HandyDART Advocate Urges Improvements for Riders with ‘No Other Options’

Gary Brown is a regular HandyDART rider who has lived in Burnaby for 32 years, he used to work for Southern Rail, a job he loved, but that all changed in 1997.  “I was diagnosed with MS in ’97, I tried to keep on working and would have stayed until I was 65 but I had to cut it short after five years.”

He explains how mobility means so much more to a person with a debilitating condition like Multiple Sclerosis. “The nature of the beast is that it gets progressively worse and you always want to get out and take full advantage while you can.”

HandyDART is critical to Gary’s social connections and quality of life. He says, “I use HandyDART every day, at least twice. I use it to go visit my Mom in New West, to have supper with my family, to visit my brother; I go banking and shopping at London Drugs.” “I don’t know what I would do without the service; I would be stuck at Carleton. I get cabin fever and need to get out. “

Gary has nothing but praise for the operators but the limitations of the service are what got him involved in the HandyDART Riders’ Alliance.

“Once you get into a chair, you appreciate what is done for you. The overall service you get from the drivers is fabulous, they walk you to the door, they really do take care of you. The first time I went to VCC, there were three blind people, the driver held the hands of the first two while getting out the third and walked them in. I was so impressed; I called the supervisor to compliment him!”

Gary got involved with the HandyDART Riders’ Alliance three years ago because of what he sees as system failures in scheduling and inflexibility due to underfunding.

“The major problem with the service is the scheduling is cut too close to the bone… a lot of people are late and a lot of people get frustrated.” It’s so often late that Gary advises new riders to lie about their appointment times when booking rides.

He tries to arrange his trips a week in advance but even that can be difficult.  “Sometimes the system goes down and you can’t book or they have to call you the day before to let you know if you’re booked or on a waitlist – and on the waitlist, you may not get a return ride!” His frustration is understandable; he says: “If I’m booking a week ahead, you should be able to supply me with a ride!”

On top of all that, there’s limited evening service and it can be challenging even to travel to a neighbouring municipality.  Even a simple trip to go to the Walmart in Maple Ridge is so logistically challenging that Gary only does it a few times a year. “it’s a fight to get out coming back because the buses in Maple Ridge shut down at seven, after that they use taxis or have to bring a bus out from another area but nothing is guaranteed.” Even between Vancouver and Burnaby there are only three trips per day.

Gary gets around the roadblocks in the system by coaching the schedulers to book multiple legs of the ride through regional transfer points. But, he says, sometimes that’s not enough and it limits his ability to participate in social gatherings. “I got invited out to lunch with some of my retiree friends at Tsawwassen but HandyDART said I can get you there but we can’t you back. Luckily, my friends helped me out and…I didn’t want to take a chance.”

Gary’s advice for improving service in the lower mainland is to bring the service in-house and to work on the scheduling. “The current contractors are a for-profit company but everybody knows that transportation shouldn’t be for profit…It’s an essential service especially people with disabilities. It takes time to lift me up and strap me in.” “The schedulers should go out with the drivers just to see what they do; if they saw what was entailed they might change how they schedule.”

He also thinks those people that use it to get to and from their dialysis appointments (a process that can take up to five hours), should have direct service to and from the hospital. “After all that time, they shouldn’t have to be taken on a milk run to get back home.”

It’s not cheap either.  Gary spends $93 per month on HandyDART for a one zone pass which he tops up for cross-boundary rides. The transit pass for people on Disability Assistance does not apply to HandyDART either even though the people that use HandyDART are those that can’t use conventional transit.

“Some of it has to do with budget. Last November, they gave $800K more to HandyDART; I think more of it went to taxis to pay for overflow. I think it would be better to have more busses on the roads and the clients would get a better service. It’s kind of frustrating that people on disabilities; they can’t use their transit pass from government for HandyDART.”

Although HandyDART is more expensive than conventional transit, it would be a mistake to call it a premium service. Riders like Gary rely on it.  When he first got into his chair, he tried taking SkyTrain and the bus but it just didn’t work.  People didn’t make room and he was often bumped.  And with his MS, sometimes he can’t even lift his hand to tap his ComPASS (transit) card on the reader.

People who don’t rely on HandyDART have choices when they need to get somewhere. Most able-bodied adults can walk, ride a bike, take transit, drive a car, take a taxi or catch a ride with someone else. But for people like Gary most other options are off the table, which makes HandyDART an essential service.

This is why improving HandyDART is essential for getting Communities on the Move.

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