Allan Hawkins sat in his wheelchair in the reception area of his South Surrey care facility with a blanket wrapped around his legs and a jaunty, English-style peaked cap on his head.
It was his 85th birthday, and his daughter and her husband had planned to take him out for a nice lunch at the local White Spot restaurant.
They’d planned ahead, and booked a taxi in advance, making sure the company knew they needed wheelchair-accessible transportation, with an arrival time of 10:30 a.m., to give them plenty of time to get there and enjoy the special occasion.
But 10:30 a.m. came and went, and they were still waiting.
When they called the cab company, they were told a taxi was on its way, so John Bogar went ahead to the restaurant to secure a table, while his wife, Jane Hawkins, waited with her father.
They kept waiting expectantly, excited for his milestone birthday celebration.
“Eventually, my wife was assured the taxi would be there in five minutes, but it did not show up,” Bogar said.
“My wife waited with her father in his wheelchair while I occupied a prime table during peak time at the restaurant. We all just waited and waited… shortly after 12 noon, we abandoned our waiting for the taxi, disappointed we could not celebrate the day as intended.”
The taxi simply not showing up, “completely ruined our day,” he said.
“It was his birthday. They made a commitment and we had an appointment in advance.”
Despite their repeated calls and attempts to clarify whether a cab would be coming, the fact they didn’t get any clear answers or an apology for the taxi’s failure to show up was frustrating, the couple said.
“We just gave up. It was so disappointing – they could have said, ‘We’re super busy,’ or told us there were no cabs available,” Bogar said.
Hawkins noted it wasn’t the first time a wheelchair-accessible taxi has shown up extremely late or, not at all.
“We’ve stood waiting here for hours,” she said, indicating the care facility’s lobby.
“It robs people of enjoying special moments in their lives.”
Grants announced to help
A lack of reliable wheelchair-accessible transportation for people with mobility issues isn’t anything new on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, or even across B.C. and all of Canada.
While HandyDART can be an option for the accessible community, it’s not a program everyone chooses to use, or may be eligible for.
“I use a wheelchair myself. I’ve had varying experiences across communities,” said Dan Coulter, the province’s Minister of State for Infrastructure and Transit.
“Some communities take quite a while for a taxi to come, some you have to book 24 hours in advance… in places like Vancouver, there can be problems, especially on nights with tons of peak use like Friday night.”
He remembered one time, on a Friday night in Vancouver when he was out with a friend, trying to get a taxi home was extremely difficult.
“I was told I had to wait for a cab for two hours… my friend and I decided to use a regular taxi, and I actually ended up breaking my knee,” Coulter said.
“I had a brace on my leg for eight weeks with my leg stuck out straight, so it was an ordeal.”
Coulter said experiences like his and Hawkins’ are the reason the provincial government introduced the Passenger Transportation Accessibility Program (PTAP), which is intended to improve services and experiences for the accessibility community by providing funding and training to the taxi industry.
The PTAP is funded by revenues collected from the per-trip fee that came into effect in September 2019 as part of the province’s efforts to introduce ride hailing and to modernize the taxi industry.
The per-trip fee was created to offset the regulatory costs and impacts of enabling ride-hailing operations and to help alleviate the impact that ride hailing has had on the availability of wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs).
Earlier this year, the province announced that nearly $3 million would be available to eligible taxi owner-operators for costs associated with maintaining their wheelchair-accessible taxis, and on May 1, they announced the 51 taxi companies that had proven eligible for $2.6 million in provincial grants.
Coulter said the grants will help clear financial barriers that have created a challenge to expand access for people with disabilities.
“Our government strongly believes in accessibility and strongly believes in everyone having the right to full participation in their communities,” Coulter said.
“Folks getting to work and school, restaurants or plays and then being able to return home safely and have that as a reliable source of transportation, is important to us.”
Right now, there are 603 wheelchair-accessible taxis approved for British Columbia, “but only 415 are currently on the road.”
“The maintenance on these vehicles is quite a bit more than your standard taxi, so a lot of these taxis are off the road due to maintenance concerns. That’s why the first intake of this program is (to) get those taxis on the road.”
Over the next two years, the ministry will launch three additional funding streams that will focus on reducing the cost of operating, purchasing and converting wheelchair-accessible taxis, and providing training to better support the passengers who rely on them.
“It’s a great thing for British Columbians – it gets people out of their homes and it gets them participating in their communities,” Coulter said.
“A lot of people, I think, take for granted they can call a cab and it will show up in a reasonable amount of time… this is going to make that a reality for folks that rely on accessible taxis as well.”
‘An additional barrier’
Former Surrey South MLA Stephanie Cadieux, who last May was named the Government of Canada’s first Chief Accessibility Officer, said the challenge of finding a wheelchair-accessible taxi isn’t restricted to B.C.
“It’s definitely an issue in a lot of places… this is not a story I have not heard before,” she said.
As someone who uses a wheelchair, she knows how frustrating a lack of reliable transportation can be, especially when she’s travelling.
“I certainly have had that challenge when I travel – it’s really problematic. You’re relying on a service you’ve put your faith in by booking for a time, and to have them not show up can really upset a person’s schedule, or ability to get to a doctor’s appointment or work appointment,” said Cadieux.
“We do have to recognize that people with disabilities are people with lives and schedules and they matter just as much as any other passenger, and we should be able to rely on the service just as anyone else can.”
UNITI executive director Doug Tennant said the lack of WAVs is definitely an issue when it comes to mobility-challenged people being able to participate in community events.
He remembered last year’s Dances at the Pier in White Rock, which UNITI sponsored, and how it was difficult for people with mobility issues to get there, “because the access to taxis that could take wheelchairs just wasn’t there.”
“It’s more difficult for people with disabilities to participate in the life of the community – especially in the evening or on weekends, when other people are out enjoying themselves,” he said.
“The really sad thing is a lot of people with disabilities are stuck at home, as this is just an additional barrier.”
More accountability needed
Even with the recent funding announcements, some feel taxi companies should be held more accountable, especially when wheelchair-accessible vehicles are booked ahead of time and the transportation shows up extremely late, or often, not at all – without any explanation or apology.
Jackie Poirer, who is a unit clerk at a residential care facility in South Surrey, said she sees wheelchair-accessible taxis simply not show up on a weekly basis.
“We have a convalescent unit here and we get patients from all the various hospitals, and most of them need orthopaedic follow-up appointments,” Poirer said, noting the clients are usually in wheelchairs.
“I’ve had patients who sat in the lobby for three-and-a-half hours,” she said.
“It’s just heartbreaking. It disturbs me a lot.”
Poirer said she has tried making complaints, but because she’s not the passenger/fare, only the one booking for patients, she has been told the complaint must come from the customers themselves. She said she has tried contacting the taxi company to complain, but, “I just get ping-ponged around.”
“Sometimes, (patients) are going to surgery and they have to get there – they have to get there – and the taxi just doesn’t show,” she said.
“The elderly are so vulnerable. The feeling I get is that they just don’t care… So who is going to make them accountable?”
The Peace Arch News reached out multiple times over a period of several weeks to taxi companies that serve the Semiahmoo Peninsula seeking comment, but received no response, or were directed to managers who were unavailable.
The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure partners with Consumer Protection BC (CPBC) to collect feedback on taxi services, according to ministry staff. CPBC considers, records and refers complaints to the ministry for investigation/resolution, and the ministry’s Passenger Transportation Enforcement Officers (PTEOs) also take complaints directly.
Over the past year the ministry has received, either directly or via CPBC, more than 30 complaints regarding mobility challenges.
There is very strict criteria outlined in Passenger Transportation Regulations regarding trip refusals, ministry staff noted.
Drivers not compliant with this criteria may be ticketed $288 per offence and administrative penalties may also be applied to the driver’s company.
MLA for South Surrey-White Rock Trevor Halford, who is also shadow minister for transportation and infrastructure, said he knows from his own experience a few years ago the challenges of trying to book a wheelchair-accessible taxi for his grandfather, whether it was for a doctor’s appointment, grocery shopping or even to vote.
“In terms of finding one, it was incredibly cumbersome to do so,” Halford said.
“And then more often than not, it wouldn’t show up or it wouldn’t be able to show up at the time you requested it.”
While the PTAP funding will help, Halford said it’s important people not be left stranded, potentially outside in the cold or dark, for hours without transportation, simply because they are in a wheelchair.
“We need to make sure that we have cabs available here that can take people with wheelchairs, full stop,” he said.
Coulter said the government is working toward that goal, and to eventually, provide more resources for taxi drivers.
“We also want to provide access to learning opportunities to improve drivers’ service to people who depend on these vehicles,” Coulter said.
“Eventually, we want to reduce the extra costs associated with purchasing and converting WAVs. We know as the population ages – that we are all only all temporarily-abled – as the population ages that’s where the demographic is going,” he said.
“This is going to be good for everyone.”