HandyDart vehicles overwhelmingly handle custom transit trips in Metro Vancouver. But TransLink has begun shifting to more use of taxis, saying other cities also find that model more cost-effective.

HandyDart trip denials soaring: report

TransLink disputes claims, says taxi shift working well

A union-funded study is blaming TransLink for a seven-fold jump in the number of HandyDart users denied trips over the past five years and warns the situation is set to get much worse as the number of older seniors grows.

The report by transportation planner Eric Doherty says the number of HandyDart trip denials doubled last year to 37,690 and that number has skyrocketed from less than 5,000 in 2008.

The number of seniors over 70 is growing at more than two and a half times the rate of growth of the general population, it warns, rising by an expected 40 per cent over the next decade.

But without approval of new funding for TransLink, the HandyDart budget is expected to remain frozen for years to come, leaving the custom transit system increasingly unable to meet demand.

Doherty’s report, on behalf of the union representing HandyDart drivers, argues TransLink is inappropriately attempting to force more custom transit users who have disabilities onto regular transit.

It warns allowing service to deteriorate will isolate vulnerable HandyDart passengers without access to transit.

It’s the latest volley from the Amalgamated Transit Union in a running battle with TransLink officials after they contracted out all HandyDart service to MVT Canadian Bus.

Also enraging the union was TransLink’s decision this year – after urging by auditors – to use cheaper taxis to provide more trips with the same amount of money.

The shift of 15,000 service hours or two per cent of the total to taxis meant layoffs for a few HandyDart drivers and a drop from full-time status for some others.

Martin Lay, TransLink’s director of transit services, said the taxi pilot project is so far on track to meet its goal of generating 7,000 more trips for users than would otherwise have been provided.

“We’re very happy with how that productivity part is working,” he said.

Lay wouldn’t say how far TransLink might go in expanding taxi use next year – if that’s recommended in a forthcoming report to the board.

But he insisted Metro Vancouver’s custom transit service is not alone in taking such a step.

Calgary’s system also puts 46 per cent of custom transit passengers on taxis, Lay said, while Montreal has a fleet of just 100 HandyDart buses and uses taxis for at least 70 per cent of the trips.

The pilot initially switched passengers from HandyDart to taxis on the four costliest routes where HandyDart minibuses must often deadhead back empty. They connect Surrey and White Rock to either Vancouver and New Westminster.

Lay said the number of trips denied this year so far is running at 30,534 as of the end of September, equivalent to about three per cent of all trips.

Asked if the statistics are cause for alarm, Lay said he doubts trip denials were being recorded “with the same rigour” a few years ago as they are today by unionized staff on the lookout for evidence of trouble.

Doherty’s report argues trip denial statistics may not fully reflect unmet demand, as people give up booking trips they know will be denied.

One area that hasn’t gone up significantly – despite the aging population – is the number of people actually registered to use HandyDart in Metro Vancouver.

Total registrations and the number of active riders have both been “fairly stagnant” for several years, Lay said.

TransLink’s fleet conversion to low-floor buses and numerous other improvements have helped make the system more accessible to those with disabilities.

“When the Canada Line went in we actually saw less demand for HandyDart in the Richmond area because we think people were able to travel the network using Canada Line,” he added.

Jane Dyson, executive director of the B.C. Coalition for People with Disabilities, said she’s seen no groundswell of protest from passengers over the increased use of taxis, which she said many users find more convenient.

She said taxis are a more cost-effective way of providing service given TransLink’s funding restraints and the coalition supports expanding their use – as is done in other cities.

“We’re quite okay in principle with this, providing the taxi drivers are properly trained and custom transit passengers have a choice,” Dyson said. “We don’t have a problem with it.”

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