Will Compass Card Leave Behind Vulnerable Transit Users?

As system evolves, some 18,000 people with disabilities, seniors may lose special access.

By Andrew MacLeod 4 Dec 2015 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative bureau chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, April 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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'I know it's not something that just affects me,' says one BC Bus Pass holder. Photo by Eric Flexyourhead in Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

When the transition to Compass Cards is complete, some 18,000 people with disabilities and seniors with low incomes may lose access they've long enjoyed to services that TransLink provides in Metro Vancouver.

One person who anticipates being affected by the move to the Compass system expressed frustration that it's been difficult to get clear answers from either TransLink or the social development ministry about the change.

"I don't know what to really believe right now," said the person who lives in the Fraser Valley and asked that their name be withheld, as they are not public about their disability, including with their family.

Through the BC Bus Pass program, the ministry of social development subsidizes $45 annual passes that have allowed people with disabilities and seniors with low incomes to use public transit throughout the province.

But with the switch to Compass Cards, people who have passes but live outside the TransLink service area may no longer have access to the SkyTrain or the Canada Line since it will be necessary to have a pass that can be tapped against an electronic reader to open the gates.

The gates remain open during the transition period, but TransLink intends to eventually close them.

90,000 pass holders

The Fraser Valley resident, who frequently travels into the city for medical appointments and other reasons, said officials told them to find ways to get around the gates or to take the bus instead.

Taking the bus instead of SkyTrain would add hours to the trip, the person said. Nor is it clear that it will be possible to get around the gates, they added.

A spokesperson for TransLink said that people in the BC Bus Pass program who live within Metro Vancouver were among the first to receive Compass Cards, but that he was unsure how the change would affect pass holders from outside the service area, who did not receive cards. He said he would find out and follow-up, but hadn't called back by publication time.

Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell was unavailable for an interview.

A ministry spokesperson provided a list of bullet points saying that 80 per cent of the 90,000 BC Bus Pass holders live in the TransLink service area and will continue to be able to use their passes for full access to the TransLink system.

The email did not indicate how the change would affect the other 20 per cent of pass holders, about 18,000 people.

Time running out

Pass holders will be informed of any service changes, the ministry's message said. "We will continue to work with BC Transit and TransLink to ensure the BC Bus Pass program remains accessible, sustainable and affordable while the Compass Card is being phased in across the lower mainland."

The program costs the province $50 million a year and is unique to B.C., the only province that subsidizes transit passes for people with disabilities and seniors with low incomes, it said.

The Fraser Valley pass holder said that in late November a TransLink customer relations person assured them that discussions are underway in hopes of finding a solution that will give people the same access they currently enjoy. But with the gates possibly closing as soon as January, time is running out, they said.

Many people will likely be affected, they added. "I know it's not something that just affects me."

The executive director of Disability Alliance BC, Jane Dyson, said many people need to travel into the city for services.

"Given the high cost of transit, particularly for people living on very low income, we see this will create access issues for folks who need to come into Vancouver to access needed services," she said, adding many of her organization's clients come into the city from the Fraser Valley.

Dyson said the Compass gates might also be an issue for people with no hand use, such as those using sip-and-puff controlled wheelchairs. When the gates close they will either need to be accompanied on their trips or will have to rely on help, she said. "Either way is not great for their independence."  [Tyee]

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