Hamilton bus stops dangerous, inadequate for people with disabilities, advocate says

Terri Wallis, a member of the Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities, says Hamilton has a long way to go when it comes to fully accessible bus stops.
Terri Wallis says there are plenty of bus stops in the city that are downright dangerous for someone using a wheelchair. 14:00

Day in, day out, Terri Wallis feels like she's shouting into a vacuum.

Wallis is a member of the Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities (ACPD), a volunteer group charged with advising the city on how to best make city services accessible for everyone.

"We make recommendations all the time," Wallis told CBC Hamilton. "We made recommendations with the Lister Block, we made recommendations with Macnab station, we made all kinds of recommendations with the City Hall renovations."

But, she says, the ACPD's suggestions are almost never heeded.

"It's very frustrating."

Nowhere are those frustrations more evident than when Wallis tries to use public transit. She uses a wheelchair, and while HSR has low-floor buses, Wallis says that many bus stops are inaccessible or even dangerous for people with disabilities.

In the video at the top of this story, Wallis exposes the startling inadequacy of several dozen bus stops in the city for someone using a wheelchair. Some are perched at the top of steep hills, while others force drivers to drop people off on islands of concrete in the middle of grassy plots or stretches of dirt — effectively stranding them.

Other stops feature a crowded maze of obstacles, with benches, garbage cans, planters and newspaper boxes all blocking the way. While not a big deal for people who are walking unhindered, this creates an obstacle course for those with disabilities.

"It's a problem throughout the city," Wallis said. "There's not a lot of communication between the people that decide where the bus stops go and the people that place the furniture, mailboxes and garbage cans.

"There's nobody on public works that uses a mobility device — so they're not aware of the problems they're creating," she said.

An obligation for accessibility

Don Hull, the city's director of transportation, says that particular type of communication breakdown is about to change.

While previous transportation-related city departments such as the HSR, biking infrastructure and accessibility used to be separate (and all vying for the same funding), now they are being amalgamated under one portfolio. This, he says, will allow departments to communicate more efficiently and, in turn, promote accessibility.

"In the past, engineering might not have talked to transit — now we have an absolute obligation," Hull said. "We might not have been working hand-in-glove, but going forward we certainly would be."

Hull says that of Hamilton's 2,200 bus stops, 85 per cent of them are completely accessible for people with disabilities.

"We'd like to get to 100 — but there's no expectation that we can," he said.

It all comes down to logistics and funding.

"We have to make the best use of the money that is available to us," Hull said.

Consider Rymal Road, which is a rural cross-section road with soft shoulders and no sidewalks. The city can (and has) placed concrete landing pads at bus stops along the route for people with disabilities. As shown in Wallis' video, that's less than ideal for someone using a wheelchair or walker — and Hull readily admits that.

"We can put a concrete pad at the bus stop, but no one can dispute that it may not be possible for someone who has a wheelchair or isn't stable on their feet to navigate down a soft shoulder," Hull said.

That stretch of road is up for reconstruction, so the logistics of installing several kilometres of sidewalks just doesn't make fiscal sense, Hull says.

Is the HSR reliable?

CBC Hamilton is trying to create a snapshot of just how reliable the HSR's service really is.

Here's how you can help: any time your bus is off schedule this week, email adam.carter@cbc.ca with the route name, bus stop, scheduled time and time it actually arrived.

Another example shown in Wallis' presentation is the stop by Hamilton City Hall on Main Street by Macnab Street South. There's very little room for a person using a wheelchair to navigate onto a bus ramp because of the retaining wall in front of the courthouse. In order to make that stop more accessible, crews would have to move the entire retaining wall, which isn't fiscally possible, Hull says.

"The stops are there and will serve the able-bodied population, and serve a portion of the disabled population," Hull said.

He added that the city is "constantly evaluating" the transit system, and whenever the conditions arise to take a stop to 100 per cent accessibility, they'll do it.

'I think they are sincere'

Wallis made a presentation to city council on March 18, imploring councillors to do something about the accessibility situation at Hamilton bus stops.

"I think it was kind of embarrassing for them," Wallis said. "They figured they were doing a great job with all these low-floor buses, and it never occurred to them that if the stops aren't accessible, the buses aren't useable."

At the meeting, Hull said city staff would take a look at the stops Wallis said posed a problem, and do what they could to change them. Smaller changes could be undertaken immediately, while bigger renovations would have to be taken to council for approval, he added.

That promise, at least, has given Wallis some hope.

"I don't know how long it's actually going to take for them to make the changes they promised," she said.

"But I think they are sincere, and will try to fix most of them."

This is the second in a series of stories on public transit in Hamilton from CBC Hamilton. Check back on Wednesday for a look at the city's incoming bike share program.