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Expanded Transit For Kelowna: The Power of Collective Action

In the Federation we say that blind people can compete on equal terms given training and opportunity. Our job as the organized blind is to see that training is available and that opportunity exists.

When we think about independent travel for blind people, we often focus on the need for good cane travel training or the availability of guide dogs. That's the training side of the equation. If that were all that were needed, our job would still be difficult but relatively straight forward. We would need to ensure that all blind people developed techniques they needed to travel on their own. Once that was done, equality would be ours.

Unfortunately, life is rarely that simple. There is still the matter of opportunity to consider. All of the independent travel methods for blind people involve walking. Our lives would be limited, indeed, if we were restricted to going only where our feet could carry us. Blind people need to have at their disposal an alternative technique to replace the private automobile used by the sighted.

In larger cities, buses and rapid rail systems are generally adequate alternatives. Though they lack much of the convenience of the private automobile, they still provide transportation that permits reasonably flexible movement throughout the community. In smaller communities the situation is much different. Buses run infrequently or not at all. Evening and weekend service is usually spotty and many communities have no service at all on Sundays.

This was the situation in Kelowna until recently. The most frequent service was every half-hour. Some areas had buses every two hours and some were not served at all. There was no Sunday service. A paratransit system called Handydart provided extremely limited service to the elderly and disabled, including blind people. Though the service was supposed to be available from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday, the buses were fully scheduled from 7:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays so patrons were told to schedule their travel between 10:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. This could hardly be called adequate or flexible. The blind person wanting to travel efficiently in Kelowna had to be prepared to pay the cost of taxi service - a cost which was prohibitive for anyone on a fixed income.

Poor bus service in Kelowna had been a source of frustration for much of the community for several years, but it was only in the Fall of 1994 that the community organized effectively to make changes. The Kelowna Chapter of the NFB:AE played a significant role in the broad based community effort which has begun to bring about meaningful change. In September, 1994, we invited the head of a local taxi company to our Chapter meeting. He had proposed revamping the paratransit system to provide on-demand taxi service to eligible riders, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week at a cost of $1.50 per ride to the consumer. He contended that the cost of government subsidies to provide this expanded service would be less than the cost of subsidizing paratransit buses.

The operators of the Handydart asked to speak to the October Chapter meeting to explain why they felt their system was more advantageous to consumers. They maintained that their services were efficient and cost effective and pledged to work with us to resolve any individual problems.

Chapter members Rick and Chantelle Oakes described the system in place in the Vancouver area. Anyone eligible for the Handydart program is also permitted to buy coupons which can be used like cash for paying taxi fares. Each consumer pays $40 per month for coupons valued at $80. In effect, the program amounts to a $40 per month subsidy for taxi fares. It is not necessary to use all of the coupons within the month since they are valid for one year from the date of purchase.

After much discussion within the Chapter, we contacted Mr. Robert Hobson, Member of Kelowna City Council and Chairman of the Central Okanagan Regional District. He explained the relationship between local government and B.C. Transit, the provincial agency which allocates funds to local communities for transit and sets provincial policy. He invited Paul Gabias to speak to the Transit Committee of City Council and Officials of B.C. Transit who were in town to discuss the 1995-96 Transit Budget.

Judy Tyabji, MLA for Okanagan East, held two public meetings focusing on transportation. The recently appointed Head of B.C. Transit came to Kelowna for the second Town Hall meeting. The NFB:AE was well represented at both.

After much discussion within the Chapter, we prepared the following resolution for submission to City Council, the Regional District, Judy Tyabji, the Head of B.C. Transit and the Press.

Resolution Adopted by the Central Okanagan Chapter National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality October 15, 1994

Whereas: The freedom of citizens to move unhindered throughout the community is a hallmark of a democratic society; and

Whereas: The current limited shopper bus service in Kelowna restricts the mobility of blind individuals who cannot drive and must depend on some form of public transportation; and

Whereas: As it is currently structured and funded, the Handydart service is not a viable alternative even to the unacceptably meager fixed-route transit service, since its hours of service are limited to between 7:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. and demands on the service during rush-hour have the practical effect of limiting service to between 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.; in addition, the need to make the most efficient use of vans and drivers means that consumers are requested to book transportation at least two days in advance; and

Whereas: Taxis, though they are available twenty four hours a day on demand, are prohibitively expensive for many people; and

Whereas: The lack of adequate, affordable, public transportation in Kelowna and the Central Okanagan Regional District severely limits the ability of blind people to contribute fully to the community and to carry out their responsibilities as citizens; and

Whereas: The guiding principle of any transportation network for blind people should be that the consumers have maximum possible control over personal decisions about when and where to travel and its service should be affordable;

now, therefore,

Be it resolved by the Central Okanagan Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality in meeting assembled on October 15, 1994, that we urge B.C. Transit, the City of Kelowna, and the Central Okanagan Regional District to move as quickly as possible toward the creation of a viable commuter bus service, and

Be it further resolved that we recognize that interim steps are necessary until overall bus service can be upgraded and we call upon decision makers to do the following:

1.Increase the hours of Handydart service to permit service twenty four hours a day and to include Sunday service, with an emphasis on using taxis rather than vans for the expanded service since the differences in the nature of evening and weekend demands would make taxis more cost-effective per ride than van service.

2.Increase the amount budgeted to Handydart for taxis to augment their service during peak hours.

3.Implement a Taxi-Saver program to give consumers more affordable service and complete control over when, where, and for what purpose the service is used; and Be it further resolved that we call upon decision makers to consult with the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality on the implementation of these changes. The NFB:AE was featured prominently in the television and radio coverage of the Town Meeting. The Head of B.C. Transit expressed sympathy for our position and agreed to make our concerns a priority when preparing the 1995-96 Transit Budget which was scheduled to be completed in early April of 1995. The Chapter settled down for a long winter of patient waiting. Rick Oakes kept in contact with the City Officials responsible for the Transit Budget. They too, were forced to wait until the Provincial decisions were made. Finally, in June rather than April, we got word that the Head of B.C. Transit would be holding a press conference in Kelowna. With less than six hours notice, the Chapter mobilized to greet Transit Officials and the Press on the steps of City Hall.

As we had hoped, Kelowna had been awarded funds to provide Sunday bus service and to increase service on several severely underserved routes. Handydart had been given additional funds to be used in providing taxi service when its paratransit buses were not adequate to meet the demand. Fifty thousand dollars had also been budgeted to initiate a Taxi-Saver program in Kelowna.

The Kelowna Press made the changes in transit a top story on radio and television. The NFB:AE was featured prominently whenever the reactions of consumers were reported. Of course, we took the opportunity to thank publicly all those Officials who had helped bring about the improvements.

Even with these significant improvements, public transportation in Kelowna still does not compare with that in Montreal or Vancouver. Blind people still do not have equal opportunity to travel throughout the community. But there is no doubt that our situation is much better than it was a year ago. There is also no doubt that the work of the NFB:AE, combined with that of other community organizations, was indispensable in creating the positive result.