The City of Ottawa is in the midst of hiring about 20 part-time and full-time customer service representatives to help speed up a sluggish Para Transpo booking service that riders say leaves them stuck on hold.
Pat Scrimgeour, OC Transpo's director of transit customer systems and planning, said Monday that "a good number" of those new workers would be trained to take Para Transpo calls — and that users should start noticing a decline in wait times in the coming weeks.
"That's one of the reasons we're doing it. It's what one of the major jobs for these new people [will be] when they're here," Scrimgeour told CBC News.
"We'll be able to answer those calls more quickly, because there will just be more people taking those calls."
2-hour waits not unheard of
Scrimgeour said OC Transpo recently changed its phone booking system, so the number of callers who can now be placed in the queue at any one time rises from just 20 to about 110.
Previously callers would frequently get a busy signal, forcing them to hang up and try again. The new technology allows more Para Transpo users to wait on the line for their turn to request a ride, said Scrimgeour.
Because the system hasn't been in place for very long, and hasn't faced the fluctuations that come with the different seasons — fewer people use Para Transpo during the summer, said Scrimgeour, so it's easier to reach an operator — OC Transpo doesn't have firm data on how long those wait times tend to be.
But according to Catherine Gardner, a community advocate for disability rights and a frequent Para Transpo user, callers can be stuck on hold for as long as two hours.
Sometimes, by the time they reach an operator, there are no more rides available, Gardner said. Hiring more operators is a "good step," she said, but the real issue is boosting service so that as more people become eligible to use Para Transpo there are enough drivers to go around.
"Putting new people on there, answering the phones? Great. But are we just going to get an earlier response saying that we can't get a trip? That's my concern," said Gardner.
"We have to do the two parts. We have to increase the service representatives answering the phones, and we also have to have more trips available to people. Because the demand is going up."
'Nobody should have to wait that long'
Mary Jane Clinkard takes Para Transpo from her home in Sandy Hill to her downtown office, and said the length of time she's been spending on hold over the past few months has been downright onerous.
"This winter, it's gotten really bad," she said. "You could wait 35 minutes, 45 minutes before somebody takes your call."
On Friday, Clinkard said, she spent 54 minutes waiting to speak to a human being. Like Gardner, Clinkard said adding more operators is the right move — but she also wants Para Transpo to allow its users to schedule rides online, as it's done in her hometown of Toronto.
"It's very frustrating. We should not have to deal with that. Nobody should have to wait that long," said Clinkard. "They should have online booking. A lot of cities in Canada already have that."
Scrimgeour said the possibility of an online booking system for Para Transpo was pitched at the city's transit commission a few years ago, but there were higher priority items to deal with first.
OC Transpo is still looking at allowing Para Transpo users to schedule trips online, but the "fundamental question" will be how to keep the process fair for all riders, Scrimgeour said.
"Some people who use Para Transpo don't have access to a computer. Some people, because of the nature of their disability, can't use a computer. Others have difficulty using a telephone," Scrimgeour said.
"[We don't want a situation] where people who have the fastest fingers and the fastest computers get the booking."