For many of us, using the TTC to get around the city is fairly easy, physically speaking. We can board any streetcar, stand in a crowded bus, and don’t have to worry about which subway stations to use. However, given that the TTC’s current fleet of streetcars is not accessible, and that just thirty out of sixty-nine subway stations are barrier-free, using transit requires considerably more planning for those with mobility issues.
Enter the proposed Ontario Integrated Accessibility Standards [PDF], which aims to streamline three sets of existing regulations under the 2005 Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act—dealing with employment, information and communications, and transportation—into one. The draft standards are based on a public review process, and the Government of Ontario is gathering further public input on the document until March 18 of this year.
If and when it passes, it will have a significant impact on the TTC, and how quickly it makes accessibility upgrades.
The new regulation deals with relatively minor items, such as a requirement that all floor surfaces be slip resistant, as well as more far-reaching—and costly—major ones: most prominently, rules that mandate that every bus and streetcar stop be accessible, and that all vehicles be equipped with a ramp or lift. Many of these accessibility upgrades have already been planned for, but the new regulation would impose deadlines well in advanced of the TTC’s existing timeline. Some of the minor changes would have to be made by July 2011, with 2013 and 2017 deadlines for major items that require changes to physical structures and operating vehicles. Until now, the TTC had planned for a fully accessible bus system by 2012, with the streetcar and subway system upgrades complete in 2018 and 2025, respectively.
It isn’t as though the TTC hasn’t been looking for ways to improve the system’s accessibility, as a look at its 2010 status report on the subject reveals [PDF]. Laurence Lui, a transportation planner (and Torontoist contributor) notes that “few subway networks have been as aggressive as the TTC at retrofitting its stations to become barrier-free. Just look at how many subway stations are accessible in Toronto compared to those in Montreal, New York, and London.” Bill Dawson, the director of route and system planning at the TTC, echoes this sentiment: “Most other jurisdictions have exempted some existing stations from blanket legislation due the very high cost and impracticality of retrofitting some older existing stations in downtown locations.”
New streetcars that have been ordered for the city will be accessible, and streetcar stops are likewise being made accessible, to facilitate easy boarding of the new cars. (When we asked how streetcar stops will be made accessible given that many are mid-block, Dawson told us that they “are working with the City Transportation Services department to design and construct the appropriate curb cuts in sidewalks at all non-platform streetcar stops to provide safe and efficient access to the accessible doors of the new streetcars for people using mobility devices.”) Ongoing work to make all subway stations barrier-free continues. And for the past three years, the TTC, along with the Advisory Committee on Accessible Transit, has held annual public meetings on accessibility, a practice that will continue this year.
Heather (who asked us not to use her last name), a University of Toronto student currently completing her master’s degree in urban planning, mainly uses an electric wheelchair or a walker to get around the city. She told us that changes in the TTC’s specialized transportation service, Wheel-Trans—such as online booking options as well as a same-day service where users can arrange to be dropped off and then picked up at an accessible subway station—have also improved accessibility. She notes that “the attitudes of TTC employees are extremely important in terms of facilitating accessibility,” saying that she’s has always experienced helpful and accommodating TTC staff.
On the other hand, Heather points out: “I can’t use streetcars at all. They’re very difficult to board if you have any difficulty walking, and I can’t even use them when I use my walker.” She says that the TTC’s recent improvements, with the addition of accessible bus routes and elevators in subway stations, have helped her get around, but notes that there are real problems when something goes out of service. “Sometimes you get to a station and find that the elevator’s out of service and you have to go back the way you came,” Heather says, then adding “but the TTC generally reports those kinds of problems on their website fairly quickly.”
The new provincial timeline now under discussion will speed up the rate at which further changes need to be made, and while this is essential for those who are currently limited in their access to transit, the proposal will also add to the financial burden of an already cash-strapped system, creating worry about just where the required funding to make the improvements will come from. A report issued by the TTC on March 1, 2011 [PDF] addressed some of its concerns over the proposed regulation: “The standards, as now proposed, impose additional requirements beyond what is in the TTC current plans and, in so doing, introduce problematic implementation timelines. The changes will affect the cost of providing public transportation and, in turn, possibly have adverse impacts on fares and services in Toronto.” The report goes on to state that, given the absence of long-term funding from the province for accessible services and facilities, the TTC will convey its concerns to the province and work together to make changes to the draft regulation.
It may also be in the TTC’s financial interest to increase accessibility, concerns about funding sources notwithstanding, Lui says. “The wisdom is that the more the conventional system becomes fully accessible, the less demand—it is hoped—there will be on the specialized transit system which is a very expensive but necessary service to operate.”
Currently, the TTC has 1,764 conventional accessible buses—97% of the fleet. We can expect to see the first accessible streetcars in 2012, and ten more subway stations are slated to become barrier-free over the next three years. What happens after that remains, for now, a bit murkier.