TransLink’s move to dispatch more taxis to carry elderly and disabled users of the HandyDart system has helped clear a huge backlog of demand for the custom transit service.
Last May, TransLink earmarked an extra $1 million for taxi rides to relieve pressure on HandyDart after months of criticism from clients who said the oversubscribed service left them under virtual house arrest.
The number of denied trip requests had run well over 3,000 a month up until April, but plunged to less than 100 in the summer and fall.
“More people with disabilities are able to get to where they need to go,” said Merrilee Ashworth, TransLink manager of business development and contract services.
She said the 98 per cent reduction in denials as of November from a year earlier was in part due to other efficiency improvements besides the extra taxi funding.
“We believe our recent actions will continue benefits into 2015, and we will not see a return to the number of denials we experienced earlier in the year,” Ashworth said.
The increased use of taxis has been fought by unionized HandyDart drivers as well as some passengers who argue taxi drivers are not as well trained to meet their needs.
“I am strongly, strongly opposed to it,” said Burnaby HandyDart user Elizabeth McKellar, adding there are too many “horror stories” about poorly trained or inconsiderate cab drivers.
TransLink put some of the extra money into additional training for taxi drivers.
Its latest quarterly report credits that for a reduction in taxi service complaints, although they remain far higher than the complaint levels for HandyDart.
The report noted demand for HandyDart in 2014 was down compared to 2013, but said that may increase as former riders become aware that it’s now easier to get service.
The HandyDart Riders Alliance’ also argues most of the drop in denials is because of the introduction of looser trip search parameters in the spring, not from the boost in taxi service.
Eric Doherty said that makes it “extremely problematic” to compare old and new trip denial rates.
Ashworth said TransLink has not yet decided whether the additional funding for taxi rides will continue in 2015.
Jane Dyson, executive director of Disability Alliance B.C. (formerly the B.C. Coalition of Persons with Disabilities), supports the strategy of using taxis.
“We hope that they will continue to put that money into the taxi service,” she said.
Dyson said people who don’t want to take taxis don’t have to – HandyDart can still serve them – but taxis provide an efficient option for those who don’t mind them.
Even with an extra 30,000 rides offered by taxi this year, more than 95 per cent of the service is still being provided by conventional HandyDart mini-buses, which are only cost-effective compared to taxis if they can pick up multiple passengers on the same route.
She also applauded TransLink’s creation of a new standby system – passengers whose trip request is initially denied can go on a wait list in case of cancellations.
Dyson said ride-sharing app Uber’s potential arrival in Metro Vancouver threatens to disrupt the existing taxi service that supports the HandyDart system.
“The taxi industry over the last two or three years has gone to great lengths to try and improve the service, particularly for people with disabilities and seniors,” Dyson said.
“Our organization is concerned about Uber. It risks undermining the important work that the community and the (taxi) industry have done together.”
Transit use down in 2014
Transit ridership is down from 2013 levels, and TransLink collected $3.2 million or 0.9 per cent less in the first nine months of 2014 as a result.
According to TransLink third quarter report, the fare increase imposed in early 2013 appears to have had a longer lasting impact on ridership than expected.
It notes revenue was also down in part due to the free transit day on B.C. Day to make up for SkyTrain shutdowns in July, and because of the three-week delay of the new school year due to the teachers strike.