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Discussion paper: Accessible transit services in Ontario

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Approved by the Commission: January 16, 2001

Executive summary


Access to public transportation services is a human rights issue. Transportation is fundamental to the capacity of most persons to function in society. Transit services facilitate integration into public and social life in our communities, as well as allow people to access work, and basic goods, services and facilities. However, certain persons who are protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code face significant barriers in using transit services. While the issue of transit accessibility is most often discussed in the context of persons with disabilities, it also impacts on others, such as older persons and families with young children.

Accessible Transit Services and Human Rights Law

The Code protects the right to equal treatment with respect to services, which includes public transit. The Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed the principle that society should be structured and designed for inclusiveness. This means that positive steps are needed to ensure equal participation for those who have experienced historical disadvantage and exclusion from society’s benefits. This includes a right to accommodation with dignity to the point of undue hardship.

In the context of transit services, this means that the design and development of transit services should be based on the objective of maximum integration of all persons into society. As part of their duty to accommodate, transit providers have a legal obligation to provide accessible transit services. This includes both modifications to conventional systems to ensure maximum accessibility for all persons, and the creation and maintenance of paratransit systems.

The duty to accommodate is to the point of undue hardship. Undue hardship is assessed based on costs, outside sources of funding, and health and safety. When assessing cost implications, the cost must be assessed having regard to the entire budget of the transit authority, and not solely the operating budget allotted to a particular part of the service or department, such as the paratransit service. 

Transit Accessibility Survey

In July 1999, the Commission wrote to 25 Ontario municipalities and transit service providers to survey the accessibility of their transit systems. Each was asked about specific services to accommodate persons with disabilities, about the status of integrated transportation services, and any new initiatives being planned to accommodate patrons with disabilities. Nineteen authorities replied. Key themes emerging from the survey are highlighted below.

  • Planning tools: Some survey respondents reported having planning tools, such as accessibility plans, although several of these plans are out of date. The planning tools showed a wide range of goals, as well as timeframes for the achievement of goals.
  • Accessibility standards: Ontario has no legislation or technical or service benchmarks aimed at creating standards for accessibility. As a result, there was a wide range among survey respondents in terms of services, as well as of goals and objectives.
  • Goals and objectives: While many survey respondents recognized that accessible transit services are fundamental to persons with disabilities, as well as to older persons and children, only a third expressed a commitment to both fully accessible and integrated systems. While some municipalities expressed confidence that systems would be accessible in the near or foreseeable future, others did not even project full accessibility.
  • Integration of conventional transit systems: Survey respondents have undertaken a wide range of initiatives to make conventional services more accessible, including improved vehicle accessibility, community bus services and/or service routes, improved fixed bus routing and scheduling, accessibility guidelines and standards for future building initiatives, improved barrier removal at bus stops, accessible bus terminals, stations and platforms, and horizontal combination or integration of local or regional programs. However, there remain many serious gaps in integrated conventional transit services.
  • Paratransit services: Paratransit services vary greatly across the province in terms of eligibility criteria, services, and costs. Access is generally limited to patrons who are registered and meet pre-established eligibility requirements. Levels of access for persons with different types and severities of disabilities vary, particularly with respect to persons with ambulatory or temporary disabilities and persons with mental disabilities generally lack access to paratransit services. Registration fees and fares range widely across the province.
  • Special issues in the Greater Toronto Area: Special issues arise in the Greater Toronto Area. While the TTC’s subway car fleet is accessible to customers who use mobility devices, only ten of the sixty-nine subway stations are accessible. Because the bus system is so closely integrated with the subway, this has major repercussions to the accessibility of the entire service. As well, the accessibility of GO Transit is limited, with only 10% of the fleet fully accessible, and no targets for further increases in accessibility. Combined with the restrictiveness of the paratransit system, this leaves a gap in services for people who are neither able to access the conventional system, nor eligible to use the paratransit system.


Based on the human rights principles of integration and respect for dignity, the goal of any transit system should be to integrate its riders with disabilities into a primary transit system accessible to all patrons. For patrons who cannot access even a highly integrated primary or conventional system, a parallel system should provide service in a manner that is least intrusive and most respect dignity.

While significant efforts have been made to improve accessibility of transit services across the province, much more needs to be done. There are special concerns relating to the Greater Toronto Area in this regard. In general, the lack, in many cases, of up-to-date plans to resolve issues of access and inclusion, as well as of standards and benchmarks, is likely to hamper progress. Further, the exclusion of persons with certain types disabilities, such as temporary disabilities and mental disabilities from access to paratransit services raises serious human rights concerns.

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