Manitoba

'Forcing us to be liars': Winnipeg Transit Plus priority-based system broken, riders say

People who rely on Winnipeg's Transit Plus service to go shopping, volunteer or meet up with friends say because of the city's booking system, they have to lie in order to guarantee what the system deems low-priority trips.

Some Transit Plus riders say they lie to book 'low-priority' trips for volunteering, shopping, social time

Samantha Smith is a long-time Winnipeg Transit Plus user. She said because it prioritizes rides based on their purpose, the public transit system forces her to lie in order to live her life. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

People who rely on Winnipeg's Transit Plus service to go shopping, volunteer or meet up with friends say because of the city's booking system, they have to lie in order to guarantee what the system deems low-priority trips.

"It doesn't really matter to me what their priority is. If I'm doing something, that's a priority to me," said St. James resident Ed Hector.

Hector, 71, rarely gets out in the winter unless he has a ride with Winnipeg Transit Plus — the city system that provides door-to-door transportation for people with physical disabilities.

His hand shakes slightly and walking is slow for Hector. He uses a cane and sometimes a walker for longer distances.

In 2014, when he started taking what was then called Handi-Transit, he quickly learned that fibbing was routine among riders who wanted to secure two-way trips for outings that didn't involve medical appointments or getting to work.

Ed Hector uses a walking aid. He says Winnipeg Transit Plus is an essential service but often, it's not reliable. (John Einarson/CBC)

"It's very common," Hector said from his armchair at home.

"One woman, she wanted to go shopping over at Grant Park [where] there's an X-ray clinic.… I don't know how many X-rays she's had on her poor hip," he said wryly.

When people with disabilities call to book a ride with Winnipeg Transit Plus, customer service agents with the city ask where they are going and the purpose of their trip. The ride is then triaged into one of three priority levels:

  • Priority 1: trips for paid full-time work, medical appointments, therapy, or transportation to an airport or bus terminal.
  • Priority 2: trips for essential shopping (including grocery stores and pharmacies), self-development courses, banking and legal services, advance-ticketed events, religious services and volunteer work.
  • Priority 3: trips for recreational activity (like swimming, bowling, etc.), grooming appointments (including hair care) and non-essential shopping.

'Inherently discriminatory': lawyer

David Lepofsky is a Toronto lawyer with a visual impairment who successfully sued the Toronto Transit Commission and forced the service to use audible stop announcements on buses and the subway system.

He says that having to lie to book a ride is a symptom of a bigger problem in Winnipeg.

Ed Hector relies on Winnipeg Transit Plus, especially in the winter months or when the regular bus system is busy — during rush hour or after hockey games downtown, for example. (John Einarson/CBC)

"It's indicative of a system that is inherently discriminatory," Lepofsky said.

"If the city were to tell people that if you're a certain race you must answer these questions before you get on the bus and we're going to triage you … you'd say that's appalling," he said.

"They're doing it based on disability and it is, to me, equally appalling."

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits para-transit services from prioritizing trips.

The Accessibility for Manitobans Act says all persons should have access to things that give them equal opportunity and outcomes.

Hector, absent any sanctimony, denies lying about the purpose of his own rides.

Earlier this year, he cancelled his Manitoba Moose tickets because he gave up on getting regular rides with Transit Plus to Bell MTS Place — even though a ticketed event is considered a Priority 2 trip. 

"It was just too much of a hassle," Hector said.

'I was taught not to lie'

Samantha Smith uses Winnipeg Transit Plus in the winter months to travel from her home in West Broadway to her grandmother's house in Brooklands so she can help out around the house. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Long-time Winnipeg Transit Plus rider Samantha Smith says she feels some guilt about not always being honest, but says there's no other way.

She has been dishonest about volunteer duties, for example — saying she's going to paid work instead — and says she had to "blow up" on the phone with an operator to persuade them to give her regular rides to her grandmother's house so she could help out after her grandfather died. 

"It makes me feel real bad, because I was brought up by my grandparents and I was taught not to lie," she said.

"It's forcing us to be liars and we shouldn't have to be. You know, we're not using this service because we want a taxi service. Most of us need it."

Samantha Smith says she felt forced to lie to Winnipeg Transit Plus in order to attend a job program for people with disabilities when she was unemployed. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Smith, 42, is partially blind and has trouble co-ordinating the muscles on the right side of her body. After a bad fall in the 1990s, she was advised by her surgeon to use Handi-Transit to avoid falling again. 

Two years ago, while she was unemployed, she signed up with Steps2Work, a non-profit employment agency that helps people with disabilities. She attended the program three days a week in hopes it could help her find a job.

"The only way I could get a ride is if I told Transit Plus that I was working there, teaching a class," she said. "I don't like having to do that but I don't know what else to do."

According to the city's data, last year Winnipeg Transit Plus received 538,189 trip requests. Of those, 7,907 rides — or 1.5 per cent — could not be accommodated, the city data says.

This number does not include the 75,295 scheduled trips that were cancelled by registrants in 2018. Riders tell CBC they frequently cancel rides when Transit Plus can only accommodate a one-way trip.

City operates on the honour system

Josie Fernandes, manager of client services with Winnipeg Transit, says the city — which dispatches the private operators contracted to provide the Transit Plus service — has no way of verifying if what riders say is true, or any interest in doing so.

The system operates entirely on the honour system, she says.

"We ask the registrant the purpose of the trip and we take their answer at face value."

Josie Fernandes, manager of client services with Winnipeg Transit, says the Winnipeg Transit Plus priority system operates on the honour system. (John Einarson/CBC)

While the city conducts spot inspections of vehicles and drivers for safety and compliance, Winnipeg Transit has no mechanism for verifying the purpose of a Transit Plus trip, Fernandes says.

"We're not here to police people. We're not here to police their lives," she said. 

"If they said they're going to their doctor's office, that's where we'll take them. Where they go after that is really up to them."

Debora Martinson, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, has only been using Winnipeg Transit Plus for about a year. She was unaware other riders aren't always honest about where they are going. 

She has tried to book rides for a handful of lower-priority destinations and been denied, including an attempt to book a ride to the Park Theatre to hear Manitoba band Amadians perform. She was told demand for rides was too great and the trip was only considered Priority 2.

"It's been three or four times that I've phoned to try and schedule those types of rides, and I've always been denied," Martinson said.

"Other than work or doctor appointments, for whatever reason, they're not able to accommodate me."

The City of Winnipeg says it's reviewing the Winnipeg Transit Plus priority system as part of the Winnipeg Transit master plan, expected next year. The review was one of the recommendations from the provincial ombudsman's office, which issued a report on Winnipeg Transit Plus in early 2019.

"The priority system used by Handi-Transit seems to contradict the principle of universal access," the ombudsman wrote, "where weighing the importance of trip purpose is based on a scale that is subjective."

Most of the Canadian cities examined in the ombudsman's report do not use a priority system but rely on a first-come, first-serve model — similar to the conventional, fixed-route transit systems — for their para-transportation systems.

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