Accessibility & Public Transit: RAPLIQ Requests Class Action Suit

Inclines and man-made caves...
Inclines and man-made caves…

Interesting story from last week. The organization that represents Quebec’s mobility-impaired population, RAPLIQ, has filed a request for a class action suit of $100 million against the Montreal transit commission (STM), the provincial Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT – which is responsible for the city’s commuter rail service, in addition to expanding the Métro) in addition to the City of Montreal and the province’s transport ministry.

They’re arguing the lack of access to public transit in Montreal infringes on their basic human rights and the transit agencies haven’t done enough to remedy the problem, nor have the city or province provided sufficient resources to improving accessibility.

If successful this would award about $5,000 to each of 20,000 plaintiffs. It would also be the first such class action lawsuit in Canadian history.

You could argue it would also take $100 million out of government coffers, money which could otherwise be put to use building the infrastructure necessary to make our city’s public transit system more accessible, but therein lies the point. Government would have to pay if the suit were successful, but so far hasn’t earmarked much money (and more importantly hasn’t been terribly enthusiastic) to improve public transit accessibility in our city.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, is that the Métro was not designed from the outset to handle people with limited mobility. Only the three newest stations, those in Laval and completed about a decade ago, were designed with elevators in mind. In total, only eight out of 68 Métro stations have elevators, and only five out of 64 AMT train stations are equipped to handle wheelchairs.

And that’s just for wheelchairs. When you consider accessibility in the broader sense – that is to include everyone whose mobility is any way handicapped – you realize there are other parts of the accessibility puzzle which are missing. I would argue there’s not enough seating generally speaking at either the train or Métro stations, especially in the tunnels connecting to Métro stations, and that I’ve never actually seen anyone use the ‘rest bars’ the STM installed in lieu of more practical benches.

It astounds me the Métro was built without considering the needs of the mobility impaired in the first place (you’d figure elevators would have been installed simply because they’re efficient and immensely useful generally speaking), but it’s even more astounding that both the most recent expansions of the Métro (notably the western Orange Line branch and the entirety of the Blue Line, completed in the 1980s) and the re-development of Montreal’s commuter rail system under the AMT (which occurred in the mid-1990s) omitted the necessary infrastructure to ensure greater accessibility. Of the latest AMT commuter line to be built, the Train de l’Est, completed just last year, only four of thirteen stations are wheelchair accessible.

RAPLIQ says they’re tired of waiting for the various agencies and levels of government to get their act together and take them seriously. I can sympathize with their frustration.

For many years our city’s transit agency boasted it’s commitment to accessibility by instituting one of the earliest para-transit systems in the world. When the STM opted for the new Novabus design in the late 1980s it pointed out these buses would have special ramps that could be operated automatically by the driver, permitting a greater degree of autonomy to people living with disabilities. Well, we all know the story there. The ramps never lived up to expectations, mechanical issues plagued the fleet for years after they were introduced to regular service, and ever since we all too often hear stories of the wheelchair bound left on the curb because either the bus was too full or the ramps weren’t working that particular day.

In sum, it’s a shitty situation, because even though there’s really no good reason for a modern city such as ours to be so inaccessible, there’s zero political will to do anything about it. Retrofitting Métro stations with elevators is costly and the STM is going about it at a painfully slow pace, a pace further retarded by budget cuts and the fact that anything needing to be built outside (and connecting to) any given Métro station falls under the jurisdiction (and budget) of the AMT. This is why Bonaventure station, as an example, has an elevator leading from the mezzanine to the station platform, but nothing to connect the mezzanine with the street above. The AMT has been negotiating with the owners of 1000 de la Gauchetiere Ouest for years, and is expected to issue a call for tenders later this year.

With regards to Vendome Métro station, situated next to the new MUHC super hospital, there is neither a tunnel linking the station with the hospital, nor an elevator to make the station accessible, and that station just completed a renovation intended to help deal with increased traffic once the super hospital opens. The Université de Montréal super hospital is also located next to a Métro station, one which has both an elevator and direct tunnel access. I’m not sure why it was thought necessary for one and not the other…

It’s too bad it has come to a class action suit. On the one hand, it may lead to promises of concrete action by government if the suit is approved, as those parties named in it would probably prefer not to have to argue the case against accessibility. On the other hand, it would be difficult for RAPLIQ to get much public support as the individual gains would be so modest and it’s understood (probably by RAPLIQ better than anyone else) that the money really would be better spent if earmarked specifically for infrastructure improvements to the system (e.g. it could likely pay for about half of the remaining Métro stations to be retrofitted with elevators).

As I said, it’s a shitty situation. If the class action suit is successful, all the accessibility problems will still exist, but there’ll be $100 million less to spend fixing them.

My hope is that the focus shifts a bit… accessibility, as I see it, goes hand in hand with overall quality of experience, and in my opinion the entirety of our public transit system, impressive on paper though it might be, could stand for a major investment just to make it more comfortable. Yes, we need elevators. Ramps could also be implemented, but there’s room for so much more. Better lighting, wifi access, more seating, public restrooms, more shelters at bus stops and train stations, adding solar-powered space heaters to the latter, and a crash course on manners and customer service best practices for every single STM employee… these are just a few examples of how the overall customer experience could be improved in parallel with making the system more accessible.

To close, making the system more comfortable and more accessible only increases the number of potential customers, in turn increasing yearly revenue, and this isn’t just good for the transit agencies, but for our local environment as well. We in part base our claim to a high quality of life in this city because of the excellent public transit coverage, but this is too much a top-down perspective. We need a more human-centric system, one that focuses on the convenience and comfort of the journey itself, and not just the points connected.