By the end of March, Halifax buses will be 100 per cent of the accessible low floor (ALF) variety. That’s an important step forward in the slow march towards equal access for those of us with mobility challenges. Put that milestone next to the recent beta-testing of a new stop announcement system, and Halifax Transit appears to be making real progress in accessibility.
But unfortunately, some of our new accessible buses are not as accessible as they appear. About 40 per cent of the new ALF buses, all those purchased since 2012, have a restraint system for chairs and scooters that some riders are describing as unsafe.
Halifax Transit’s original fleet of ALF buses have a four-point tie down system and lap belt. In 2012, Halifax Transit started taking delivery of buses with a new single-point tie down system and no lap belt.
Transit riders like Paul Vienneau say the newer system is unsafe.
The older four-point system “immobilizes the chair to the bus and holds you in the chair,” says Vienneau. “Otherwise the chair could flip over, you roll all over the place. Even if your brakes work, they are not like disc brakes in a car. The newer buses have a one strap that hooks on the thing behind you. There’s a crossbar behind my back, they usually just hook it on there. The thing is, the chair can move and I’m not stuck into the chair.”
Vienneau is not alone in his concerns. Two other frequent transit riders who use wheelchairs told me the same thing: the new restraints are unsafe.
And in April 2016 another transit user presented at council’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, telling the committee about an incident in July 2015 when his wheelchair tipped over on the bus. He requested that Halifax Transit switch back to the four-point tie down system. Halifax Transit staff promised to respond to his concerns at the next committee meeting, but as far as I can tell, the response never materialized.
In fact, it appears that Halifax Transit has not been collecting feedback on the new restraint system in any sort of organized fashion. The riders I’ve spoken with had each shared their complaints with two different Halifax Transit staffers, and a third staffer was present at the AAC meeting in April.
But last week, when I asked the city for information on complaints and incidents about the wheelchair restraint system, I was first told that there were none, aside from one highly vocal opponent of the new system (presumably prolific website author Daniel Towsey, who has been covered in the Coast).
Spokesperson Tiffany Chase has since acknowledged there is record of the incident reported at the AAC meeting in April, but I’m still waiting on further details.
The reluctance to acknowledge complaints with the restraint systems could reflect the fact that the newer restraints that riders are finding unsafe are now industry standard.
“The passive restraint is the standard securement system now offered by bus manufacturers,” says Chase, “and any requests for a different type of securement would require an engineering solution to modify the attachments.” This would of course mean an extra expense per bus, though exactly how much is unknown, as Halifax Transit has never asked.
Halifax Transit, has, however, purchased a newer, fancier restraint system to test out. This one features a hydraulic arm that hugs the sides of the chair and secures it with pressure. The arm is activated by riders instead of bus drivers, an advantage in both time savings and the extra bit of autonomy for the rider. But Vienneau has concerns that while the hydraulic arm might secure a chair well, it does nothing to secure the rider to the chair, a major concern on Halifax Transit’s bumpy rides.
There is no word back from the city yet on how they are measuring the success of this new restraint, which is currently installed on one bus only. Suffice it to say, Vienneau would appreciate some consultation with actual users to figure into the assessment.
“One of my transportation peeves,” says Vienneau, “and actually it’s a systemic peeve, is that the Department of Whatever likes to do things on my behalf all the time. But they never ask me what I need — or what we need.”
Certainly were Halifax Transit to ask its riders in wheelchairs for feedback, there would be a variety of views. One accessibility advocate I heard from is not a fan of either current system of restraint, and finds them an unfair condescension to wheelchair-bound riders.
“Where [Halifax] Transit is concerned,” says Gus Reed, “I feel singled out for paternalistic treatment because of my wheelchair rather than because of any empirical evidence of safety considerations.” Reed is a fan of self-operated, optional systems for chair restraints on buses, pointing out that “no-one else on the bus has a seatbelt.”
Come March, we will rightly be celebrating the retirement of our last inaccessible bus. But with 40 per cent of buses featuring restraints considered unsafe by some riders, along with other obstacles like 246 inaccessible bus stops, it’s clear we have to continue the conversation about whether we are really doing everything necessary to provide equal access to those of us using wheelchairs.