Toronto, Canada: Accessible Public & Private Transportation

Getting around Toronto is probably the biggest challenge facing many travellers who use a wheelchair. Driving in or renting a vehicle will provide the most options although you will have to deal with our notorious gridlock. I have read (but haven’t verified) that all major car rental companies in Canada’s larger cities provide vehicles with hand controls, and that Thrifty also has accessible vans.Green P parking lots can be located online. You will also find some street parking, as well as malls and some stores with their own lots/spots.

If arriving at Pearson International Airport, the easiest and most common transportation option is a limo. (Cabs can drive in, but can’t pick up.) A small number of accessible limos (minivans) serve the airport. Immediately find and speak to the attendant outside who is responsible for calling a wheelchair limo. Don’t join the queue because the attendant will have to make a special call and you don’t want the next accessible vehicle to go to someone who doesn’t need it. I’ve never had trouble obtaining a minivan in a relatively short period of time but do expect a longer wait than you would for a regular limo. You can also look into prearranging a limo.

Limo fares are flat rate based on proximity of zones to the airport. For your return trip you can pre-book Airline Limo at (416) 675-3638 or 1-800-263-5466, a company that has provided me good service. Alternatively, ask your incoming driver for his company’s card.

You’ll find additional access information on Pearson’s website.  Porters can help with luggage. Years ago I found Air Canada personnel provided excellent assistance, but my recent experiences are more in line with the bad press they have received regarding service to other customers with disabilities. If you require Air Canada’s assistance after you deplane (both navigating the large airport and managing carry-on) you may experience long waits.

Starting in 2015, Union Pearson Express rail service will connect the Pearson airport to the downtown. Until then, if you are so inclined and managing luggage is not an issue you can take public transit to/from Pearson Airport via Kipling Station and 192 Airport Rocket bus route. The Pacific Western airport buses claim to be accessible, and they serve several downtown hotels.

Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport’s location on Toronto Island, minutes from the downtown core, makes it very convenient for those travellers who are able to access appropriate flights. Known locally as the Island Airport, it is a small airport serviced by Porter and Air Canada that currently offers domestic flights as well as limited flights to large US centres. It links to the city by a short ferry ride (in the future there will be a tunnel) and shuttle. I have never flown from the Island Airport but staff informed me that both the ferry and the bus are accessible. Please verify access and make any required special arrangements before you fly.

Out of town VIA and GO trains arrive at Union Station, which is centrally located in southern downtown and has been undergoing a major renovation. Via Rail provides access information, including measurements of chair widths that can be accommodated on the various routes. Information on GO Transit, including a video showing accessibility measures, is found at: (I am not familiar with details on train travel so others are encouraged to add posts.) Union (train) Station is very close to the subway station, also called Union Station. While both are accessible, those requiring direct underground access will need to confirm accessibility of the current route.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) operates our parallel transit service, Wheel-Trans, and the conventional transit service that operates city buses, streetcars, the subway, and LRTs. Wheel-Trans links to some regional parallel transit services, and rides can also be arranged to and from TTC subway stations.

If you are a registered paratransit user in your hometown, you’re eligible to use, Wheel-Trans, for up to two weeks yearly. However, it would be a very time-consuming way to spend your vacation! While you might get to see the city it might not be the parts of the city you want see. The vehicle is likely to stop for others and may first drive in the opposite direction you want to go. Buses run late, and trips can take an hour or more to get to a destination that might be relatively close by, while getting to destinations far away can take up to two hours each way.

Wheel-Trans rides are booked up to a week in advance and can be requested up to four hours before your travel time. However, rides will likely not be available closer to the date. Even a week before you may find you are given times that don’t correspond to your request. Fares are the same as the conventional transit service.

If you are interested, contact Wheel-Trans in advance of your trip to inquire about using the system. After signing up for the service, bookings are best made on the Internet. Automated phone booking is complicated, and the worse option, speaking to a live reservationist, entails a considerable wait on hold. Detailed info is available online, but my advice is to by-pass Wheel-Trans if at all possible.

The TTC website provides plenty of accessibility info online related to the conventional transit system, including an option in the trip planner to select an accessible route. All city buses operated by the TTC are wheelchair accessible, although people in wheelchairs can’t board at each stop; look for a wheelchair symbol at the bus stop.

Streetcars are not accessible, although future models will be starting in 2014 and the fleet is supposed to be fully accessible by 2019. (Apparently the second door will be accessible in the new, long streetcars.) Fortunately there are far more bus routes than streetcar routes although inaccessibility can pose difficulty when travelling east and west downtown.

Less than half of our subway stations are wheelchair accessible. Currently (spring 2014) more than half are accessible in the downtown loop (Bloor/Yonge, Dundas, Queen, Union, St. Andrew, Osgoode, Queen’s Park, St. George). Stations downtown are relatively close together (typically just a few blocks) so pushing to the next accessible station may be an option for you.

By law all stations have to be accessible by 2025. Half of the remaining 34 stations are supposed to be accessible by 2020 but the TTC is never on schedule. Each year they move completion dates back. Despite the law, the TTC has recently disclosed they do not plan to provide wheelchair access at the last 17 stations without full external funding.

Most accessible stations only have one accessible entrance, which is marked with a wheelchair symbol. (Busy Bloor/Yonge Station is the exception with entrances under The Bay department store and on Hayden Street, and elevators at both ends of the north-south platforms.) Call 416-393-INFO (4636) to check the location of the accessible subway entrance, as well as to inquire whether elevators are out of service.

Depending on the station you will likely take two different elevators: one to the station level (which may be a non-TTC elevator) and a second to the subway platform to board a train. Some stations also have different elevators inside depending on the train’s direction; others have only one elevator to a common platform. You can check online or call the automated 416-539-LIFT to make sure station elevators are operational. In the past, elevators have been out of service for long periods of time without signs of any repair or maintenance activity. The TTC is getting better at putting info online. If you are stranded due to a broken elevator there is a map of an alternate route beside the elevator. Don’t hesitate to find a TTC staff member and ask for assistance with other options: alternate routes or an emergency Wheel-Trans bus if more suitable.

There are designated spaces on buses and subway trains for wheelchair users. Bus drivers should offer to tie down your chair but I find it is rare. They lack the time, desire and knowledge to tie down chairs. Large electric chairs may have difficulty maneuvering in buses. Buses downtown allow you to board at the front and sit at the front in the designated seating area. Drivers should ask other passengers to vacate the area for you. If a motorized ramp is not functioning, the operator should deploy it manually. For short trips, electric and some manual users will probably be better off taking to the streets, weather permitting.

Subway cars identified with the wheelchair symbol have benches that flip up to provide space for wheelchair users. Mind the gap when you are boarding. In some cases it is quite wide and/or too high.

Although I know some brave Torontonians in wheelchairs who take the subway during morning and evening “rush hour,” I wouldn’t recommend using the subway in the worst of rush hour, especially downtown- there just isn’t space. Buses will be busy too but I find them preferable to the subway. Be aware that drivers with a crowded bus may leave you on the curb for the next one.

Cash fares are accepted. Alternatively TTC fares may be purchased at subway stations or from other vendors including the airport (see online or phone their info line: 416-393-INFO), but are not sold in buses and streetcars. It is a little cheaper to buy tokens than pay cash. Day passes may also be purchased offering users a volume discount.

One of the weakest points in our transportation network for tourists has been taxis. Cabs are often the easiest and fastest way of getting around a city as a tourist, especially when you don’t want to master a transit system. As I write in spring 2014, few of Toronto’s 5000 taxis are wheelchair accessible and most of those are contracted to Wheel-Trans, leaving us with no on-demand service. For those who book in advance or are willing to wait, cab companies are reported to routinely charge wheelchair users illegal hefty, flat rate fees, instead of the metered rate. (Such activity should be reported to the city by phoning 311.)

A significant development for tourists and residents alike occurred in early 2014 when Toronto City Council mandated that all taxis must be accessible by June 30, 2024. This is a turning point for visitors who use wheelchairs. Subject to the result of lawsuits launched by the taxi industry, cabbies will gradually move to accessible vehicles with the City of Toronto setting a goal that 6% of the fleet (290 vehicles) be accessible by 2015, and that by January 1, 2019 companies provide accessible service in the same amount of time as service provided to those customers who do not require an accessible cab.

If in need of a taxi try Checker Taxi, Royal, Co-op, or Scarborough City. Beck, Toronto’s largest taxi company, has few accessible cabs and was against the City’s efforts to improve access but like other companies will gradually have to move to accessible vehicles.

Other unregulated, accessible transportation companies such at GTA Accessible have sprung up to serve the wheelchair market but they also charge higher flat rates. You must call in advance. With new accessible cabs coming on the road there will likely be a shakeup in this industry.

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