Why you could not pay me enough to use Ottawa’s Para Transpo.

Having at one time been responsible for helping someone who essentially depended on Para Transpo if conditions were severe enough that she couldn’t get around on her own, I had more than enough reason to become far too familiar with the system’s inner workings–which had the added benefit of being supported by information I’d obtained from other people with first or second hand experience before me. What it largely comes down to, then, is how in this or any other parallel universe are people expected to function with something that broken?

A little background, for the curious. Ottawa’s bus company, OC Transpo, does its best to make the majority of its mainline bus routes accessible. And more often than not, barring a driver who’s had the misfortune of being born dead from the neck up, they get it right. But even they can’t always help road/sidewalk conditions. So if it’s been a particularly nasty winter, which living in Ottawa we see an aweful lot of, people who are a lot less mobile than me have one of two choices. They can fight with Para Transpo, which OC Transpo also runs when they think of it, or they can stay home. And if you’re being paid not to stay home, your only real option then is that first one. Which makes stories like this one always the fun sort to read.

A disabled woman whose scheduled Para Transpo rides have been suspended for a week says the service should allow more flexibility for riders.

Ginette Bastien is a public servant who relies daily on the service to get to work. Para Transpo suspended her scheduled daily trips because, Bastien says, the service feels she cancelled her pickups at the last minute too many times.

During the suspension she must call each day to request a ride, and hope one is available. Unlike regularly scheduled trips, she will not be guaranteed a ride.

Now, in theory I can sort of see where Para Transpo’s coming from. In theory. However, also in theory, I can sort of see where communism’s coming from as well–and, well, we know how well that worked out. People get sick. It’s kind of a fact of life. And if you happen to be a disabled people, you’re probably going to be sick a little more often than most. That’s the way of life, sucky as it is. And sure, it would probably be absolutely wonderful if you could plan for such a thing in advance. But anyone who’s ever woken up in the morning and felt like something the dog dragged inn, chewed on for 5 minutes then left hanging knows better. Except, apparently, the folks at Para Transpo.

Now, I will say this much. On the occasions where the system works, the system works relatively well. However, to make the system work, you essentially have a minimal amount of room for actually having an honest to goodness something that vaguely resembles a life. From the article:

Scrimgeour added those suspended from regular bookings can book Para Transpo’s services a day before or use Para Transpo’s Taxi Coupon Program. Regular OC Transpo’s buses are also accessible to Para Transpo customers who can travel independently, he said.

Which is true, provided the stars align in such a way that:

  • you call early enough the day before, the definition of which changes depending on how many other people need to be doing exactly the same thing you’re doing,
  • they can find room in the next day’s on-demand schedule to slide you in in such a way that you can get where you’re going and back without being required to be out for 6 hours for a one-hour appointment,
  • the driver you get assigned to knows 1: where he’s picking you up from and 2: where he’s dropping you off (you’d be surprised how many drivers don’t actually know their way around the city),
  • and

  • you don’t mind your ride potentially getting you there late for your appointment and, assuming you’re not waiting 6 hours for your return trip, showing up early to pick you up–then potentially leaving because you weren’t ready.

Most of this I’ve either seen or experienced or, in some cases, had relayed to me. Plus fun things like dropping a person in a wheelchair at entirely the wrong building, while the attendant meeting said person is waiting at the correct one with no idea what’s up (this was before everyone and their cat had a cell phone). In short, you’re probably slightly less likely to develop a migraine if you schedule all your trips on a regular basis, usually several weeks in advance, and almost never have to cancel for any reason beyond things like weather. However, to do that, you’d pretty much have to give up on ever deciding to do something like, for instance, have any kind of actual social life outside of your job, or medical appointments, or what have you. Where someone can call up John Q. Person at half past after-hours and see about meeting him somewhere for coffee, unless Jane Q. Wheely’s having a day where she can actually do something on her own, that same conversation’s going to involve picking a hopefully not entirely too obscure time for the day after tomorrow, then hoping she’s on the phone early enough (they still haven’t figured out online booking) that the time she said she’d meet said friend for coffee isn’t already occupied by someone who forgot to schedule the doctor’s appointment he knew about for 6 months. I can’t imagine there are a lot of Para Transpo users who are overly enthusiastic about that system. Which is precisely why I need to resist the urge to snark on the occasions someone’s been surprised by the fact I both don’t and won’t use it.

In fairness, it’s entirely possible they’d accept someone like me if I bothered to apply. And a few years ago, not knowing then what I know now, I considered applying. But seeing how they work in practice and the criteria they base that practice on (PDF), I have a very strong suspicion that one of two things would happen. Either I wouldn’t be accepted on account of I’m what they’d consider too independent–which, for the record, would be the first time that’s ever worked against me–or they’d accept me, but I’d end up giving up on them because my daily routine–particularly when I can manage to afford to do more than sit at home–can’t be appropriately pigeon-holed into some kind of narrow scheduling margin they can work with. Very likely, however, it would be that first one.

“Persons with a disability would generally be considered eligible for Para Transpo if by
attempting to use OC Transpo’s regular fixed-route transit service, their health would be
severely endangered or the attempt would likely lead to bodily harm”.

While I may not always do things the supposedly safe way, I would probably rule myself out of this part of their criteria in approximately 10 seconds, provided they didn’t catch me on an off day wherein I’ve been drinking for a day and a half already. I’ve been told I can handle myself better in some ways than a fully able-bodied sighted person, though I’m not entirely sure how much stock I’d necessarily put in that. Still, it would be more than enough that they wouldn’t touch me. The second part of that criteria, however, is a maybe.

It goes on to say
“A person with a disability, who does not qualify for Para Transpo’s door-to-door service
in the summer months, may still be eligible for service during the winter”. An example
of a person who would be eligible for Para Transpo on a winter-only basis may be a
person who is visually impaired who can navigate the regular fixed-route service except
when there is ice and snow on the ground.

A case could probably be made, if I wanted to push it, that that would apply to me. I can do it, sure, and have done it pretty much effortlessly for as long as I’ve lived in Ottawa, but it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to get someone to see the possibility that blind geek plus Ottawa winter equals not necessarily the safest thing in the history of ever. But here’s why I don’t push that.

Winters up here in general, and this one in particular, can’t be planned for in advance. By the time there’s the potential for possibly unsafe weather, the service would do me absolutely no good. A situation where the service might possibly have been an option for me came up last month. In the span of a day, Ottawa was subjected to 50 CM of snow. By the time we had word it was coming, and quickly, it was well past the latest possible time I could realisticly expect to arrange a ride home and not have it take 6 years to happen. And at the end of the day, it wouldn’t have done me any more of a favour than what I ended up doing instead–I took one look outside when classes were over that day, then got hold of Uber for my lift home–and still beat the worst of it. It cost me $9, but I knew where my ride was, I knew when my ride would get here, and more importantly, I didn’t need to be able to predict the near future to obtain it.

In short, Uber filled the role Para Transpo thinks might be adequate for me better than Para Transpo has for probably anyone. And there are people who need Para Transpo to fill that role a whole lot more than I do. If Para Transpo can’t do it for them without provoking small migraines, and this is supposed to be their primary customer base, you could not pay me enough to use them. Not even if you somehow managed to collect the money Para Transpo’s saying they’re owed.

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