Hamilton Ends Free Bus Rides for Blind, Disabled Residents

Advocates are urging council to reconsider the end of the ‘voluntary pay’ program – or at least offer more accessible boarding and payment options. July 2, 2024
By Matthew Van DongenReporter

Hamilton has ended free transit for blind residents and those using wheelchairs, but affected riders are pushing city council to rethink the change.

Council voted last year to adopt a new affordable transit program that offers a 30 per cent fare discount to low-income riders and families. In theory, up to 88,000 residents are eligible.

But as of July 1, the city also ended a long-standing “voluntary pay” program for blind residents and those using large mobility devices. That program allowed wheelchair users to board the bus through the rear door, a practice that is also now supposed to end.

The latter change, in particular, will make it “extremely challenging” for Jake Maurice to continue using the HSR with his wheelchair and service dog, Ellie.

“I feel like I will be losing a huge piece of my independence,” said the 27-year-old daily transit rider.

Maurice said the layout at the front of many HSR buses makes it difficult to avoid bumping into, or rolling over, the feet of seated riders “who won’t or are unable to move” out of his path to a designated wheelchair space. Rear-door boarding largely avoids this problem, he said.

Maurice is able to carefully roll himself up bus ramps with Ellie walking behind him but having to simultaneously manipulate a PRESTO tap card is “probably not going to work.”

“I’m afraid it is going to result in injury to myself or my service dog,” he said.

Maurice was one of several residents and advocates who urged councillors to reconsider the end of the voluntary program at the final public works committee meeting before the July 1 deadline.

The free transit option was originally supposed to stop in January, but council voted to add a six-month grace period that is now over.

Maurice said he has seen rear-door boarding offered on Toronto buses, along with back-of-the-bus payment options or portable “tap” technology that allows wheelchair users to pay after reaching a safe, designated spot.

James Kemp, who chairs the city’s accessibility committee for persons with disabilities, reiterated the program changes – and “inadequate” PRESTO payment options – are leaving some residents at a disadvantage.

“I cannot argue against the HSR requiring (all residents) to pay fares, but they have to provide us with an accessible means to do so,” he said, arguing the city is “forcing us to conform to what everyone else can do.”

Brad Evoy, from the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, told councillors the end of the voluntary-pay program means further economic hardship for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Evoy said extending affordable transit to more people is good – but not if it means “ostracizing” disabled riders who either cannot afford to pay or negotiate the new boarding requirements.

The new discount program “isn’t really about equity,” he argued, if it effectively excludes some residents from being able to take the bus.

At that meeting, transit head Maureen Cosyn Heath stressed the goal of the new affordable transit program was to “help as many Hamiltonians as possible,” but added “we know it is not a perfect program.”

Cosyn Heath said the city continues to advertise the new program and run “outreach” sessions to help disabled residents get used to front-door boarding.

She acknowledged a “a lack of appreciation” for the Metrolinx-owned PRESTO automated payment technology, but noted Hamilton – like most other GTA cities – is contractually bound to use the system.

She estimated five riders or fewer ask to use rear-door boarding on any given day, but added drivers can still use their discretion to make that option available if necessary in the future.

The affordable transit fare pilot program is attracting about 40 applications a day, she told councillors, but a total tally for riders now using the discount was not available at the meeting.

Because the program is a pilot, council can make tweaks or larger changes in the months to come, Cosyn Heath stressed.

Some councillors signalled a willingness to consider changes but not without more data and specific recommendations to chew on.

Ideally, a formal recommendation would come from the city’s own accessibility committee after consultation with other groups representing disabled residents, said Coun. Cameron Kroetsch.

“I think what we’re hearing from people is there are gaps (in the current pilot),” he said in an interview. “I’m open to hearing suggestions for what the solutions might be.”

Kemp later said he is hopeful potential recommendations will be discussed at a future accessibility committee meeting. The next opportunity is July 9.

Matthew Van Dongen is a Hamilton Spectator reporter specializing in transportation and the environment. Reach him at mvandongen@thespec.com.

Original at https://www.thespec.com/news/council/presto-hsr-affordable-transit-program/article_e2363c55-fab9-5946-9ff6-6f9e5ace8aa2.html