While rapid transit has dominated the political landscape in Hamilton for the past few years there has been a less-visible but nonetheless intense dialogue going on over the future of DARTS—Hamilton’s disabled transit provider. Imagine running a business where: • somebody else determines how many customers you will have to serve • somebody else determines how much the customer will pay • somebody else sets your hours of operation • somebody else provides orientation for your new customers • if there are complaints about service the complaints go to somebody else • and where you are forbidden to survey your customers who have complaints to determine how to improve service.
This is the world of DARTS as unfolded at a four and a half hour special session of Hamilton’s General Issues Committee last month. The “somebody else” identified in the table above is ATS (Accessible Transportation Services)operated by the HSR. If a customer needs to ride on DARTS they must first apply to ATS to determine if they are eligible for para-transit and then to determine what kind of service they need—either the regular DARTS bus or taxi services contracted by the city. ATS contracts the service out to DARTS who operate the buses and manage the dispatch of vehicles. ATS, retains control of the complaints process. A customer complaint is received by ATS who ask DARTS to investigate, but DARTS is not allowed to interact with the complainant. DARTS was even rebuffed when it tried to make an orientation leaflet available to customers using the service. The purpose of the leaflet was to inform customers how to best use the service to minimize delays.
The GIC session represented at least the third time that much-studied DARTS had been subject to a some sort of performance audit in the last 10 years. The meeting turned into a square-off between duelling auditors—the city’s internal auditor Ann Pekaruk armed with a report prepared by consultants, and Fay Booker, a Hamilton auditor and former DARTS board member; although on a number of fronts all three auditors identified a mind-numbing array of questionable reporting practices, restrictions and inconsistencies in the way the para-transit agency is operated, governed and measured. On another level it also turned into a bit of a duel between Sam Merulla—a longtime DARTS critic, and Terry Whitehead, a long-time DARTS board member.
The committee had gathered to hear the results of an audit that was ordered by Council last year in response to a spike in complaints about DARTS service. In 2013 the total number of service complaints reached 1,500 for an organization that provides roughly 500,000 rides a year and fields roughly 200,000 phone calls—a total that works out to one complaint per 0.2 percent of customer interactions; or putting it another way—a customer satisfaction rate of 99.8%. Some of the complaints dealt with the amount of time the complainant spent on hold waiting to complain.
Consultants hired by the city said the Darts complaints appeared to be higher when compared to para-transit services elsewhere in Canada but also noted that Hamilton offered a higher level of service and provided rides with shorter lead time than other services. The consultants also noted that DARTS had to provide information to ATS on 17 different performance measures—a much higher level of reporting than the other compared services. “The city is not enabling better service,” said Booker.”It is trying to keep a command-and-control management model in place. It is hard to provide better customer service when you are not allowed to talk to customers.” Booker also said, “The City should not refer to DARTS recent funding request as deficit funding – when the City orders 35,000 more trips than budgeted, the City needs to pay for those trips. This is not deficit funding – it is paying for services delivered.”
The main source of complaint dealt with the amount of time a person had to spend on the bus which is typically shared with one or two other passengers either in wheelchairs or with some ability to walk. A major problem noted is picking up passengers from medical appointments since, with demands on the healthcare system, it is difficult to determine when the patient is going to be available for the return ride. When the patient is ready to go home the buses may be tied up with other passengers resulting in long wait times.
One solution that was recommended was to increase the number of wheelchair-capable taxis that are contracted, but in past there have been issues with taxi-drivers lacking the necessary training to deal with passengers with special needs, in some case suffering from dementia. Councillor Sam Merulla advocated “imploding” DARTS. In the end, the committee agreed to cover a funding shortfall of $240,000 for 2013 and to kick the rest of the debate over to the new council.