Disabled Calgarians ask why Calgary Transit Access doesn't 'treat us with respect'
Nearly 300 complaints made to transportation service each year, related to no shows, late pick ups
Mary Salvani waited for Calgary Transit Access to pick her up at the Calgary Zoo's north entrance last month, but her ride never came. When she called, she was told the driver showed up but she was no where to be found.
Salvani says she felt the dispatcher was accusing her of lying.
"I was pretty mad that day," she said.
The 40-year-old, who has cerebral palsy and uses either two canes or a walker to help with her mobility, was one step ahead and had proof that she was telling the truth.
She snapped several photos that showed her at the pick up location where she was supposed to be — and the time stamp shows she was actually seven minutes early.
She told the dispatcher that she had the pictures to prove her point, but was told: "Well, you weren't there."
"I'm like, the photo speaks a thousand words, how much more can I tell you. I was here," Salvani said.
Salvani, who was on her way to a doctor's appointment, had to call a taxi.
Similar complaints about Calgary Transit Access are made every year, according to a document obtained by CBC News through an access to information request.
But the city-run agency would not say exactly how many complaints were made under each 'driver concern category' — instead it listed all of the categories of complaints received, which include:
- Arrived early, arrived late, did not arrive.
- No show or cancelled at door without leaving vehicle.
- Did not arrive at requested address, failed to provide door-to-door service, failed to provide customer escort, failure to hand over customer to caregiver.
- Failed to follow Calgary Transit Access policy.
- Passenger injury.
- Damaged personal property, passenger property concern.
- Failed to properly secure customer into restraint device, walker/wheelchair securement.
- Poor route selection.
- Use of cell phone while on duty.
- Driving practices.
- Personal conduct, trip instructions not followed, vehicle condition related to mechanical/cleanliness.
Long waits, no shows
Ashley Pinay, who suffered a brain injury in 2003, has been using Calgary Transit Access for more than a decade. He uses the service up to four times a week.
He says more often than not the service is reliable, but he says the biggest frustration is waiting for the bus or taxi and then having to spend more than an hour in the vehicle as other passengers are picked up and dropped off before he reaches his destination.
"I have been on the bus where I was first picked up and then picked up three more people and then [I was] last dropped off, which is frustrating" Pinay said.
He says the drivers sometimes ask him for directions or the best route to take.
"I'm like, I don't know, I'm on here because I don't know how to get there, why are you asking me?"
"If I knew, I'd do it myself," he said.
He says he wishes there was better training for drivers to help understand people with brain injuries and other disabilities.
Along with its own drivers who operate buses and minivans, Calgary Transit Access contracts services through a local taxi company to help transport passengers.
Pinay says some drivers can be impatient and insensitive.
"Training for cab drivers would be helpful, to be more empathetic and understanding," he said.
"We may not look disabled, but we are disabled, we don't understand things."
Nothing to lose sleep over
The acting manager of Calgary Transit Access says "most of the time" the concerns are "very minor."
"There haven't been very many concerns that would cause any loss of sleep at night," said Laura Trollope.
Trollope says "about 30 per cent" of the complaints were substantiated, but she wouldn't say which ones.
"It could be anything from my vehicle arrived too early, my vehicle arrived too late, my driver was talking on his cellphone, those sorts of things," she said.
Calgary Transit Access was unable to say if any drivers were disciplined as a result of the complaints, saying it's a human relations matter.
Calgary Transit Access was responsible for nearly 1.2 million trips in 2017. The city operates a fleet of wheelchair accessible buses but also partners with a taxi service to help disabled Calgarians get around the city.
The service cost taxpayers just over $40 million a year to operate; it's estimated each trip costs $37.
Passengers, families afraid to speak out
Agencies whose clients rely on Calgary Transit Access for transportation say they were surprised to hear there were so few complaints.
The Universal Rehabilitation Service Agency, or URSA, says it makes about 50 complaints related to Calgary Transit Access every year, including one last week that involved the smell of marijuana on a bus.
The executive director says some clients and their families may be reluctant to speak out.
"Yes, families and individuals are nervous to make claims for fear of being kicked off and retaliation," said Pam McGladdery.
URSA helps Calgarians who are recovering from a brain injury or people with mild to severe developmental disabilities.
McGladdery says many of their 250 clients are in wheelchairs and have complex medical needs.
She says one of the biggest issues is the amount of time people spend waiting for the bus to arrive.
McGladdery says just last week there was a group of people waiting for their scheduled 10:30 a.m. pick up time. She says she came out of a meeting at 12:10 p.m. and they were still waiting. She says it has a big impact on her clients' lives.
"That impacts their day, right. You have a plan you're going to do this and this and this today, and you're waiting for this and now you can't do any of that, so it's frustrating.
The other concern, she says, is the amount of time people spend in the vehicles.
"If you're going from point A to point B and it should take 40 minutes give or take, but for efficiency sake they have to basically do the milk run and stop at four different locations, then you're on the bus for an hour and a half," she said.
She says clients have had seizures, bathroom accidents and 'behaviours' while on the bus.
McGladdery says some drivers don't understand some of the challenges that people with disabilities face.
She says many people use the service to get to their medical appointments and if their specialist is running behind, they may miss their pick up because the ride was booked days in advance and cannot be changed at the last minute.
"The system certainly could be a lot more flexible to those needs," she said.
"I think the issue is the system capacity. It's bursting at the seams."
URSA actually has its own fleet of 12 vehicles that it uses to help shuttle its clients around the city and to its summer cottage near Cochrane.
Service could deteriorate
The capital budget for Calgary Transit Access does not include any money to purchase new buses or replace existing ones until at least 2022.
The agency's 2019-2022 budget plan says while demand is expected to continue to increase over the next few years, service levels are expected to decline.
"Limited funding under capital investments will impact service levels and service reliability, as investments required to maintain and replace the existing fleet will not be fully available," read the plan.
But at the same time, the plan also promises to increase service levels through an extra $4 million dollars in funding between between now and 2022.
The report offered this rather vague explanation as to how that will be achieved.
"Optimization work will be conducted to explore efficiencies through integration of public and specialized transit trips."
The report quoted the Canadian Urban Transit Association which put Calgary Transit Access' cost per trip at $37, the lowest number compared to similar specialized transit services in Edmonton, Ottawa and York Region in Ontario.
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.