Local resident, Special Olympics athlete, and disability advocate Declan Fawcett challenged St. Albert city councillors to take the bus everywhere for a week so they can understand the issues he faces.
Fawcett, 20, spoke to council on Nov. 7 detailing accessibility concerns he has managed week-in and week-out while relying on the local transit system to get to work, appointments, and stay connected with family for the better part of a decade.
A resident of North Ridge, Fawcett told council the closest bus stop to his house is a 15-minute walk, which is occasionally longer after heavy snowfall.
“People with disabilities walk a bit slower ... a  minute walk is not fun at -30 C when the sidewalks are not plowed,” Fawcett said.
“It looks reasonable, but it's not.”
Another challenge Fawcett faces is related to his job as a fan experience host with the Edmonton Oil Kings at Rogers Place. He told council the infrequency of transit service between downtown Edmonton and St. Albert on weekend evenings, especially Sunday, prevents him picking up weekend shifts.
Likewise, after a weeknight game when he finishes work around 11 pm, Fawcett told the Gazette if he misses Route 201's scheduled 11:21 p.m. pickup outside Edmonton Tower, he has to wait until after midnight until the next bus arrives. He said he's been left stranded multiple times.
As part of his presentation, Fawcett also suggested to council multiple ways he thinks the local transit service could better serve riders like himself, such as increasing the number of bus stops in residential neighbourhoods, deploying handibuses in residential neighbourhoods to bring riders to one of the city's two transit centres and increase the frequency of commuter route services beyond rush hours.
Regarding his challenge to council, Fawcett said he wants to make sure decision-makers know what it's like to “ride the bus in his world.”
“They don't realize how hard it is to ride the bus,” he said. “I want them to realize how hard it is to ride the bus for a week.”
Transit system developed without disability-specific lens
In an interview, the city's service delivery manager for St. Albert Transit, Will Steblyk, said the city has never contracted or formally consulted a disability or accessibility organization to provide input or feedback on the local transit system.
“We keep abreast of trends in the transit industry through the transit community, and that provides us a great deal of information,” Steblyk said. “Some of the larger transit operations in the country have done such things, so we get information through our transit agency partners.”
“We are confident that we're meeting the accessibility standards of transit that exist across the country.”
Katrina Breau, the president of Voice of Albertans with Disabilities (VAD), an Edmonton-based non-profit, said St. Albert's transit system has “numerous” gaps when it comes to accessibility, and past efforts she has made to engage the city about accessibility concerns have been met with disagreement that the issues even exist.
“People at the top making decisions for people at the bottom — they don't even understand the true needs, or aren't willing to hear those true needs,” said Breau, who is also a St. Albert resident with a disability who relies on the transit system, and St. Albert's representative with the provincially funded Rural Mental Health Network.
“When was the last time that these people that say that it works wonderful have been on the bus? Because what happens is the people designing the routes or the time schedules or what have you, are not people that actually utilize the system.”
Breau echoed Fawcett's concerns and said other existing accessibility concerns with the local transit system include neither of the city's main transit centres being reasonable walking distance to grocery stores. It was a service seniors relied on that Breau said was lost when the city replaced the Village Landing Transit Centre with the Nakî Transit Centre in 2020.
According to the federal census in 2021, about a third of St. Albert's population is over the age of 55, and Breau said an aging population means more residents are going to start requiring transportation assistance or support in some fashion, and the city will need to adapt accordingly.
“As our community ages, we need our transportation to age along with it, and that's not just for the seniors, that's also everyone else at every age group that has a situation [where they rely on] busing,” she said.
Another issue Breau mentioned has to do with St. Albert Transit's Book-A-Bus system, which allows riders to summon a bus similar to calling a taxi between the hours of 6:45 p.m. and 11:45 p.m. every night of the week except Sundays. The issue, Breau said the system only functions through a mobile app or online, which renders it inaccessible for anyone who doesn't have, or can't use, a smartphone or computer.
Would require 'considerable resources'
Following Fawcett's presentation on Nov. 7, several members of council asked city administration about short-term and long-term solutions.
In response to a question from Mayor Cathy Heron, Steblyk told council during the meeting a couple of Fawcett's asks — adding more bus stops in residential neighbourhoods and increasing commuter route frequency in the evenings — would simply come down to council increasing transit service levels, therefore increasing transit funding.
“Additions to the system that some people would view as quite valuable require considerable resources,” Steblyk told the Gazette. “Sometimes they can require extra hours of operation, sometimes they can require extra buses to be deployed, but regardless of how that extra service is provided, it represents a considerable amount of additional funding that council has to direct to transit.”
In response to a question from Coun. Ken MacKay about whether a planned $1 million Mobility Choices Strategy included in the proposed 2024 budget would cover a serious look at St. Albert Transit's local service, Steblyk said on Nov. 7 council could give administration that direction if they wanted to.
“I imagine [revamping the local service] would require significant changes or certainly additional buses,” MacKay said.
“That's starting to be a familiar refrain from residents.”