Abbotsford’s bus system continues to breach a human rights code requirement that transit stops be called out to assist the visually impaired, despite repeated audits documenting the ongoing issue.
That’s a problem, an advocate for the blind says, noting that hundreds of visually impaired Abbotsford residents rely on transit to get around. But there’s still no decision on when the most obvious solution to the issue – automatic ride-calling technology – might be seen in Abbotsford.
Recently, BC Transit agreed to pay out more than $11,000 to a Kamloops woman for a pair of incidents, including having a driver who failed to call out stops.
The lack of called-out stops was highlighted in the two most recent audits of the system, which were obtained by The News through a freedom of information request.
An audit in May 2017 found that not one of the buses evaluated had stops called out. The ensuing report directed the manager of the system – which is operated by privately owned First Transit – to “ensure compliance with” BC Transit’s policy.
But an audit 10 months later, in March 2018, found stops called out on only two of 13 buses. A News reporter who recently rode several different buses heard no stops called out by drivers.
While drivers are accommodating to those riders who verbally request notification of a stop, Shoko Kitano, who works for the CNIB, said that requires visually impaired people to sacrifice some of their independence and to disclose their condition to a stranger. It’s also a problem when a driver forgets a call-out has been requested and leaves a rider at an unfamiliar location, said Kitano, who is visually impaired herself.
“It’s very difficult to get around, especially when a person is dropped off at a random place,” Kitano said. “Drivers are human too. They forget, and we understand that.”
Many people with visual impairments do not wear or carry anything that would distinguish themselves as such, Kitano noted. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind has 776 clients registered in Abbotsford.
“People who have vision loss – it’s a spectrum,” she said.
Five years ago, the Canadian Federation for the Blind declared BC Transit buses were discriminating against visually impaired people by not providing call-outs. The CNIB and BC Transit came to a legal agreement in which BC Transit committed to having drivers call out stops.
That led to pushback from the union representing Victoria bus drivers, which said the policy would be distracting and overly onerous on drivers. A back-and-forth ensued that eventually saw that system’s buses receive an automated system in 2015, a year after the issue first emerged.
Abbotsford’s buses remain without that technology, though. and drivers are expected to call out stops, BC Transit spokesperson Jonathon Dyck said.
“If a passenger notices a driver is not calling out the stops, we encourage them to ask the driver to do so and report the route and time to BC Transit so that we can follow up as appropriate,” Dyck wrote in an email.
He also said BC Transit is introducing new technology on its buses that will include voice announcers and visual displays. But it has still not yet been determined when that technology will make its way to Abbotsford’s bus system. The technology, dubbed NextRide, has already been rolled out in Kelowna, Kamloops, Whistler, Squamish, Comox Valley and Nanaimo. The Prince George transit system is the only one of comparable size to Abbotsford’s that has yet to receive the technology.
Bryan Bickley, a representative with the Abbotsford bus drivers’ CUPE unit, said there has not been consistent local enforcement or training related to calling out stops.
Bickley said drivers will be open to discussing the matter with the employer and how to call out stops in a way that doesn’t compromise the operation of the buses.
“As a union, we understand that accessibility piece too, but we have to ensure that our drivers are operating their buses safely.”
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In general, riders have positive feelings about drivers. Although the system is plagued with reliability issues that are prompting a route overhaul this summer, a majority of respondents to a survey last year declared drivers to be courteous.
And aside from the calling-out issue, last year’s auditors also found drivers to perform well.
“It was noted that several drivers handled unusual customer events in an effective manner,” the audit declared. “Two events concerning low payment and one double-stroller situation were all handled respectfully by the drivers. All drivers appeared tidy and professional, and in all situations where it appeared to be required or beneficial, the driver kneeled the bus or deployed the ramp for passengers.”
Auditors highlighted several safety issues. Three drivers were found to not wear seatbelts – a year earlier, one-third of drivers were observed not using seatbelts. The auditors also wrote that one driver “was driving aggressively while using his off hand to eat or hold the … farebox.”
The state of the buses themselves, however, was another matter. Last year, four of the 12 buses ridden were declared to be in a need of a “good deep clean.” Three buses – including one with a dirty interior – were declared to be overly dirty outside.