Let’s put HandyDART users back in the driver’s seat

As co-chair of the HandyDART Riders’ Alliance, I was scheduled to speak at the public session of the TransLink Board of Directors’ meeting in New Westminster on Wednesday. (Check out CBC Radio’s coverage of some of the points raised by my co-chair, Beth McKellar, here as well as a video clip of some of the presentations here.)

Ford_E-Series_TransLink_CutawayAs a HandyDART user, I knew it would be difficult to get a ride from my home in Kitsilano all the way to New Westminster so I called in to MVT Canadian Bus — the for-profit company contracted by TransLink to provide HandyDART service in Greater Vancouver — seven days in advance, the maximum number of days ahead we’re allowed to do so. (Note that the parent company of MVT Canadian is American-owned MV Transportation, based in Dallas, Texas.)

I was told that there were no rides available to take me from my home to the meeting but they could offer me a ride from my home to the Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain Station, which would allow me to take SkyTrain to within a block of the Translink meeting.

I happily took this option and booked a pick-up for 9 to 9:30 a.m. MVT will not permit booking to be for a specific time but only for a half-hour window. For those of you who don’t use HandyDART, this means you must always book the ride with a large enough time frame prior to your appointment because you have to assume the bus may not get there till the end of the window.

So I sat by the front window from 9 to 9:30 a.m. waiting for the ride, as required to do so — but no bus! The ride did not show up till 10 a.m.! By that time, I was not going to get to the TransLink meeting in time to speak, so I gave up.

I offer the above story not as a complaint but as a backdrop to the following history:

In the late 1970s I, together with a number of other folks, lobbied successfully to get TransLink’s predecessor, the Urban Transit Authority, to create HandyDART. We then lobbied for them to operate it in-house just like they do with conventional transit. But we lost that battle.

TransLink insisted on putting HandyDART out to tender. So we set about with Plan B. We formed a user-run co-op, Pacific Transit Co-operative — the only co-op in all of North America made up of HandyDART users. We submitted a bid in 1981 (my first year at law school), and I still remember getting the phone call in early March telling me that we had won the bid!

For 27 years PTC ran HandyDART, putting the HandyDART rider in the driver’s seat. We were an operator and a board of directors made up only of HandyDART users. We even hired a HandyDART user as our general manager.

I’m sad to say that nothing good lasts forever. About 2008, Pacific Transit Co-operative lost the contract to an American-owned, for-profit company — the above-named MV Transportation.

As a user-run co-op (a not-for-profit organization), we bid a fixed price to deliver a fixed amount of service. But if we ended up delivering that service for less, we would use the money left over to put more service on the road rather than giving it to shareholders. With a for-profit company like MVT, the profit is baked into the bid. It’s never put into raising service levels, but evaporates into pockets south of the border.

MVT’s contract comes up for renewal next year.

Let’s all work together to convince TransLink to bring HandyDART back in-house. TransLink does not put our conventional bus service out to tender every year — they operate it through a wholly owned subsidiary, Coast Mountain Bus Company

Why not the same for HandyDART as well?

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