Peter Tonge, 56, rolls down the ramp of a large white bus onto Market Avenue, pushed by a Winnipeg Transit Plus driver in a high-visibility vest.
The spokes of his wheelchair pop with bright pink, green and orange reflective tape.
He’s here with his basketball team for Nuit Blanche, an all-night art event in the Exchange District. They’ll be hanging out in one of Market Avenue’s Impark lots, where organizers have set up a court with black lights.
Getting here was smooth — today. His pick-up and drop-off were on time. It helped that Tonge knew he wanted to come to the event long beforehand. That’s because Transit Plus — and most services like it in North America — requires customers to book rides at least a day in advance. In Transit Plus’s case, you have until 11 a.m. the morning before your ride to call and book.
Users have to answer nine questions over the phone — from the purpose of their trip to whether they’ll have a companion — and provide a registration number.
Tonge is used to the process — he has alerts on his phone reminding him to book a ride two to three days before each event he wants to get to.
But he does say this about how it affects his lifestyle:
'If you're solely reliant on Winnipeg Transit Plus, there is no spontaneity… If you're going out on Saturday, you book it on Thursday'— Peter Tonge, on the reality of booking with Transit Plus
"If you’re solely reliant on Winnipeg Transit Plus, there is no spontaneity… If you’re going out on Saturday, you book it on Thursday," he says. "You don’t have an alternative to then go back and change it."
Tonge uses Sunshine Limo, whose vehicles are wheelchair-accessible, when he needs. This costs him about $20 a ride — a far cry from the $2.95 regular fare on Transit Plus.
"My wife and I are lucky. We also have some resources," he says. Tonge is a retired criminal defence lawyer, and his wife is a university professor.
But for people on low incomes, this isn’t always an option, he says.
It’s no secret the recently rebranded Transit Plus — formerly Handi-Transit — has been the subject of a slew of complaints of late.
A February 2016 formal complaint to the Manitoba Ombudsman by the Winnipeg-based Independent Living Resource Centre alleged drivers were inadequately trained, vehicles were unsafe and service was unreliable. The complaint culminated in an investigation and the ombudsman’s January 2019 report detailing 19 recommendations for change. The city accepted all of them, but a Sept. 12 report by city council’s public works committee said only five recommendations had been implemented.
Among the remaining items: establishing a complaint-response system and abolishing a policy that limits service to within 500 metres of regular bus lines.
Services such as Transit Plus are called paratransit, and most major Canadian cities have some version of it. In the U.S., federal law mandates it for all transit systems.
In Boston, complaints about The RIDE — run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) — had more than doubled in 2014 from 2010. Issues included long wait times and unreliable service.
So the agency tried something new — it innovated and collaborated.
The MBTA partnered with ride-booking companies Uber and Lyft on a new pilot project. The project, which has been running since the fall of 2016, subsidizes Uber and Lyft fares for RIDE clients.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker billed it as a cost-effective, efficient and convenient way of delivering service. The biggest touted benefit: on-demand service.
Whereas clients can still use the original RIDE service — booking trips by at least 5 p.m. the previous day — pilot participants only need to tap their smartphone screens a few times to request a car immediately, with no 24-hour buffer.
Lyft also has a call centre for those without smartphones.
Customers pay the first US$2 and the MBTA covers everything after that, up to US$42. Since total per-trip costs range from US$17-US$45, most customers pay US$2 for each trip, says James Paci, the MBTA’s deputy director of innovation and analysis. That compares to US$3.35 or US$5.60 per trip for the RIDE system.
The MBTA saves money per trip, too — it only has to pay the subsidy. But the program has been so popular that there hasn’t been much net savings, Paci says.
The pilot was initially scheduled to last six months and was available to around 200 participants. Since then, it’s been extended to March 31, 2020, and expanded to include all RIDE clients.
But for many, the game-changer isn’t just the cheaper fares. It’s the freedom.
"One of those stereotypes that exists with the disability community is that people with disabilities are only going to doctor’s appointments," says Patrick Stewart, an independent living consultant at the Independent Living Resource Centre.
"(Flexibility) is incredibly important."
Stewart says there has already been interest from Winnipeg councillors on an MBTA-like model, but the centre is concerned this would ignore what Stewart says is one of Transit Plus’s systemic issues.
Part of Transit Plus’s service-quality issues are caused by tough working conditions for drivers, Stewart says — the city contracts the service out to private companies.
"We really believe that that has come with a significant cost for the users," he says. "Our concerns with a model like that (are) that it just further outsources service."
The city started contracting out some of Transit Plus in 1988 before handing all trips over to contractors in 1997. In November, councillors agreed to explore bringing 30 per cent of Transit Plus contracts back in house by June 2022.
Coun. Brian Mayes told the innovation and economic development committee it would improve service and address increasing costs the city pays per ride to private companies.
A reporter tried multiple times and methods to reach Coun. Matt Allard, chairman of council’s public works committee, for his views on this story. He did not respond.
— with files from Ben Waldman