I approach the topic of parataxi service delicately.
For those not in the know, the city’s parataxi program allows those with physical disabilities to access door-to-door taxi service the same way an able-bodied person would. Riders register with the city and purchase vouchers that c0st either $2 a ride or $8 a ride. The $2 vouchers can be used during the operating hours of Woodstock Transit buses, while the $8 vouchers are used during set hours on Sundays, holidays and the times of the day when buses are not rolling on city streets.
Outside of parataxi hours, riders would pay the accessible fare as set by city bylaw, $13 a ride.
Until July 1 of this year, there was a standing verbal agreement between the owners of accessible taxi vans and the city that the drivers would collect the vouchers, submit them to the city and be reimbursed the difference between the face value of the voucher and $13.
When the program was created some six years ago, it was designed to give people the dignity of door-to-door service at a level the city’s single accessible transit bus (ParaBus) couldn’t provide. At the time, the city didn’t own accessible low-floor buses.
Parataxi was immediately and immensely popular. At its peak, there were over 700 registered riders and it was costing over $500,000 a year— all of which goes to the parataxi owner / operators. Several years ago, the city tightened up the registration requirements for users of the program out of concern that many people using parataxi were mobile enough to be able to use regular buses and taxi vehicles. At the time, about half the city’s bus fleet was new low-floor accessible buses.
The number of users sits around 300 today. To these people, the parataxi service is a lifeline. It provides freedom and dignity. The future of the program as it exists today is at risk however, since the city’s bylaw that allowed for a $13 accessible taxi fare is illegal under new provincial rules— the accessible taxi fare can no longer be any higher than regular cab fare, which in Woodstock ranges between $8 to $10 a ride depending on pickup and drop-off points.
The city clerk’s report on this is worth a read. Particularly pages 11 and 15-17 dealing with ridership, financials and the letter from the parataxi drivers. Now the service is not under immediate threat, but the drivers have already shown they’re prepared to mount a huge public-relations campaign to maintain the status quo as much as possible.
However, we need to be cognizant of the realities that currently the vast majority if not all of the transit buses rolling on city streets are low-floor accessible vehicles. Most city residents also live within several hundred metres of a bus stop. While these low-floor vehicles cannot accommodate the largest mobility devices and the transit schedule is no where near as convenient as parataxi, Woodstock has worked its grant mojo to buy enough of these buses at minimal cost to the property tax base as possible. This allows many to be able to ride the bus just like anyone else.
We also have a ParaBus service that currently runs weekdays and costs $2 a ride. Also not as convenient to the end user as parataxi, given it must be booked with more advance notice than simply calling for a cab. But it can accommodate all sorts of mobility devices and provides municipal transit service at a level that is consistent with riding the bus.
That’s the ultimate question behind this review. Does the city wish to continue providing an accessible public transportation program whose level of service is much, much better than its regular transit program at the cost of between $400,000 to $500,000 a year (which goes into the costs of the cab companies running the program, and their profits however slim they might be)?
Or do we feel more comfortable in providing an accessible transit service that is equivalent to the level of service provided by Woodstock Transit buses?
Council will ultimately decide this question, but the discussion along the way should be interesting.