Corner Brook has no accessible buses. Two women want to change that

Katie Cashin and Megan Penney are best friends, but they don't get together very often.

"Our friendship is mostly done [more] through FaceTime and Snapchat than face-to-face contact," said Penney.

Much of that is because Penney uses a power wheelchair, and Cashin, crutches or a walker. The transportation options in Corner Brook that can accommodate them, outside of enlisting family members to drive them places, are slim, meaning the two women don't have very much agency in their lives, said Cashin.

"We don't really have a lot of freedom in our daily lives to choose where we want to go, when we want to go, and who we want to go with. It makes it very difficult to be independent in our communities."

Penney agrees. She now works from home, but in 2018 she had a summer job that meant her mother was on call for dropoffs and pickups every day.

"It was a great experience, but if it was, like, for the whole year, I think my mother would have had burnout," she said.

Tired of this reality, the two women are pushing for better accessible transportation options in Corner Brook, and have begun researching what works elsewhere, and pressuring the city for more.

"Our main goal is just for individuals to feel that they can participate in the community, have easier access to community events, and to be contributing members of society," said Cashin.

Lindsay Bird/CBC

Bus, cab shortfalls

Corner Brook has one of two municipal bus systems in Newfoundland and Labrador, but unlike its counterpart in St. John's, none of its buses are wheelchair-accessible.

But simply switching out the current buses for ones with ramps won't solve the city's transportation problem.

"It's not as easy as one would think. Vehicles is the easy part," said Darren Charters, Corner Brook's director of community, engineering, development and planning.

Charters said the bus stops are the real issue, with each in need of separate scrutiny to see if it's accessible as is, requires modification, or cannot ever be made wheelchair-friendly.

For the moment, if someone waits at a bus stop but can't board the bus when it arrives, Charters said the bus driver will call one of Corner Brook's two accessible taxis to come pick them up.

There's very little spontaneity in our lives. - Katie Cashin

"It's not an ideal solution. We understand that," said Charters.

"Ideal" isn't the word Cashin and Penney would use for the accessible taxis, which cover not only Corner Brook but all of the Bay of Islands.

"They're not always available," said Cashin, who dialed up the cab with CBC News only to be told there was at least a 90-minute wait, as both cabs were out of town.

Added to that, the cabs stop running around 6 p.m., meaning attending evening events via taxi isn't an option.

"Even Cinderella didn't get to be home till 12, yet I have to be home by six," said Penney.

Lindsay Bird/CBC

One solution? Look to St. John's

While the city is in the midst of applying for federal funding to get a consultant to study its bus system and come up with an accessible solution — a process expected to take at least a year — Penney and Cashin pointed to GoBus in St. John's for a close-to-home model that works.

"We don't really want to reinvent the wheel," said Cashin.

GoBus rides are booked at least 24 hours ahead of time, with the city-subsidized service picking up and dropping off people who can't ride the regular transit system. Its ridership has more than doubled since 2012, to about 145,000 rides a year.

Charters said that system isn't flexible, with the City of Corner Brook favouring fixing up its current routes. But Cashin and Penney feel otherwise, as their extra mobility needs mean planning ahead is a fact of life.

"There's very little spontaneity in our lives," Cashin said.

"We have to plan every part of our life, even just as simple as a bathroom break."

Lindsay Bird/CBC

The two women have been looking at social enterprise options to try to fill in the transportation gap, a project currently in its infancy.  One that they also hope could help raise the visibility of people with disabilities in the greater Corner Brook area.

"People say that we don't go to events, or what have you, or they don't see us in the community. But that's exactly our point. We can't get to the events, to show that we are interested, that we do want to participate, because we can't get out to them," said Cashin.

"When you make things more accessible, it's not just for the people that necessarily needs it, but it's for everyone, because everyone can benefit from being more accessible," said Penney.

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