Lack of direct bus route creates obstacles for users of "barrier-free" facility

Challengerpark thumbnailMary Salvani has cerebral palsy and uses a cane to help with her mobility. The last time she tried to use public transit to get to northeast Calgary's Rotary Challenger Park was last fall. After taking the train from Rundle LRT station to the McKnight-Westwinds station, the only way for Salvani to reach the park was to cross the pedestrian bridge over Métis Trail, which involved working her way up a steep ramp.

Slowly and carefully, Salvani said she took step after step, leaning heavily on her cane. By the time she finally reached the top, out of breath and in pain, she knew she wouldn't be able to make it across the bridge and down the long path from the train station to the park, so she turned back.

"I just wanted to see if I could actually go to Rotary Challenger that way," Salvani said. "But just to use that ramp, it was really hard."

As a person with a disability, Salvani is exactly who Challenger Park is meant for. The park bills itself as an accessible, barrier-free recreation facility where, according to its mission statement, "everyone can play." While this may be true of the park itself, a lack of direct public transit is creating some serious barriers for the people and organizations trying to use it.

The park

Challenger Park opened its doors in 2005. It is located on the corner of McKnight Boulevard and Métis Trail, two of northeast Calgary's major freeways. According to its executive director James Zackowski, it is the only recreation facility of its kind in Calgary — "the only facility that was built to be barrier-free," he says.

Alongside an inclusive playground and wide plaza with a shaded picnic area, there is also a baseball diamond, tennis courts, a football and soccer field, and a running track.

While the outdoor space is quiet in the winter, indoors, the Jim & Pearl Burns Centre — home of Renfrew Educational Services — buzzes with activity. Brightly-coloured coats and backpacks hang on hooks in the lobby. Behind a set of doors, the sounds of children's laughter and the squeak of sneakers on linoleum can be heard.

Many people who use Challenger Park praise the quality and inclusivity of the facility itself; their complaints come from the lack of public transportation. Calgary Transit does not run service directly to Challenger Park.

Its website suggests three transit locations, but all are roughly a 30-minute walk from the park itself. What's more, long stretches of the route along Pegasus Road, the only available access point from one of the bus stops, don't have sidewalks or pedestrian pathways.

The challenge

Calgary Transit's representative, Ron Collins, said they are aware of the problem and have had requests in the past to provide service to the park. While Calgary Transit has long-term plans to run service to Challenger Park, this will likely not happen in the foreseeable future.

"We're unable to implement the route due to a lack of funding, and other transit priorities, at least for the time being," Collins said.

When I tested the walking conditions on Feb. 7, I was forced to walk on the road, within arm's length of passing vehicles. Though there are apparently pedestrian walkways along 48th Avenue on the east side of Barlow Trail, I had no way of knowing because at the time, they were buried under four feet of snow, which was not cleared off the path. When I finally reached the park, sweating and exhausted, I couldn't help but think that it was a hell of a hike just to go get some exercise. On top of that, I am an able-bodied person who was unaccompanied by children, a stroller or athletic equipment.

challengerparkTo reach Challenger Park, Mary Salvani has to climb this steep ramp to the pedestrian bridge crossing Métis Trail, a trek she says is too hard for her.

Photo by Madison Farkas
Mary Salvani said the walk from the suggested bus stops would have been impossible for her and other people with physical disabilities.

"I can't really see how I would walk there successfully, just because of the distance and because it's not paved," she said of the park, which she hasn't used for several months. "I used to go there but it's hard to get to unless you have someone that drives you."

Salvani also noted that, though ramps like the one she struggled with at the McKnight-Westwinds LRT station are often seen as making a route accessible, the incline is too steep for people to easily maneuver wheelchairs.

"People are surprised how hard it is to push a wheelchair up even the slightest ramp," she said.

Challenger Park has faced these transportation problems since it opened almost a decade ago, and Salvani has been frustrated with the lack of change.

"From what I understood, the City of Calgary didn't want to put a bus stop there because not enough people were going there. But I'm like, 'not enough people are going there because there's no bus stop.'"

Transportation affects more than the Park

But the lack of transportation doesn't just create obstacles for individuals. It also caused a problem for the Cerebral Palsy Association in Alberta. Until 2010, Challenger Park was home to that association, which eventually had to move. Its associate executive director, Mezaun Lakha-Evin, said the lack of transportation was a big part of the reason why her group relocated.

"With Calgary Transit, you couldn't get to the park," she said. "You'd have to walk quite a distance. It's accessible once you're in it, but getting to it is very, very difficult."

Lakha-Evin said there was supposed to be a bridge crossing Metis Trail into the park when it was first being designed, but it was never built. "Somehow the ball dropped somewhere," she said. "After the fact, when I brought the City of Calgary's attention to how come there was no access to the park, it was kind of a done deal because the park was already built."

The Cerebral Palsy Association tried to get a bus stop added to the park but was unsuccessful. Though the interior office space suited their needs, they were eventually forced to leave. "It would have been perfect if there was access," she said.

Location is everything

But Lakha-Evin isn't the only one asking why the question of public transportation was never addressed proactively. Mara Kaplan is the owner of Let Kids Play, a consulting firm she operates out of Pittsburg, Pa. She works with park districts, equipment manufacturers and communities to encourage the inclusion of children of all abilities.

"When people ask me, in my consulting business, about site-selection, I do say, 'where's the closest public transportation?'" she said.

Kaplan also noted the lack of public transportation creates economic barriers as well as physical ones, restricting access even to people who don't live with disabilities.

"If you don't create a good inclusive environment, what you're saying is that anybody who can't afford a car can't come here," she said. "It's about being inclusive and being inclusive means we welcome everyone to come play at our playground. Everyone can't come play if what you're saying is we've built this huge community asset in a location that people without cars can't get to."

Though an empty field on the corner of two major roadways may seem like an unusual choice for a community destination, it was a matter of what was available at the time. The land came in a deal between the City of Calgary and the Calgary Airport Authority, who agreed to let Challenger Park's administrators manage and operate it.

John Boyd, who was the president of the Rotary Club of Calgary when the park was in its early stages, said that was the only possible land he had ever known about. It was the Rotary Club's idea to build a barrier-free recreation facility in the first place, which is why the park bears their name. While they were heavily involved in pushing the concept and raising money for it, they don't have any say in its day-to-day operations.

"When the site came up originally, one of the reasons why we thought it was a good site was we thought it was going to be reasonably close to the LRT line," Boyd said.

"But obviously it didn't do much good if there wasn't a bus connection. It's unfortunate that a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of resources have gone into it, and obviously the transportation is taking away from its use. We could certainly voice concern, and we should."

While transportation directly to the park is available through Access Calgary, a division of Calgary Transit, this is not an option for able-bodied people. Access Calgary is specifically designed to provide services to people with disabilities, who must go through a screening process to be considered eligible.

They then have to book trips to and from the park in advance, which Cal Schuler, the Canadian Paraplegic Association's community development co-ordinator, said is not a particularly flexible process because it limits their ability to make spontaneous travel decisions.

"It's like the chicken and egg thing," he said, echoing Salvani. "For busses to be able to come out there, they need to show that they have the numbers warranting a bus system. But then, if you can't get people out there by bus, you can't really generate those numbers."

A lack of funds

Schuler and the Paraplegic Association run several fundraising and awareness events at Challenger Park throughout the year, including their annual Family Fun Day.

He said that, while the park would benefit from a bus stop, the fact that Challenger doesn't have an equal level of use year-round means it's harder to justify. Like any primarily outdoor recreation facility, its peak season is late spring to early fall, and the number of visitors drops during the winter months.

James Zackowski, Challenger Park's executive director, said that was the reason why the park worked with Calgary Transit to arrange a summer-only bus route that was meant to be tested last year. However, that proposed fix fell through due to a lack of funds.

"We had it worked out with them to experiment with it last summer, and then during their budget deliberations, they had to do a number of cuts," Zackowski explained. "That experimentation was cut from the budget."

But Zackowski would still like to try that experiment, saying a test run is the only way to know for sure how much a direct bus route would help the park, which currently sees 70,000 to 80,000 visitors per year. "I think we can safely say that it would," he said. "It's just a question of quantifying how many people would take advantage of it."

The park does offer a transportation and rental cost subsidy through its Everyone Can Play Fund, which is available to organizations that help people with disabilities. However, the park has still received requests from visitors and from groups like the Cerebral Palsy Association, for expanded public transportation.

"It's a question of, 'is the demand enough to provide the supply?'" he continued. "From the City's point of view, there hasn't been a big enough demand, constant demand, for them to justify putting a scheduled bus service through to the park."

Ward 3 Coun. Jim Stevenson is aware of Challenger Park's transportation problems and is working with Calgary Transit to try and rectify them. He said an expanded bus route would also be able to service the businesses along Pegasus Road.

"We're trying to figure out a re-routing of some of the busses that we have running there," he said. "I'm putting a little bit of pressure on Transit to try and find a solution."

Stevenson said that the new airport tunnel, which is set to open on May 24, will bring more people through the area and hopefully help present a case for public transit. However, it is unlikely that any progress will be made before the city budget is released this fall.

Challenger Park has also unveiled a new strategy, which James Zackowski hopes will draw even more people to the park on a more regular basis. Plans are in the works for the Centre for All Abilities facility adjacent to the park that will be the home base for several non-profit organizations.

"We're hoping in the not too distant future, that the demand will warrant a supply of at least some form of bus schedule," Zackowski said. "It doesn't have to be every hour, maybe it's four times a day."

The $32-million plan is still in its infancy, and will be paid by a combination of government funding and private donations. Fundraising for the capital campaign could begin as early as May or June, and is slated to break ground in the summer of 2016. The completion date is set for the fall of 2018.

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