OC Transpo says on-demand transit is a success. These Para Transpo riders feel left out

Every Sunday for the last four months, transit riders in Blackburn Hamlet have been able to take the bus on their schedule rather than OC Transpo's.

The east-end neighbourhood was chosen in 2023 for Ottawa's first on-demand transit pilot.

The pilot has allowed riders to book same-day or next-day trips at bus stops in the area, or to and from Blair station and the Gloucester Centre, by using an app or calling OC Transpo.

At a transit commission meeting last week, OC Transpo officials told council members the pilot — which wraps up next weekend — was a success, based on increased ridership and the positive feedback from customers and staff.

"I can't think of one resident in the community who had a bad experience," said Orléans West-Innes Coun. Laura Dudas, who represents Blackburn Hamlet, adding she used the service nearly every weekend.

But while the city is lauding the on-demand transit pilot, some Para Transpo users — whose minibuses were used to ferry Blackburn Hamlet riders around — are wondering when they'll get an equal level of service.

Same-day booking not an option for Para Transpo riders

The Para Transpo minibuses used for the pilot were spare ones, and the city said that diverting them to on-demand transit would not interfere with regular Para Transpo service.

When minibuses aren't available or are out of commission, Para Transpo sends accessible taxis — and Lynn Ashdown says most of her rides have been on those taxis.

Ashdown uses a wheelchair and takes Para Transpo a few times a week for medical appointments, but finds it unreliable.

"The service is quite horrendous at times," Ashdown said.

Her main complaint is that, unlike for on-demand transit users, Para Transpo riders can't book same-day trips despite it being something "users have been asking for for many years."

There are currently 80 buses in Para Transpo's fleet, according to the city, with 64 operating during weekdays and only 44 needed on weekends.

At Thursday's meeting, OC Transpo said they are planning to expand on-demand service in other areas of the city and have purchased 10 new minibuses specifically for that reason.

In a statement to CBC, the city said they've also bought 82 new minibuses to replace the current Para Transpo fleet, with all of those vehicles expected to arrive by the end of next year.

Sally Thomas, another Para Transpo user, isn't holding her breath.

"They promised buses last year and there are still no buses," said Thomas, who sits on the board of advocacy group Ottawa Transit Riders.

Para Transpo minibuses, she said, are "long past their lifespan" and often breaking down.

If the city is looking to expand its on-demand service, Thomas added, they should start with Para Transpo.

Sally Thomas has weekly medical appointments that she hopes a Para Transpo online system would help her get to, without the significant wait times she currently experiences.
Para Transpo riders like Sally Thomas say that although the service has seen some improvements in recent years, such as an online booking system, it has a long way to go before it's on equal footing with OC Transpo's conventional bus service. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

'Quite disheartening'

Per OC Transpo's website, on-demand buses can accommodate up to two customers using wheelchairs or other mobility devices at a time, but customers must travel to and from bus stops on their own.

It's quite disheartening as someone with a disability that I'm not afforded the same rights as someone who's able-bodied. - Lynn Ashdown, Para Transpo user

When Alta Vista Coun. Marty Carr asked at Thursday's meeting if any Para Transpo riders took advantage of the on-demand pilot, OC Transpo officials said they knew of one customer with a mobility device who used the service during the trial period.

Barrhaven East Coun. Wilson Lo also asked whether OC Transpo is considering making on-demand service available to Para Transpo users.

Transit services general manager Renée Amilcar said she has asked staff to work on something but did not "want to promise something I can't deliver."

Ashdown finds that news frustrating.

"It's quite disheartening as someone with a disability that I'm not afforded the same rights as someone who's able-bodied," she said.

A report presented to the transit commission shows an increase in Para Transpo riders, a trend city staff say they expect will continue.
A report presented to the transit commission shows an increase in Para Transpo riders, a trend city staff say they expect will continue. (OC Transpo)

Para Transpo ridership increasing

In a report presented to the committee, OC Transpo indicated an increase of 7,000 Para Transpo riders in the first five months of 2024 compared to the same period last year.

Officials said they expect that number to keep rising.

That's not a surprise to Thomas.

"I've lived here for 35 years and [service] has gotten progressively worse — while the ridership has gotten progressively bigger," she said.

The on-demand pilot in Blackburn Hamlet ends next Sunday, June 23.