accessible adapted public transportation

From The Montreal Gazette:

MONTREAL, Canada -- Advocates for the disabled welcome the arrival of new trains with wheelchair-friendly seating areas - though they hope stations will soon be equipped to help wheelchair users actually board the trains.

But the new trains also reveal an emerging struggle between promoters of adapted transit services and those who want to make public transit in general more adapted.

About 15,000 people in the Montreal area use a wheelchair, according to Rosanne Couture, director general of the Alliance des regroupements des usagers du transport adapté du Quebec. A total of 200,000 people in the region have some level of physical disability that affects their mobility. About 80,000 people in Quebec meet the criteria that make them eligible to use adapted public transit services.

"Fundamentally every person has a right to equal access to public transit," Couture said. "It's the law."

To fulfil their obligations, public transit agencies provide various vehicles - including specially-equipped mini-buses that come and pick people up at home, or specially-adapted taxis.

People who use adapted transit pay only the cost of an equivalent public transit fare: $2.75 in Montreal, for example. The actual cost of the trip, which can be 10 or 20 times that amount, is paid by taxpayers.

"We are just very concerned that (newly appointed) Transport Minister Sam Hamad may want to cut adapted transit because it costs the Quebec government so much," Couture said. In 2008, the last year for which such data are available, the government paid $115 million for adapted transit trips, or an average of $17.07 per trip. That was nearly four-per-cent higher than the year before.

As for general public transit, Couture said, recent improvements in Montreal's métro system - such as bright yellow strips on the first and last steps of staircases and textured strips bordering the platforms -are great for the visually impaired, but they don't help the wheelchair-bound actually access the métro. Only six stations out of 68 have elevators.

On a more positive note, the only place with low-floor buses (an easier step up for those with low mobility)," Couture said.

Such improvements, she added, probably explain the STM's new motto: Society in motion, which implies that public transit is fully accessible. Yet until that is really the case, the adapted transit system remains crucial, Couture said.