‘Ottawa’ Ottawa Para Transpo User bemoans 45-minute Waits to Book Rides: ‘They wouldn’t do This to any other Category of Customer’
Three or four mornings a week, Para Transpo user Suzanne Schecter Côté gets on the phone to schedule a ride for the next day. And waits. And waits. And waits.
It’s not unusual for her to be on hold for 45 minutes to book a ride. And that discriminates against people with disabilities, she argues.
“They wouldn’t do this to any other category of customer,” she said.
Para Transpo riders who take repeat trips — going to an a appointment every Thursday at 10 a..m., say, or travelling to school or work on certain days — don’t have to book every time they need a ride. But one-time only trips can only be booked one day in advance. That means everyone looking to book a ride for the next day is jamming the phone lines the morning before a required ride.
“I need Para Transpo. I can’t afford a personal car. I have no choice,” said Schecter Côté.
The service is excellent and drivers are respectful and caring, she says. Her beef is with the scheduling system, which means she has to wait on hold for 20, 30 and as long as 45 minutes every time she wants to book. To compare, Ottawa’s 311 call centre, which answers resident questions about city services, aims to answer 80 per cent of calls within 120 seconds. According to 2014 data released by the city’s auditor last year, about nine per cent of 311 callers hang up after being on hold for less than two minutes.
Schecter Côté has a point about being on hold, said Pat Scrimgeour, director of transit customer services and planning. A 45-minute wait is longer than usual, but not extraordinary.
“We know people are waiting a long, long time,” he said. “They are actually planning their days around Para Transpo.”
There are a few explanations for the long wait. It’s winter and those who find it hard to navigate the sidewalks in wheelchairs and walkers are calling for Para Transpo instead of taking an accessible OC Transpo bus.
The number of riders is on the rise as well. In 2014, about 13,000 registered users took 780,000 trips on Para Transpo. Last year, that had increased to 16,000 users taking 796,000 trips.
The scheduling system has eight or nine operators taking calls from users. Until a few weeks ago, if the line was busy, customers were forced to keep redialing in the hopes of finding a line that wasn’t busy. A new system puts callers into a queue and answers them in sequence, Scrimgeour said.
“It’s better that people be in the queue. But they’re sitting by the phone, and they’re getting impatient with us.”
Schecter Côté agrees on both counts. She would like to be able to book in advance, and she would like to be able to book online, as she already does for many appointments. But Scrimgeour says there’s no agreement among Para Transpo users on how the system should work.
“There are some people who suggest you should be able to call a week ahead of time. That’s understandable. But if everyone can book a week ahead, it would get booked up.” (Getting booked up happens now, but it is uncommon. If this happens, the agent will work with the customer to see if another time would work.)
As for online booking, that solution favours those who have access to a computer, Scrimgeour said.
That argument doesn’t wash with Schecter Côté, who says using online booking for those who have access to a computer would free up operators for those who don’t.
Meanwhile, Para Transpo is making other changes to increase efficiency, including installing mobile devices similar to Android smartphones in vehicles used by its taxi contractors. The technology makes real-time location information available, allowing Para Transpo staff provide better estimated arrival times to customers.
Access to real-time travel information will improve scheduling of same-day trip requests because staff won’t have to rely on estimated information, said Scrimgeour. It will also allow for the integration of ParaPay, a new cardless electronic fare payment system, to be implemented this year.
ParaTranspo has also negotiated a better contract with taxi companies, which has resulted in more available vehicles, he said. A new automated system already allows users to review or cancel booked trips for the same day or next without having to speak to an operator.
“For a lot of people, it’s not about choice, it’s about need,” said Scrimgeour. “These people need empathy and respect.”