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The city's much-maligned Transit Plus, which is for people with disabilities, could soon do away with a system that prioritizes jobs and medical trips over recreation and visits with friends, in favour of first-come, first-served bookings.
While the city says the changes could mean Transit Plus users would no longer be guaranteed to get to work or medical appointments, several disability advocates are in favour of the move. They don't believe any trip should take priority over another.
Natalie Pirson has used Transit Plus, and the former Handi Transit system, for more than 20 years. She is pleased with the proposed changes, which will be discussed by the city's public works committee next week. Pirson was quick to point out the city will have to do more than change the booking system.
"I rely on Transit Plus for every aspect of my life," Pirson said on Thursday.
"The way Handi-Transit has been, they should not be asking you where you are going. For many people, going to see friends is just as important as going to work, for your mental health. There's concern you won't get to work, but we will just be in favour of having more resources in place.
"If people are getting rides, it points to more resources being needed."
Patrick Stewart, a consultant with the Independent Living Resource Centre, called the proposed changes positive and long overdue. He said the current system is "paternalistic."
"With this, they don't ask people the purpose of the trip. No other major city has this, they all have first-come, first-serve[d]."
David Kron, executive director of the Cerebral Palsy Associaton of Manitoba, said "the priority system makes people lie.
"No driver with regular transit asks where are you going. But it needs to be better resourced."
Transit Plus was designed to run as a parallel service to regular transit to allow people who have physical disabilities, and can't go on a city Transit bus, to have door-to-door service. The two services charge the same fares.
But, after years of receiving complaints from Transit Plus users, the resource centre complained to the provincial ombudsman in 2016. It said the service wasn't reliable, drivers weren't trained properly, and vehicles weren't safe.
"I rely on Transit Plus for every aspect of my life. If people are getting rides, it points to more resources being needed." – Natalie Pirson
In early 2019, the ombudsman made 19 recommendations, including that more people should be allowed to use the service, complaints should be responded to, and "no-show" policies should be adjusted. The city is working to implement all the recommendations.
Teresa Platt, Winnipeg Transit's acting manager of client services, and the author of the city report that recommends the new first-come, first-served system, said the change would be more efficient. It would allow the city to quickly convert the 400 cancellations it receives per day into passenger trips.
The system could accommodate more of the 7,400 people who are approved to use it. She said the city's software system would also be able to generate routes to drivers to pick up passengers.
"With this system, you'll book a week in advance and know if you have the trip," Platt said. "You would be on a call-back list if you're not on it."
Coun. Matt Allard (St. Boniface), the committee's chairman, said while he understands the reasons for the proposed changes, he questions what would happen if a person needs to get to an essential medical appointment and the transportation is not available.
"The ombudsman gave us the understanding that it is, from a human rights perspective, everyone should have a right to mobility and transportation if they are eligible, so I think it is going in the right direction," Allard said.
"So, if we had a priority service where health calls had a priority, so if you’re going for dialysis — which a number of our calls are for — you get that priority and you are going to get that appointment.
"(With a) first-come, first-serve, you could see another trip taking priority over a health trip — and that’s the direction from the Manitoba ombudsman — and I think it’s the right direction, but I think it will have, eventually, implications for capacity."
Allard said adding more vehicles to the fleet would require council's approval at a time when the province has scrapped its longtime 50-50 funding for transit.
"The key question is should we be looking at this through a human rights lens, where people have access to a service that they need to get around this city, to participate equally in society? And, if there are capacity issues, perhaps we should have that discussion as a council."
— with files from Joyanne Pursaga
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.
Updated on Thursday, September 10, 2020 at 8:34 PM CDT: fixes typo in headline
September 11, 2020 at 9:05 AM: Corrects typos
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