Members of Metro Vancouver’s disability community say they feel like “pawns,” caught between the region’s taxi industry, new ride-hailing companies and the provincial government.
The outrage comes after the Vancouver Taxi Association said Monday that it would no longer subsidize drivers who operate accessible vehicles, given the province’s approval of ride-hailing companies who aren’t required to include such vehicles in their fleet.
“How on earth are people with disabilities going to get around?” asked Monica Gärtner, who uses a motorized wheelchair, Tuesday.
“This is really not appropriate to use us as a bargaining chip in order to get your way.”
Gärtner pointed to the fact that Metro Vancouver’s transit system actually relies on accessible cabs as a fallback when its HandyDART system is at capacity.
She said there’s already a shortage of the accessible vehicles on the road, something she says this change will only worsen, and with unanticipated effects.
“What about work, what about social activities? It’s important for people to get out at night,” she said.
“If you can’t get a transportation ride, what are you going to do? Sit at home and look at the four walls all day? Well, of course you’re going to get depressed or have anxiety.”
Vancouver Taxi Association spokesperson Carolyn Bauer said up until this point, cab companies had found ways to make it worth drivers’ time to operate the vehicles.
“How the drivers get subsidized by the companies is they either get a position up, which means that if they do a trip, they get put up first again, so they can do another trip out, and then they put back first again,” she said.
“Other companies incentivize their drivers by offering them $5 extra per trip to push them out to make sure that they are making money.”
But Yellow Cab president Kulwant Sahota said four of his company’s accessible vehicles are already parked because employees are switching over to ride-hailing companies.
“Our hands are tied, they don’t want to drive these,” he said.
“Everybody here is here to feed their families, and if they can’t make an income from driving these vehicles, then what you do?”
Taxi drivers say operating an accessible cab comes with major costs, including lost time and fewer fares, and say it doesn’t make sense for them to choose the vehicles without a subsidy.
Kushwinder Diwana, a Black Top taxi driver with 20 years experience in the region, said driving one of the vehicles means spending more and earning less.
“Nobody wants to drive those vehicles. That’s why I’m driving a sedan car today, because if I drive an accessible vehicle I will take 50 per cent less home,” he told Global News.
“Why would I pay from my pocket? I’m a driver.”
That’s not an answer that satisfies CKNW producer and wheelchair user Ben Dooley, who said while he is usually able to take public transit, it’s often not an option.
“Not everybody is able to get to a bus stop or a SkyTrain station. And that taxi can be an integral park of somebody’s travel day,” said Dooley.
He said the Passenger Transportation Board (PTB) should intervene, but argued the regulator didn’t seem interested in supporting wheelchair users when it approved ride-hailing services, either.
“I don’t understand why the PTB is allowing ride-hailing vehicles to operate without providing accessible transportation,” said Dooley.
“They’ve got so many rules in place it kind of feels like the disabled population was overlooked.”
Transportation Minister Claire Trevena said dropping the subsidies was the VTA’s choice, and that “people will judge that on what does happen.”
“I’m obviously concerned about accessibility,” she said. “If the people’s ability to access a safe ride is limited, I’m concerned.”
But Trevena could not point to any concrete action on the part of the government to improve the situation, save for the 30-cent-per trip ride-hailing companies were being charged for rides in non-accessible vehicles, which will be earmarked for accessibility programs.
For their part, Uber and Lyft have suggested they are looking into ways to provide accessible rides, but have made no promises.
“Uber is always looking at ways to improve accessibility via the app,” said the company in a statement.
“We’ve asked the province to provide access to the accessibility fee it charges on Uber rides, so we can look at helping those who require a (wheelchair accessible vehicle).”
Lyft said that its drivers are expected to “make every reasonable effort” to transport people with wheelchairs, and that drivers who do not try will be investigated.
It also pointed to the province’s 30-cent fee, and said it is working to expand its “Access Mode” service, currently available in Toronto, which specifically services people with larger wheelchairs.
In the meantime, passengers like Dooley and Gärtner are left feeling ignored.
“It’s an essential service, it’s entrenched in our transportation system,” said Gärtner of taxi service.
“I’ve talked to a lot of able-bodied people who don’t realize what disabled people go through until they talk to people like me,” added Dooley.
— With files from Sarah MacDonald, Richard Zussman and Emily Lazatin