Handibus should go into Edmonton, say users

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Visit hospitals in a loop, says driver

City residents are struggling to get health services because the Handibus won’t take them into Edmonton, says a citizens’ forum.

About 35 people gathered at St. Albert Place Wednesday afternoon for a public forum on St. Albert’s Handibus service. The service, established in 1986, offers an alternative to residents who cannot ride regular buses to places around town and in Edmonton.

Handibus users typically have a physical (such as severe arthritis) or cognitive condition that makes regular buses impractical. Unlike the regular bus, the Handibus offers door-to-door instead of stop-to-stop service, and it has to be booked in advance.

Transit currently runs two Handibuses during daylight hours, said Bob McDonald, director of St. Albert Transit, and charges $5 for a one-way trip in St. Albert. It also hires cabs for one-way non-medical trips to Edmonton at $10 a shot.

About 305 people are currently registered to ride the Handibus and they take a total of 5,750 trips on it a year. Each trip costs the department $36.80, compared to about $4.14 for a regular bus trip.

Transit is doing its first formal review of the Handibus in order to come up with a five-year plan to improve it, said consultant Steve Wilks. “We know most of us are aging, and we know that’s going to have a significant impact on the delivery of these kinds of services in the future.”

The Handibus manages about 1.6 trips an hour, Wilks noted, whereas most similar services manage 2.5. If Transit can figure out how to improve this pace, it could cut costs and provide more service.

Need rides to Edmonton

While residents had nothing but praise for Handibus staff, many at the forum criticized the fact that the service did not go into Edmonton for medical trips.

Brenda Tron said riding a regular bus isn’t an option for someone on dialysis, a treatment that often means several trips a week into Edmonton. “When you come off four hours of dialysis, you have no strength,” she said. “To walk two to three blocks [to the bus stop], it’s not going to happen.”

This is especially a problem when patients don’t have family members to give them rides, said Shelley Pronyshyn, a recreation therapist at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

“We do lose a lot of our referrals … because they cannot find transportation to the hospital.”

It also isolates people, said Elke Blodgett. The Handibus doesn’t run at night, which is when most social events happen in Edmonton.

“If you’re all alone all week at your house, you get depressed.”

Without the Handibus, said Dick Tansey, transportation advocate for Seniors United Now, residents have to turn to more expensive alternatives like taxis that cost about $30 a trip — a challenge, as many are on fixed incomes.

“We know where all the major [medical]facilities are in Edmonton,” Tansey notes. He called for a sort of medi-bus that would run a regular loop to all those places on a set schedule to help residents get the care they need.

Strathcona County already offers medical bus service to Edmonton, Blodgett said. “Why can’t we do the same?”

One reason was the fact that the department had just two Handibuses, McDonald said in an interview. “Once we send it into Edmonton, there’s a whole lot of trips in St. Albert we can’t do.” At least one resident at the forum said the department needed more Handibuses.

The department would now review comments from the forum, Wilks said, and do detailed studies of the city’s Handibus service. They planned to present tweaks to the service at an open house in January, and to have a final plan ready by early spring.

Comments on the Handibus should go to St. Albert Transit at 780-418-6060.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.