Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, I was involved with an outspoken group of social activists advocating for an overhaul of our transportation system. The TTC I know today, and the system that existed then are entirely different. Today, there are low floor buses, elevators in subways, brailled information in subway stations, and new, accessible streetcars are on the way. But, in the analysis of this system, the question must be asked: “how accessible is transportation in Toronto?” Do we truly have what can be called accessible transit?
Accessible Transit – A daily struggle
It is very tempting to look at the TTC and applaud it for how much the situation has improved in the last decade to fifteen years. A broader spectrum of people can certainly utilize the system, the level of access has increased, and the system itself is overall far more friendly than ever before. Some of the distinct and long-awaited changes to the system are:
- Low-floor buses on many of the major routes
- Installation of elevators in many subway stations
- The anticipated addition of accessible streetcars to the system
- Reduction of people dependent on WheelTrans
- Station stop announcements on trains and public address announcements on buses, subways, streetcars and RT lines
- Stair upgrades and colour-contrasted stair edges
- The installation of tactile strips at the edge of the platforms in subway stations
- A 24-hour information line on the status of subway elevators
- Subway door chimes and flashing lights
- Designated Waiting Areas increase safety levels
- Platform video screens in all subway stations provide visual information
- Handbook for Accessible Travel
Accessible transit however isn’t only about elevators in subway stations, Designated Waiting Areas, and low floor buses. It is an attitude, a mind-set that provides a foundation for the design and creation of a system that is meant to be used by everyone. The AODA – Accessibility for Ontarians Act has set out a series of goals the TTC must meet by the year 2025. The Spinal Cord Injury Association of Ontario (@SCI_Ontario) is currently involved in a campaign to see that the promises made regarding accessible transit come to fruition. This comes from the website for Community Living Toronto.
In 1990, the TTC set a goal to make all subway stations accessible. Eventually the TTC committed to full station accessibility by 2020. Subsequently it introduced a new “target” of 2024. Three years ago, the TTC revealed it would only achieve subway/RT accessibility by 2025, the year mandated by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (2005).
Sadly, this spring the TTC reneged on its commitment to full accessibility and revealed it intends to contravene the law. It has no intention of making all stations accessible. Its current plan leaves 17 stations inaccessible in 2025, and provides no commitment that these stations will ever be accessible. After 35 years, the job will not be done.
Accessible transit is a hot topic because it’s about the basic mobility people require to live their lives. For years, I advocated on behalf of accessible transit because I believed it was the right thing to do. Now, as a woman whose mobility has decreased due to the onset of arthritis, I use the elevators in subway stations, and I’m grateful for the kneeling buses, but streetcars are hell for me, especially when I must take a cart and purchase groceries. I have become increasingly limited in my ability to travel as it’s painful to take long trips. But, using the TTC would be far more amenable to me if the streetcars were accessible, and all the subway stations had elevators. The days when the elevators are out of service forces me to walk up and down stairs, something I’m less and less able to do over time. Other individuals with disabilities cope with these same challenges. Furthermore, there is the ongoing issue of when the new, accessible streetcars will be available. To date, only one is in operation on the Spadina line.
Accessibility advocate and lawyer David Lepofsky (@DavidLepofsky) said there are still several “big ticket items” the agency needs to address however, most significantly the fact that only 34 of 69 subway stations are fully accessible. Compounding the problem is that facilities at the accessible stations aren’t always reliable, he said, which can strand people who use mobility devices. “People who go to work in an office building and have to ride an elevator every day don’t wonder, “Gee I wonder if the elevator is going to work today. . . You just go in and the elevators work,” he said. “That’s not the experience with TTC elevators and escalators and so on, and that’s been an issue for years.”
As with other groups of people in society who have long been disenfranchised, people with disabilities must fight for every success we make in our society. The lack of initiative on this issue is alarming because accessible transit should be viewed as a universal right. What other group of people in society are disconnected from the transit system in the same way as people with disabilities? The truth is – none.
According to a 2016 report $249 million has been spent on accessible transit features for the TTC. Given that the goal of a barrier-free system is only eight years away, this amount may seem impressive, but it’s insufficient to create the system Torontonians deserve. It is important to keep in mind that while certain retrofits such as elevators in subway stations, power-operated sliding doors, ramps and signage are essential, there are people with many types of disabilities that find the system less than accessible for their needs. The following quote expresses the issue in a succinct way:
The point of this statement is to highlight the harsh reality for people with disabilities in this matter. The system must be designed with people in mind and in the broadest context possible for people with disabilities. For example, what are the specific needs of persons from the Deaf Culture? Do people with neurological disabilities or psychiatric disabilities have specific needs that have yet to be addressed? Accessible transit in this broader definition becomes far more complex. The Canadian Hearing Society (@CHSCanada) published a report on accessibility for persons in the Deaf Culture and began with a review of the history and impact of ableism. The point this review makes is that language is a powerful too in any society. The way people speak about persons with disabilities is often a key to the foundations to their deeper beliefs and principles. The report states the following: “Ableism describes prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviours toward persons with a disability. Definitions of ableism hinge on one’s understanding of normal ability and the rights and benefits afforded to persons deemed normal.”
Some of the features that would translate into accessible transit for people from the Deaf Culture are:
- Education/training for TTC employees on servicing persons who are Deaf or hard of hearing
- Visual display information systems on all lines, buses, subways, streetcars and GO trains
- Ensure all TTY phones available in public places have proper seating and lighting for appropriate use
- FM infra-red and audio loop sound amplification systems to be made available in all subway stations. These systems assist people with hearing loss by bridging the sound to the individual’s ear, helping to overcome problems of distance and background noise with which hearing aids cannot cope
- Visual fire alarms and other emergency information
The journey towards complete accessibility for the TTC is still years away, and the reality is, that the TTC may, or may not remain committed to the goals as set out by the AODA.
Another large group of people who often face barriers in using public transportation are persons who cope with mental illness. There continues to be a great deal of misinformation and stigma around mental illness, irrespective of large initiatives to educate and inform people, and generate greater awareness. The well-known agency in the United States known as SAMHSA – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (@samhsagov) has covered this topic in a report published in 2004.
“For mental health services consumers, the difficulties frequently are compounded because they often are ineligible for programs serving people with other types of disabilities. The transportation barriers that face mental health consumers fall into five categories that can be called the five A’s: Affordability, Accessibility, Applicability, Availability, and Awareness (Adapted from the Beverly Foundation, 2004).”
Access to transportation is essential to access employment, health care, social services, recreation facilities, as well as connecting with family and friends. Poor, or lack of access to transit reinforces social isolation which will only further harm a person coping with mental illness. One of the strongest issues faced by persons coping with mental illness is that they experience an inordinately high rate of poverty. This further isolates them from the mainstream of society. The Canadian Mental Health Association (@CMHA_NTL) rightly recognizes accessible transit as one of the primary issues for people coping with mental health issues.
“People with lived experience of mental health issues or addictions (PWLE) may experience discrimination or accessibility barriers in many areas of life, including health services, employment, housing, education, and transportation.”
The CMHA also correctly raises the issue regarding the connection between mental illness and poverty.
“Poverty affects nearly 1.8 million Ontarians and is both a cause and a consequence of poor mental health. People can experience economic hardship as a result of a variety of difficult life situations, such as divorce, a death in the family, loss of job, etc. The resulting loss of income may lead to poverty in other essential resources, such as housing, education and employment.”
Accessible transit has not yet been achieved in Toronto, but there’s a large question as to whether the TTC will make the AODA deadline. An article published only a few months ago laid out the considerable barriers that challenge people with disabilities trying to access the TTC. Jessica Geboers penned an article about the difficulties of accessing the TTC as a woman with cerebral palsy.
In conversation with Marcia Yale, National Secretary for the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, and a member of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities’ (@ccdonline) Transportation Committee as well as her organization’s alternate representative to the Canadian Transportation Agency’s Accessibility Advisory Committee. Ms. Yale has a great deal of experience in dealing with transportation concerns. Her frank comments were responses to questions on the challenges to accessibility in the TTC, as well as whether the TTC will be able to meet the AODA mandated guidelines.
Ms. Yale commented that it took two human rights complaints just to force the TTC to announce stops on the buses, streetcars and subways. She recalled how prior to that, she often missed her stops as she was forced to try and reach the driver for information. Ms. Yale noted that it was a shame that human rights complaints had to be filed to get the TTC to make these changes. While she recognizes that there are now tactile strips on platforms, strips to locate escalators, and braille signage in elevators, this is the sum total of what the TTC has accomplished. There are no braille signs to indicate where a person is, how to reach the escalators, or elevators. Persons who are blind or have low vision are constantly forced to ask people where they are which is frustrating and makes a person feel far less independent.
From Ms. Yale’s perspective, the TTC could do so much to make the lives of people with disabilities easier when trying to access the system. Ideally, braille signs should be set up right near the printed information and placed at about four feet from the ground. People would know where the information is located and expect to find it there. In addition, there should be braille signs on the platform level. Visual information displays which announce the arrival of the next train and offer updates on delays should be in audio; otherwise they are only helpful to a portion of the people and not everyone.
Ms. Yale also stated the following: “I can’t see them getting elevators in all the stations due to when some of them were built. Some of those stations…I don’t know where they will put in an elevator.” Due to the fact that not all subway stations are accessible she believes “wheelchair users find it a nightmare…you could get stuck anywhere.”
Advocate Geof Collis added his concerns. “I personally am getting worn down by the process and the politicians that just pay lip service, I think they are trying to wear us down so
we’ll just go away.” He agreed with Marcia Yale that it is “unlikely” the TTC will meet the AODA guidelines by the stated deadline.
The TTC were contacted and spokesperson, Kadeem Griffiths provided the following response: TTC is in compliance with all AODA requirements that are in force to-date. With respect to subway station accessibility, a report went forward to our TTC Board last month with a status update confirming that TTC intends to make all remaining subway stations accessible by 2025 through our Easier Access phase III program. The report is available here. “The scope of work of the Easier Access program will provide accessibility to the remaining subway stations. An accessible path will be provided from street level to subway platforms with the installation of elevators, automatic doors, ramps, fare gates and wayfinding features.”
With respect to the new streetcars Griffiths provided the following: “Low-floor accessible streetcars are starting to operate on Toronto’s streets, on the 510 Spadina, 509 Harbourfront, and 514 Cherry routes. TTC plans to have accessible streetcars operating on all routes by 2019. Note that some older inaccessible streetcars will continue to operate during busy periods until 2024, mixed in with accessible vehicles, in order to accommodate increasing streetcar ridership.” He also wrote that eight routes will have the new accessible streetcars by 2019. They are:
|511 Bathurst||Spring 2017|
|505 Dundas||Fall 2017|
|512 St Clair||2018|
|503 Kingston Rd||2019|
With regards to concerns by persons who are blind or have low vision, his response was: “TTC currently provides information in Braille in and around elevators. Centre subway platforms have tactile wayfinding paths for customers with vision impairments to follow to stairs, escalators, elevators and the Designated Waiting Area. The subway platform edges also have yellow warning tactile attention indicators. In 2017 TTC staff will be looking into new emerging smartphone-based wayfinding technologies that could assist customers with vision impairments to determine if any of these would be appropriate for implementation in the subway system.”
In the final analysis, questions remain as to whether or not the TTC is doing enough to create a fully accessible system. The report which Griffiths provided outlines a huge list of barriers and challenges to the full accessibility of all subway stations, including the need to acquire land, and work on stations that are so small, the inclusion of an elevator may be extremely difficult to almost impossible. The modifications made for persons who are blind or have low vision have already been in the system for some time. They do not, help people navigate the actual stations. They do not make it easier for people to know where they are and where they need to go. This author questions how smartphone technology can be the answer to these outstanding and serious access problems. Also, with respect to the new, accessible streetcars, the TTC admits that they will only be available on eight lines. This is hardly full accessibility. There are eleven streetcar lines, and it seems the TTC has yet to roll out their plans for the remaining lines.
Accessible transit is not a certain amount of subway elevators, or a few accessible streetcar routes, or low floor buses on some routes but not others. It is nothing less than full accessibility for everyone who uses the system. Until the TTC owns up to this reality, then everything it’s doing is good and going in a positive direction; but, it’s not an accessible transit system, and they shouldn’t make the claim that it is. Everyone who pays to use that system, and the high taxes we pay for its upkeep and refurbishment means it belongs to all of us, and all of us still can’t completely use the TTC.