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A look at TTC Accessibility Through The Eyes of A Rider Who Uses Two Canes

By Francine KopunCity Hall Bureau
Sun., March 10, 2019

Jessica Geboers steps off a busy subway car at College station, a cane in each hand, and confronts her first obstacle: two flights of stairs, 10 stairs each.

The stairwell is narrow and passengers headed down the stairs stop to give her the room she needs to make her way up. On this day, at rush hour, a bottleneck forms in seconds.

Jessica Geboers, 29, credits the TTC for trying when it comes to accessibility. “A good number of stations are accessible, but not as many as should be or could be,” she says.

Sometimes people stop to tell her that there’s an escalator but Geboers can’t use it, because she can’t hang on to the moving handrails. She has spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, affecting muscle control and coordination.

“They’re trying to be helpful and they mean well, but I’m pretty smart. I can see there is an escalator there, and I’m concentrating on not dying on these stairs,” says Geboers, 29.

Past the turnstiles she is confronted by two more flights of stairs: 14 steps and 21 steps respectively. This time the crowd bunches up behind her, infuriating a young man who bursts away from the pack and dashes around her to the top, muttering his complaint.

Making the TTC more accessible which the transit service is legally bound to do by 2025 can’t come soon enough for Geboers, who has a busy life that requires her to spend a lot of time on public transit. She works three days a week and attends physiotherapy appointments twice a week. She volunteers.

Jessica Geboers says the TTC is trying but she rates it a 6/10 in terms of accessibility.

“I see that they’re really trying and a good number of stations are accessible, but not as many as should be or could be,” she says.

Last week Mayor John Tory unveiled a newly installed elevator at St. Patrick station, calling it a milestone, but despite making significant progress, there are signs the TTC may be falling behind on its plan to ensure that all stations are accessible by 2025.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) requires the province be fully accessible to people with disabilities by 2025, including transportation systems like the TTC.

The Act was passed in 2005, but to date only 45 of Toronto’s 75 subway stations are accessible.

In fact, the AODA has fallen well short of its goals, and people with disabilities continue to face “soul-crushing” barriers, according to a report on the act tabled in the provincial legislature this week by former lieutenant-governor David Onley.

While advances have been made in the area of transportation, it remains the most important issue among people with disabilities, according to the report.

“The reason is perhaps obvious,” wrote Onley, who is disabled.

“If you can’t leave your home, there will be no job, recreation, shopping or other opportunities. Better transportation requires money and leadership.”

Among other challenges, the report points out that priority seating in some places is not working out as intended.

Seats intended for wheelchair access are being taken up by able-bodied people, baby strollers and people with grocery carts. Municipalities are urged in the report to bring in and enforce stronger rules around priority seating.

A total of 11 TTC subway stations will be under construction for accessibility by the end of 2019, but only Royal York station will be completed this year.

Only 26 of 41 objectives set out for the five-year period from 2014-2018 were completed when the last status update was filed, in April. By the end of this year, 32 of 41 will be completed, according to the TTC.

The new five-year accessibility plan, covering 2019-2023, has not yet been filed.

“It’s clear that TTC needs to accelerate their work to improve accessibility of their infrastructure and service,” says Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 13 Toronto Centre), while acknowledging that the TTC has been working hard to meet the 2025 deadline.

“The year 2025 for AODA compliance is literally around the corner when it comes to major infrastructure upgrades,” she says, adding that if it does fall behind, city council and other government partners need to provide additional funding to make up for lost time.

Mayor Tory, at the launch of the elevator at St. Patrick station, seemed to agree, saying: “If by any chance we fall off track, we’re going to get back on track.”

The TTC says it has made significant progress. All TTC buses are now accessible, with low floors, ramps and seats that flip up to accommodate wheelchairs. It says all subway trains are accessible, with level boarding. Over half of 204 new low-floor accessible streetcars are in service and the rest are expected to arrive by the end of 2019. All of the older inaccessible streetcars will be decommissioned. The plan is to have elevators at all stations by 2025.

After fighting against it in court and losing, the TTC now has a system that audibly announces upcoming stops on subway trains, streetcars and buses, to assist the vision impaired. There are visual signs for the hearing impaired.

Mazin Aribi, chair of the Advisory Committee on Accessible Transit (ACAT), which advises the TTC, says meeting the 2025 target is a delicate balance too much construction, too fast, triggers complaints from riders.

He thinks that if the TTC continues on its accelerated plan to finish all the subway stations, the 2025 deadline will be met. But he is concerned that planned takeover of the TTC by the province could lead to delays, because the province seems to be focused on saving money, and making subways accessible costs money.

“The bottom line is, we do need inclusion,” says Aribi. “It’s public transit. Every person in Toronto is entitled to use and have access.”

The cost for making a station accessible varies, according to the TTC. Sometimes as many as three elevators are required to make a station accessible. The amount of excavation work required varies. Construction costs for St. Patrick were approximately $7.5 million for one elevator. Construction began in December 2016 and the elevator went into service in September.

A second elevator was built by Amexon Development Corp. as part of a Section 37 community benefit, providing access to street level, within the footprint of a property they own at 480 University Ave., at a cost of $3.9 million to the company. (Section 37 of Ontario’s Planning Act allows developers to exceed height and density zoning regulations in exchange for contributions to neighbourhood projects.)

Several major projects, worth $615.3 million, have been budgeted in the 2018-2027 TTC capital budget, representing more than nine per cent of the TTC’s overall capital requirements in the next 10 years.

The TTC says it is committed to finishing on time. “Not only is that deadline our commitment, it’s our obligation,” according to a statement from TTC chair Jaye Robinson’s office.

Access advocate David Lepofsky, a lawyer who is blind and who fought the TTC in court to force the transit system to announce upcoming stops in streetcars and buses and subway trains, said that without dramatic reforms, the TTC will not meet the 2025 deadline.

While the focus seems to be on elevators, he says, the TTC still makes design mistakes at new stations that hinder accessibility.

And the TTC already missed an earlier deadline of 2020, says Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.

“Do I have concrete, specific evidence that they aren’t going to meet the plan? No I do not, and I’m not suggesting I do,” says Lepofsky. “Am I worried because of the fact that they’ve been a moving target in the past and could be again, yes. I am basing the concern on their past conduct.”

The issue should be of concern to everyone, Lepofsky says. As people age, they are likely to suffer from impaired mobility of one form or another.

Since suffering a mild stroke two years ago, Sidonio Ferreira has become well acquainted with a flight of stairs that used to have no impact on his life, at Keele subway station.

“They took my licence away. I have to take the subway,” says Ferreira, 83, who has lived in the same neighbourhood for decades.

He and his wife, 74, struggle with the subway stairs, and he says they’re not alone many of their friends and neighbours do too.

“So far, I can do it. But it’s very hard.”

Construction of an elevator at Keele is scheduled to begin this year, according to the TTC.

Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF
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