Illustration: Sam Hester

Book it: The reality of using Calgary Transit with a disability

Spontaneous trips aren’t an option for all.

Like many Calgary students, Mary Salvani takes public transit to attend university, get to doctor’s appointments and meet with friends. But unlike most transit riders, she has to foresee any unexpected changes to her plans—and avoid them.

That’s because she has to book all her transit trips at least a day in advance.

“I try to make sure all my classes are during the day if possible, in case there’s a problem with [transit] at night,” said Salvani, a second-year social justice student at St. Mary’s University. “Then I don’t have to worry. I’m kind of scared to stay at my school at night.”

Because Salvani has a physical disability caused by dyspraxia, a motor disorder that restricts her mobility, since 2016 she has relied on Calgary Transit Access (CTA).

CTA is a supplementary transit service based on shared rides that provide door-to-door transportation to Calgarians whose physical disabilities limit their capacity to use public transit safely and comfortably.

You shouldn’t have to plan your day around [transit].

Darby Lee Young,

Founder, Level Playing Field

Currently, CTA’s 3,000 weekday trips serve the transportation needs of 15,000 eligible Calgarians with a disability—but getting and maintaining access to the service can be as challenging as finding a bus shelter in an industrial area.

When Salvani applied to CTA, she had to fill out extensive paperwork describing her disability, include a diagnosis from a health care professional, and attend an in-person interview to determine her eligibility.

“They ask you to demonstrate how far you can walk,” Salvani said, explaining that the eligibility specialist who interviewed her asked she walk the distance between two chairs at an office. “It’s usually too short to really show you have a disability.”

The trip to Calgary Transit’s head office in the northeast to prove her disability in-the-flesh cost her $40 in cabs. (None of the fees associated with the application process are refundable.)

“I think you shouldn’t have to jump so many hoops,” Salvani said. “But I’m also used to it. It’s not like I’m okay with it, but if I wasn’t used to it, then that would be a lot harder.”

A longer ride

Besides its own fleet of handi-buses, CTA has a partnership with Checker Transportation and Associated Cabs to transport individuals who don’t require a wheelchair to move, though riders don’t get to choose their preferred type of vehicle or taxi company.

For $3.60, Salvani can share a taxi ride with up to three other CTA clients and get anywhere within city limits in an unreasonably long amount of time. The 20-minute drive between Salvani’s home in Inglewood and St. Mary’s University, in the city’s southeast, stretches for up to an hour, she explains, as this service picks up and takes each of three riders to their respective destinations.

I think you shouldn’t have to jump so many hoops.

Mary Salvani,

Calgary Transit Access Rider

“School starts at 8:15 in the morning, so I usually ask to be there at around eight because I don't want to be there so early that the school is still closed, especially in the winter,” Salvani said, noting that she usually schedules her pick-up at 7 a.m.

The hassles of relying on CTA go beyond simply planning one’s trips days in advance. When booking a trip, Salvani also has to disclose the purpose of her trip, be it education, medical, work or personal.

“You have to tell them why you’re going there,” Salvani said. “If you booked a personal [trip], they can change the time on you. It makes it hard for me to make an appointment with a friend.”

When personal trips aren't a priority

Darby Lee Young is founder and principal of Level Playing Field, an accessibility consulting agency based in Calgary. She says the barriers people with a disability experience in moving around their city are a matter of dignity, especially when it comes to their capacity to make impromptu decisions.

“You shouldn’t have to plan your day around [transit],” she said.

Because personal trips aren’t deemed a priority, CTA encourages customers to book these trips between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., or between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.—when the service ends. And pick-up times can change to accommodate the needs of other riders.

“Going home is one [trip] that they know it’s not for work,” Salvani said, noting that she doesn’t have a say on the time she’d like to arrive home. “I have a support worker who comes to my home sometimes to help me out, and I would like to be there when she arrives.”

I try to make sure all my classes are during the day if possible, in case there’s a problem with [transit] at night.

Mary Salvani,

Calgary Transit Access Rider

Moreover, when Salvani needs to reschedule a trip last-minute to go to the doctor instead of school, she risks being penalized if she doesn’t update her trip two hours prior to the initial booking. In its handbook, CTA warns that after 12 late cancellations within a 60-day window, the privilege of disabled Calgarians to use this service can be withdrawn permanently.

For riders who make regularly scheduled trips, CTA offers a subscription service so they don’t have to book each trip individually. However, the flexibility of this program to accommodate last-minute changes is limited.

“I don’t have a subscription service because there’s other rules there that are very hard for me to comply with,” Salvani said. “If you have a day off or a doctor’s appointment, you have to [make a change] almost a month in advance.”

While Salvani’s access to CTA isn’t conditional, it is for other riders. For instance, some Calgarians with a disability can only book a CTA trip when there’s snow or “icy conditions” in Environment Canada’s forecast for the day they wish to travel—despite the perils of our city’s icy sidewalks lasting much longer.

Calgary Transit did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The future of on-demand service

Recent research identifies the benefits of providing on-demand accessible transit services—as opposed to advanced trip planning like CTA does—to allow riders increased agency over their own lives. On-demand service offers flexibility and immediacy of response.

In 2021, Winnipeg adopted a first-come, first-serve on-demand service after a 2019 review deemed the limitations imposed by the previous trip-priority system as discriminatory.

(Winnipeg’s Transit Plus also requires an in-person assessment, but a diagnosis from a health-care professional is only needed for those legally blind.)

The City of Calgary has experimented with a couple pilot projects to test on-demand transit in suburban neighbourhoods, with the idea of potentially using a service like this to augment Calgary Transit Access—but it's just a possibility at this point.

There is a risk the updated plan’s focus on frequency may impact accessibility.

City of Calgary report on Transit

On December 8, city council's planning committee narrowly approved a direction for Calgary's transit strategy that would increase many Calgarians' walking distance to bus stops in exchange for boosting frequency on our city's primary transit network. (The strategy is slated to come back to committee by June 2023 for approval.)

City admin openly acknowledges that this direction could worsen transit for Calgarians with a disability.

“There is a risk the updated plan’s focus on frequency may impact accessibility,” says a city report. “Therefore, community-specific improvements to connect to transit stops and stations will be implemented during transit service reviews.”

But Young says considerations for people with disabilities need to be made from the get-go.

“We’ve got to start seeing people for people,” Young said. “Instead of adding accommodations, we start making sure that a space is available for everyone, and included from the start.”

Ximena González is a freelance journalist and The Sprawl's urban affairs writer. Her work has also appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Tyee and Jacobin.

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