Churchill in Parliament once quipped “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” (11/11/47). I will not debate whether democracy or some other form of government is superior, but I will ask whether you think that something which is supposed to be good and made out to be good by government can actually be bad?
The paratransit system in Hamilton, known as DARTS, is often cited as superior to other paratransit properties. DARTS service performance is often compared by City staff to data from the Canadian Urban Transit Authority (CUTA) as being within or better than the CUTA performance measures. The City places itself in the 98th percentile or better in many operational categories like on-time pick up and drop-off, trip time, and trip denials to name a few. The City must perform at least to the 95th percentile or better in compliance with a Human Rights case (2005). If the City were to perform below settlement requirements the City would be subject to any penalties the settlement ordered.
However, people with disabilities who solely rely upon the DARTS program for their transit needs are subject to very restrictive service policies such as only 3 bags aboard a vehicle. Passengers must be at their destination for an hour before a return ride can be taken. Trips must be booked a minimum of 7 days in advance and passengers must be at their door 15 minutes prior to trip time. Yet DARTS can be as late as they want as long as they don’t do that more than 5% of the time. Passengers can be aboard a vehicle for an hour on an otherwise 10 minute trip. Passengers are frequently wait listed for trips missing important medical appointments and other necessities of life. I could go on, and on.
Try to imagine if any conventional bus route in the City required people to book a seat on the bus? Never mind that, book a week in advance for every trip. Imagine telling your boss or doctor you cannot make it to work or a medical appointment because you could not get a ride. Imagine being told that you can only drive on main roads by appointment and that you need to book your travel one week in advance … every day? And, what would you do if no lanes on the road were open to drive on? What would you do? To whom would you complain? And, what would you do if you complained and the only outcome was to restrict your travel as a cost saving measure?
That’s what people with disabilities live with every day. Sunday to Saturday. And things only get worse on weekends and holidays, especially Sunday mornings. Add snow and the system shuts down if they don’t turn off the telephones first. The City spends as much or more than $25M annually ($42/trip) for the service. That’s a lot of money, yes. But they are spending over $2B for the LRT next year. No one blinks at that budget.
To fix the DARTS issue Council has approved a staff report to review and restrict who gets to travel on DARTS. They are going to train more people to get off DARTS and move them to the HSR. There will be enforcement of the No Show policy with a goal of removing riders from the service who do not follow procedures. There will be a review of eligibility to restrict new passengers diverting them instead to the HSR.
If Churchill were here today to address paratransit I wonder if he might quip “Except for all the others, DARTS is the worst form of paratransit? How can a system that is so good compared to other transit properties be so bad? How bad do the other properties have to be that DARTS is one of the best?
There is light at the end of the tunnel; direct-ride, on-demand taxi. Part of the DARTS service has been delivered by taxi over the past 6 months, 791 trips in all. These trips are charged to the meter at an average cost of $22.64. Each trip is on average 9.3 kilometres. The 9.3k per meets the annual trip distance average for the past 15 years. Extrapolate that data over the 600,000 trips annually and the budget is a mere $13.58M almost 50% saving. Imagine that the budget remains stable the number of trips in the system could jump to 1.1M. Maybe the trip denial could be 0% legitimately. With an on-demand taxi model no more restrictive policies like 7 day advanced booking, no more bag limits to book groceries, and so forth.
If we can get Council to see the future through the eyes of paratransit users maybe Churchill would say, “Before all the others, Hamilton’s paratransit is the best!”.
Think of the possibilities. Hamilton can once again be the beacon of accessibility in this province for people with disabilities and seniors.
Tim Nolan is a lifelong Hamiltonian.
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