The Inaccessibility of Public Transportation in Vancouver

In recent years, Vancouver’s public transportation system (Translink) has faced increased calls for improvement around accessibility. Although Translink is beginning to implement some measures aimed at improving accessibility, such as the installation of braille bus stop signs, many transit users still face significant barriers when it comes to skytrain, bus, and seabus usage.


A series of Dialogue Cafes (virtual discussions around a focused issue following a presentation from a leading changemaker in that field) were hosted through our Hot Pink Paper Campaign to better understand these barriers and what the city can do to address them.


We heard four main themes from our participants - the need for affordable transportation, transportation safety, language accessibility, and ability-inclusive transportation.



Affordable Transportation


Affordable transportation has been by far the most frequently cited concern among transit users. Translink’s high fares have barred access to essential mobility services for many low-income women, prompting them to resort to alternative, less safe transportation methods.


In response, campaigns such as #AllonBoard have called on the municipal government to “to make affordable transit a #1 issue in British Columbia”, highlighting the benefits free transportation would have for low-income communities.


A reduced fare transit pilot project that took place in Vancouver from September 2021-January 2022 reaffirmed these findings, revealing that participants not only felt safer when transit was free but were better able to access places of employment, school, health care centers, grocery stores, family & friends, and other locations that provide essential services.


According to, “Case Study: City of Vancouver Reduced Fare Transit Pilot – Benefits Beyond Cost” they were also able to allocate their limited financial resources to alternative (and sometimes more pressing) costs such as debt alleviation, future investments, and better quality food.


Likewise, issues of accessibility also arise when low-income transit users are directed to online resources for inquiries about Translink. Dialogue cafe participants voiced concerns over the lack of publicly-provided information in non-online spaces since many low-income passengers do not possess internet-accessible devices such as computers or phones. Without these devices, some passengers are unable to receive important up-to-date information about transit service, most of which is solely available on the Translink website and phone app.



Transportation Safety


Similar to affordable transit, public safety was also considered to be an issue of priority for transit users. This included calls for improved physical safety inside skytrain stations, where many passengers reported feeling uneasy about the unprotected train tracks.


In determining what this safety would look like in practice, dialogue cafe participants referred to Singapore transit as an example, stating that a barricade in front of the tracks which opens only when the train arrives may aid in preventing falls.


In addition, comparable safety concerns were voiced for bus systems. Due to severely reduced bus service during the hours from dusk to dawn, many transit users are forced to wait alone at bus stops for long periods of time, many of which lack adequate street lighting and other essential safety resources.


Without increasing bus service at night or establishing a workable strategy for ensuring transit user safety, women and individuals of marginalized identities face elevated risks of violence.


Violence against women and individuals of marginalized identities remains commonplace on public transit. However, dialogue cafe attendants maintained that Vancouver police rarely take such instances of gender-based violence seriously, a reality which not only dissuades women from reporting any abuse they may experience on transit but further compromises their ability to safely move around the city.


The occasional presence of Transit police at skytrain stations does little to reassure the safety of women-identifying passengers.


Nonetheless, some Translink advocates have claimed that the existing passenger silent alarm and speaker system are both effective safety measures for dealing with violence on board buses and skytrains. By immediately notifying transit staff of an incident, these measures aim to assist passengers in a timely manner. However ideal in theory, these measures face one notable limitation: they are geared towards English-speaking passengers.



Language Accessibility


Without fluency in English, many passengers are not only unable to speak to transit staff over the speaker system but are unable to read important information about silent alarm use in the event of an emergency. Since Vancouver is widely considered to be a city of linguistic diversity, the inability of Translink to provide information and services in languages other than English is extremely troubling.


Such issues of language inaccessibility trickle into the online resources provided by Translink, without a translating feature on the official website. The English-centric nature of this system predominantly harms immigrant transit users, who are tasked both with navigating a new city and an unfamiliar language.



Ability-Inclusive Transportation


Lastly, the absence of sufficient accommodations for individuals living with disabilities was noted as a significant pitfall of the current public transportation system.


In her article for The Star, Cherise Seucharan discusses the specific changes the community hopes to see in terms of increasing accessibility in bus and skytrain stations. First, upgrading bus stations located along busy roads to allow for better wheelchair access may mitigate the risks of serious injury.


Second, many have requested the installation of washrooms in all skytrain stations, a topic which Translink later revealed was prominent in their most recent public consultation, according to an article from the Daily Hive.


In terms of on-board accommodations, many Dialogue Cafe participants stated that most transit is limited in terms of accessible seats. The select few accessible seats are often taken by able-bodied passengers who sometimes demonstrate an unwillingness to accommodate those with disabilities/disabled folks.


On the seemingly rare occasions that disabled individuals are actually able to access these seats, they often need to publicly display their disability through devices such as mobility aids in order to be considered ‘deserving’ of those seats.


The ableist nature of this seat selection process is highly problematic and discriminates against individuals living with disabilities such as chronic pain, which are not immediately visible to the public eye. This discrimination is inherently linked to gender. According to Statistics Canada, disability rates are more prevalent among women than men, with rates significantly higher among Indigenous women.


With these figures and testimonies in mind, it is increasingly apparent that accessible transportation is a topic of importance to many communities in Vancouver including women. As such, we hope to see more changes made at the municipal level to ensure that the right to mobility for ALL individuals is being met in an inclusive manner.


Fill out our community survey for our Hot Pink Paper Campaign and tell us what other key issues you want to see our elected officials tackle.



This article was written by HPPC volunteer, Alexa Traboulay.

 

Works Cited


“About.” #AllOnBoard, https://www.allonboard.ca/.


Chan, Kenneth. “Public Washrooms Are the Top Request in TransLink's New Consultation on Amenities.” Daily Hive, Urbanized, 30 July 2021, https://dailyhive.com/vancouver/translink-amenities-public-washrooms.


Lui, Austin, and Jill Zacharias. “Case Study: City of Vancouver Reduced Fare Transit Pilot – Benefits Beyond Cost.” Tamarack Institute, 2022, https://www.tamarackcommunity.ca/library/case-study-city-of-vancouver-reduced-fare-transit-pilot-benefits-beyond-cost.


Morris, Stuart, et al. “A Demographic, Employment and Income Profile of Canadians with Disabilities Aged 15 Years and over, 2017.” Canadian Survey on

Disability Reports, Government of Canada, Statistics Canada, 28 Nov. 2018, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-654-x/89-654-x2018002-eng.htm.


Seucharan, Cherise. “Don't Lose Sight of the Need for Transit Accessibility, Say Advocates.” The Star, 16 Nov. 2018, https://www.thestar.com/vancouver/2018/11/15/dont-lose-sight-of-the-need-for-transit-accessibility-say-advocates.html