Burnaby City Council voted unanimously during council’s regular meeting on Dec. 4 to support a petition by Save Our HandyDART Coalition addressed to Rob Fleming, minister of transportation and infrastructure. The coalition, which comprises disability activists, community groups, and transit workers, held a town hall in September 2023 to discuss current issues with HandyDART services.
HandyDART is a service providing door-to-door accessible transportation. Many Burnaby residents with disabilities and senior citizens rely on HandyDART to reach medical appointments and access other services. Heather McCain, founder and executive director of Creating Accessible Neighbourhoods (CAN), hosted the town hall.
According to the petition, TransLink’s original pledge was for only 7% of trips to be conducted by taxi; however, in the past year, the percentage of taxi trips has increased to 17%. Advocates are demanding that HandyDART be brought in-house at TransLink. McCain, who spoke with the Beacon on Dec. 5, said, “The purpose of this is to bring HandyDART back in-company in TransLink to help create some stability for the drivers because, with each new company that has been brought on to be in charge of HandyDART, there have been so many changes for the drivers which affect their mood and customer service,” they said. “For the passengers, the concern is having taxis used for HandyDART rides.”
HandyDART passengers have had serious complaints about the use of taxis and safety concerns. “We have taxi drivers who are being quite rude to passengers, who are intimidating passengers, who are not properly securing the mobility devices,” said McCain. Passengers have also been dropped off at destinations that were different from what they were expecting. McCain said in one case a family searched for their child for four hours.
“Part of it is that HandyDART drivers take special training in order to know how to interact with people with disabilities but also how to safely strap wheelchairs and walkers in and make sure that the passengers have an accessible and safe environment. Taxi drivers do not receive that kind of training,” McCain told the Beacon.
Coun. Maita Santiago, who submitted the request to the council on behalf of the coalition, spoke in support of the petition, saying, “I just want to underline the importance of HandyDART to our community’s most vulnerable residents, many who are elderly in particular, they need it to go to medical appointments, for day programs. In effect, this service provides a way for them to get a bit of independence. Also so they can overcome any type of social isolation that they might be experiencing and of course this applies to HandyDART’s other clients.”
Santiago spoke about her connection to HandyDART, saying, “A couple of Christmases ago, my dad, who has dementia, he goes to a daycare program. We’d gotten up late, there was a knock on the door, and it was his regular HandyDART driver. Dad wasn’t ready, we weren’t ready but it meant the world to us and my dad that he was able to go to his regular program. I still remember clearly asking the driver if she could please wait a few minutes. There was snow on the ground, it was cold, it was the Christmas holidays, and she waited, and I remember being so grateful. Dad got to spend a wonderful day with his friends, and it was the same driver who brought him home.”
Coun. Sav Dhaliwal supported the petition but added that taxi drivers and companies are not to blame for the situation. According to Dhaliwal, before the government approved Uber in BC, regulations required taxi companies to devote 15% of their fleet to accessible taxis and provide training for their drivers. Since Uber came to the city, Dhaliwal said that taxi companies have had difficulty providing accessible services, and Uber is not regulated similarly.
Coun. Alison Gu also supported the motion, saying privatization hurts ordinary people, with companies skimming off the top for their profits. Bringing the HandyDART service in-house will mean better jobs for transit employees and improved services for seniors and people with disabilities.
McCain told the Beacon that since the town hall received some media attention, TransLink has been looking into the issue of HandyDART and taxis more closely. McCain mentioned that TransLink has recently improved accessibility, but HandyDART is not receiving enough consideration.
“Eighteen years ago, when I started my organization, about half of the rides, I couldn’t even get my wheelchair onto the bus. Over the years there have definitely been improvements within TransLink’s buses, the SkyTrain in their design. HandyDART, however, kind of feels like it’s not getting the attention that it needs,” they said.
“It’s about safety, it’s about dignity, it’s about making sure we’re not putting people into dangerous situations, because often when a situation like that happens, the person is less likely to want to go out again in case they experience that. It’s never just about one ride, having a bad experience especially for people who have social anxiety, depression or other mental health issues, it can stop them from going out at all,” McCain said.
Lubna El Elaimy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Burnaby Beacon