Toronto

Toronto Wheel-Trans riders singing the blues over delays, irregular service

More people than ever are relying on Wheel-Trans to get them around the city, but riders have concerns about how the service is functioning.

Accessibility advocate blasts service, calling it 'inferior' to rest of transit system

A lower than forecast demand for Wheel-Trans to get around the city has resulted in a subsidy surplus for the TTC. Half a million fewer rides translated into a $15 million in savings. (Secondarywaltz/Wikimedia Commons)

Well it seems like hours ago/

And we're still sitting here with no place to go/

Better not give us a no show/

That's from the Wheel-Trans Blues, a song performed by the Chiry Balladeers — a group of singers who meet at the Community Head Injury Resource Services of Toronto (CHIRS). While the song is a playful jab at the TTC service a lot of the singers rely on, many expressed real concerns with Wheel-Trans.

"Sometimes the drivers are really not the best to deal with," said Michelle Gifford.

In one incident, she says the bus operator — whose name she didn't take note of — didn't strap her in correctly, causing her head to bump against the window during the drive.

"I was so upset at that. In fact, I had to phone the complaints line, which I never like to do. But in that incident, I felt I had to," she said. 

The CHIRY Balladeers performing Wheel-Trans Blues, a song into which the group has unique insight. (Ieva Lucs/CBC)

While some of the Balladeers had good things to say about the service, other riders have also contacted CBC Toronto with stories about long waits and irregular service. And the complaints come at a time when the service is handling more riders than ever — 1.34 million in total, as of April this year — partially driven by a change that allows people with cognitive and mental health disabilities to take the service. 

TTC says changes on the way

Wheel-Trans head Eve Wiggins says her organization is listening to riders and has a ten-year plan to address some of the issues.

It's like doing a house renovation completely from top to bottom while you're still trying to live in the house.- Wheel-Trans head Eve  Wiggins  on improving the service

"We know that the service needs to be better," she said.

The new plan aims to offer customers "spontaneity" of travel, improve customer service and to ensure the dignity of those who use it.

Wiggins says the TTC is hoping new technology can help cut down on the amount of time riders wait for buses — like getting a five-minute warning when their ride is close in the future. The customer service department is already receiving enhanced training.

Still, she cautions the changes will take years.

"It's like doing a house renovation completely from top to bottom while you're still trying to live in the house," she said.

Meanwhile, Mayor John Tory, speaking about traffic issues on Wednesday, says the city will be looking to create designated spaces for Wheel-Trans vehicles to make drop-offs easier later this fall.

Alanna Wener relies on Wheel-Trans to get her to work, but says she's often stuck waiting for the bus. (Alanna Wener/Submitted)

The changes can't come soon enough for Alanna Wener, who uses Wheel-Trans to get her to her job at Yonge and Eglinton. She says it's late about half the time she takes it. Sometimes, she says she's left waiting for up to an hour.

"It's so frustrating," said Wener, who uses a walker due to a rare genetic condition that affects certain nerve cells in her body.

"Waiting for them is the hard part."

According to TTC CEO Andy Byford's latest report, 89.6 per cent of Wheel-Trans vehicles arrive within 10 minutes of the schedule, just shy of the service's target of having that happen 90 per cent of the time. Wener says she's brought up the issue of her late buses with the TTC, but hasn't received a satisfactory response. Often, she says she's just been told to book her ride earlier.

Because she lives close to the Yonge line, Wener is an ideal candidate for the TTC's effort to get more Wheel-Trans users onto other forms of public transit. However, she says right now too many stations lack the accessible features she needs, so she often calls Wheel-Trans instead.

Just over half of TTC stations are accessible

Only 35 of the TTC's 69 stations are accessible right now, according to its website. The organization hopes every station will be accessible by 2025.  

David Lepofsky, chair of the disability consumer advocacy group AODA Alliance and a visiting professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, says the TTC should be working harder to make its system more accessible.

"People with disabilities who use Wheel-Trans are essentially second-class citizens in Toronto when it comes to public transit," he said.

Despite the TTC's assurances and reports that 2016's customer satisfaction was at 88 per cent, Lepofsky says Wheel-Trans remains "inferior" to the city's conventional transit offerings.

"We tend to hear the same complaints year after year."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Rieti is the senior producer of digital at CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country. In Toronto, he's covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. Outside of work, catch him cycling in search of the city's best coffee.

With files from Ieva Lucs

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