Commuters with disabilities scramble after Montreal's accessible taxi drivers call strike
Taxi drivers servicing Montrealers with disabilities will be on strike from Friday to Monday, directly affecting the STM's paratransit service.
Drivers are demanding higher compensation for rising gas prices and increased costs related to purchasing a taxi vehicle as well as modifying it for clients with special needs.
The drivers aim to negotiate contract terms with the STM.
Between July 8 and 11, all-new trip requests will be refused by the STM's online reservation system for paratransit, known as SIRTA, with "medical reasons" being the only exception.
Linda Gauthier, president of the RAPLIQ organization representing Quebecers with disabilities, expressed disappointment in the upcoming strike.
At least four of her disabled friends and colleagues now have to find an alternative to reach her birthday party in LaSalle this Saturday — with one of them resorting to using bike paths in a wheelchair.
"This is a major inconvenience for people with disabilities, we are hostages in this situation. But I also understand the drivers' concerns, [...] so it should be up to François Bonnardel to address this issue as soon as possible," she said, referring to Quebec's minister of transport.
The STM encourages disabled commuters to use regular transit this weekend, if possible. However, this will not be an option for Gauthier as the closest metro stations to her home, Mont-Royal and Laurier, are not currently equipped with elevators.
Willing to pay more for the journey, Gauthier attempted to schedule a trip directly with the Rosemont Van Adapté company, but she was refused service due to the strike.
Not all taxi drivers are taking part in this movement, however.
Rafik Essafi, a Rosemont Van Adapté driver, believes that better conditions and subsidies for paratransit should indeed be negotiated with the government, but with less drastic measures.
"It is wrong to keep vulnerable passengers as hostages in this situation," he said. "This is a rather savage way of negotiating, which will also reflect badly on our image as taxi drivers."
Buying a new accessible taxi van now costs around $75,000 according to Essafi, who drives a paratransit vehicle himself. He estimates that nearly 50 chauffeurs are taking part in the strike around the city.
"The cost of ownership and operations doubled in the past two years, but the revenues didn't follow up [for the drivers]," said Frédéric Prégent, president of Taxelco, a Montreal paratransit provider.
Prégent added that while the company supports the drivers' requests for their pay, the government should also be given some time to react and find an appropriate solution.
As for finding a compromise, the STM is "focused on mitigating the impacts on the clients for this weekend and [is] continuing the discussions with the drivers to bring long-term solutions," said Philippe Déry, the STM media relations officer.
Meanwhile, Ian, a wheelchair user who asked to keep his last name anonymous for fear of getting blacklisted from taxi services, had to cancel his Sunday plans as he relies on paratransit for social occasions.
"Without access to the paratransit services, individuals will feel isolated especially when it is nice outside versus the winter months," he said. While understanding the unique medical exemption, Ian added that social and leisure outings are also important for the mental health of some individuals with disabilities.
While taxi drivers, the STM, and the government work on reaching an agreement, Gauthier warns that disabled Montrealers should expect delays from the STM paratransit this weekend, as 88 per cent of its accessible vehicles are owned by private taxi companies.
With files from CTV Montreal's Touria Izri