Hamilton Delays End to Free Transit for Blind, Disabled Residents

The ‘voluntary pay’ option is still slated to end, but a grace period has been granted for program users until June. By Matthew Van DongenReporter
Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Hamilton will delay its plan to end free bus trips for blind riders and those using wheelchairs or walkers until the end of June.

Council approved the “grace period” Wednesday for riders using the long-standing voluntary pay program, which is being replaced Jan. 1 by a new transit affordability program that will provide discounts to more riders.

Any grace period is appreciated, but “it doesn’t solve the problem” for residents with disabilities who have come to rely on the free fare option, said James Kemp, who chairs the city’s advisory board for persons with disabilities.

The city voted earlier this year to adopt a new affordable transit program that aims to offer 30-percent fare discounts to eligible low-income riders and their families – in theory, up to 88,000 residents.

But at the same time, council decided to end a long-standing “voluntary pay” program that allowed blind residents and those using large mobility devices like wheelchairs to ride free, if needed.

Blind residents have appealed to council over the last few months to maintain the program, arguing the free fares make transit more accessible. In particular, they’ve argued the current cash or tap-card payment options are challenging for riders with visual impairment.

Some wheelchair users, meanwhile, prefer to board from the back of buses – where there is no payment option – to be nearer designated safe seats and spaces for mobility device users.

Kemp said the proposed changes will make conventional transit both less affordable and less accessible. Some residents with disabilities fear the change might also send more riders to the city’s already struggling DARTS accessible shared-ride transit system.

“Without the appropriate remedies (to those concerns) it is the disabled who will suffer,” Kemp said following Wednesday’s council meeting.

City transit head Maureen Cosyn Heath said the HSR will be offering “training” for front-of-bus wheelchair boarding and help to familiarize blind residents with tap-card payment.

Coun. Esther Paul urged councillors Wednesday to run both the new affordable transit and voluntary pay programs at the same time. “I just don’t want to do fare assistance on the backs of our blind and disabled residents,” she said.

Downtown Coun. Cameron Kroetsch also expressed concern about implementing changes that may cause “harm” to some residents without more data about potential impacts and how many people will be affected.

Councillors voted for a six-month grace period pitched by Coun. Nrinder Nann along with a report back with information about uptake for the new affordable transit program and how many riders use voluntary pay.

Author

Matthew Van Dongen is a Hamilton Spectator reporter specializing in transportation and the environment. Reach him at mvandongen@thespec.com.

Original at https://www.thespec.com/news/council/hamilton-delays-end-to-free-transit-for-blind-disabled-residents/article_199fbf45-b255-5cb5-b770-9209d91d1b56.html