Manitobans with disabilities are one stop closer to improved bus service as the deadline looms for the implementation of a provincial standard for accessible transportation.
Dozens of transit users, support workers, stakeholders and representatives from accessibility organizations met Thursday afternoon to review the fourth standard proposed under the Accessibility for Manitobans Act.
"(Winnipeg buses) are accessible on an empty bus in the middle of July," said Patrick Stewart, an advocate for accessible transit. "Try to catch a bus in front of Portage Place in the middle of February — that’s a completely different story."
Stewart helped draft the proposal as a member of the transportation standard development committee, alongside representatives from Winnipeg Transit, Transit Plus, and the City of Winnipeg parking authority.
The standard outlines accessibility expectations for public and private transportation services providers across the province, including both Winnipeg’s fixed-route and Transit Plus systems. It sets a bar for everything from built-in accessibility infrastructure to barrier-free ride-request systems.
If implemented as is, the detailed standard would require, by law, that Transit Plus (formerly known as Handi-Transit) abolish its priority booking system and the 500-metre rule — two things users have long-raised concerns about.
"It has its good days and bad days, but bad days can be pretty bad," said Chelsey Sommerfield, 29, who has relied on the service for about seven years.
Sommerfield cited problems ranging from rides arriving 30 minutes late to a priority system, which she said forces people to lie about where they plan to go. For example, she said, requesting a ride to a doctor's clinic that is located near a mall.
When a user requests a ride, they have to indicate the purpose of their trip so Transit Plus can determine its priority. Work, school and medical appointments trump grocery shopping and religious services, which all surpass rides to recreational activities.
"It does make a lot of people lie and a lot of people do feel bad they have to lie. It definitely shouldn’t put people in that position," Sommerfield said.
The current service also does not allow for users to travel to all of Winnipeg, since Transit Plus users can only request a pick-up or drop-off at a location within 500 metres of a fixed-route stop — but that could change if the provincial minister of families approves the draft.
"I hope it will be implemented soon, and we’ll have more accessible transit," said Artam Dolia, 39. "I, as a person in a wheelchair, want to have more opportunities to go out."
Those opportunities, Dolia said, are currently limited by restrictions and packed buses.
The province has previously said it plans to implement all five accessibility standards in 2020.
Minister of Families Heather Stefanson was unavailable for an interview Thursday.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.