Rising demand for HandyDart rides from the elderly and disabled who can’t easily take regular buses is outstripping TransLink’s ability to deliver the custom transit service, advocates warn.
“There are always more and more people needing to use the HandyDart,” said Jane Dyson, executive director of the B.C. Coalition for People with Disabilities.
But service levels are frozen at about 600,000 annual service hours – likely until 2015 – and TransLink is simultaneously under pressure to carve savings out of the program after an efficiency review.
The result: more passengers being denied rides or offered a one-way trip only but no guarantee of a return trip.
“They may be able to get a ride from Richmond to Vancouver but when they want to get back it’s very difficult,” Dyson said. “A ride one way is pretty useless if you can’t get back.”
She’s heard complaints from passengers who say up to half of their trip requests are denied because the system is over-subscribed, and that trips are getting longer as dispatchers organize trips to pick up more passengers than before.
“For people who have health conditions like bladder issues, or bowel issues or breathing issues, that can be very challenging,” Dyson said, adding it is undercutting the reliability and usability of the system.
“We have to remember this is a service for people with disabilities and seniors. There needs to be some understanding of that built into a budget system.”
Coast Mountain Bus director of transit operations Martin Lay said more than 18,000 HandyDart trip requests were denied last year, up from 13,300 denials in 2010, and he confirmed service denials are up further in recent months.
That’s mainly because the system is maxed out at the most popular peak time – afternoons.
Trip denials still represent less than two per cent of the total trips provided, he said.
There are about 32,000 active HandyDart users and Lay said many are using the system more frequently.
Trips are up for regular medical appointments like dialysis as well as to therapy sessions for passengers with dementia or other cognitive disorders, Lay said.
The average trip length – now at an average of 21 minutes – is increasing, Lay said, because of the effort to carry more passengers on each run and make more efficient use of HandyDart buses and drivers.
“A run that used to take 15 to 20 minutes might be 30 or 40 minutes,” he said.
Lay said staff looked into recent allegations of passengers whose oxygen tanks ran out on long HandyDart trips, but found only one case where a passenger was worried that might happen.
He said there continue to be cases of passengers soiling themselves, adding that’s a medical reality of dealing with some of the service’s clients.
Another challenge is the more than 25,000 no-shows or at-the-door booking cancellations by passengers that reduce efficiency.
TransLink says repeat offenders now face progressive penalties, up to short suspensions from service.
The efficiency review of TransLink tabled last month suggested slapping a fee on late cancellations.
The review found the costs of HandyDart soared after the 2009 switch to a single contractor, MVT Canadian Bus, from several previous providers.
Each trip was publicly subsidized by more than $30 in 2010 as a result.
The review suggested TransLink tighten HandyDart eligibility and steer more users to conventional transit instead.
It also calls for greater subsidized use of taxis instead.
Tyler Felbel, spokesman for the union representing drivers, said taxi drivers aren’t consistently trained well enough to handle the special needs of HandyDart clients.
He argued TransLink should end its contract with MVT when it expires in two years and bring the service in house, eliminating a separate layer of management.
Dyson said she supports more use of taxis, if it expands service, and if taxi driver training is improved to ensure wheelchairs and scooters are properly secured.
Dyson argues HandyDart is increasingly acting like a medical transport service because of the aging population.
“Why isn’t the Ministry of Health providing some funding to help HandyDart?” she asked. “These are health costs in my opinion.”