Local

Parents miffed over WTA stroller policy

Hannah Cassar boards a bus to Fairhaven with her son, Harrison Cassar, 5 months, at Whatcom Transportation Authority’s downtown station in Bellingham, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015. Hannah says the WTA requirement to take the baby out of the stroller and then collapse the stroller when she boards the bus is "like playing Twister," and she would prefer to keep the baby in the stroller.
Hannah Cassar boards a bus to Fairhaven with her son, Harrison Cassar, 5 months, at Whatcom Transportation Authority’s downtown station in Bellingham, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015. Hannah says the WTA requirement to take the baby out of the stroller and then collapse the stroller when she boards the bus is "like playing Twister," and she would prefer to keep the baby in the stroller. The Bellingham Herald

When Hannah Cassar brought her 2-month-old son Harrison and his stroller onto a Whatcom Transportation Authority bus in May, the driver said the stroller violated WTA’s policy. It was too big to fold under a seat.

Cassar was able to talk her way onto that bus, but on the way home from her job as a YMCA lifeguard a different driver refused to let her board.

“That’s just how the policy goes,” is what Cassar said the driver told her before driving off.

She decided not to wait for the next bus that would take her from downtown to where she lived at Barkley Village.

“I was afraid they wouldn’t let me on that one either, so I didn’t try,” Cassar said. “It was really embarrassing so I walked home, which took about an hour.”

The agency’s stroller policy has been under review for more than a year, but WTA officials have yet to resolve their dilemma: How do they enforce the rule without leaving parents with babies out in the cold?

A record of complaints

The stroller policy has been essentially the same since 2007. In part it says, “All passengers are required to remove their children from strollers and have the stroller folded and stowed between or under the seats before the coach departs.”

Internal WTA emails dating back at least as far as April 2014 showed the agency researching ways to update the policy. Yet a revision issued one year later only added the words “or ramp” to a sentence about deploying the lift on the bus “if the passenger opts to leave their child in the stroller while boarding.”

Other passengers besides Cassar have filed complaints with WTA about how the agency handles passengers with strollers. A request for three years of public records by The Bellingham Herald revealed at least 21 customer complaints or inquiries to WTA about strollers on buses, or incidents with strollers that were reported by drivers.

Bus drivers have been allowed to use their judgment on how strictly to enforce the stroller policy.

“I know for a fact riding around with drivers, it breaks their hearts to tell someone with a kid they can’t get on the bus,” WTA spokeswoman Maureen McCarthy said. “So we’ve allowed them a little more flexibility. … That’s how we got into this situation.”

Earlier this year, a woman complained to WTA because she had seen a father on a bus with a child who was allowed to stay in a jogging stroller, according to emails. The woman had wanted to keep her child, who had autism, strapped in his stroller because otherwise “he experiences behavioral/social issues,” customer service representative Dean White wrote in an email to supervisors on March 4, 2015.

“Pretty difficult to go through the whole spiel about ‘we don’t allow children to be in the stroller’ when she had this example to point to,” supervisor Shelly Davis said in a March 7, 2015, email.

Several other complaints had a common theme: inconsistency. Someone at WTA would tell a passenger he or she could secure a stroller in the wheelchair area, only to have a driver refuse them later.

“Some drivers follow the policy to the letter of the law. Some follow their sense of giving good service,” McCarthy said in an interview. “That’s the bottom-line question: Which way do we go? Do we change the policy or keep the policy?”

Deadline for a resolution

As part of its yearlong policy review, WTA looked at how other transit agencies handled strollers.

“We were kind of in the middle,” WTA Director of Operations Paul Schramer said. “Our policy is what a lot of other transit agencies do.”

Schramer said he doesn’t know how the policy would be improved.

“It’s got to be safe for the child and safe for any other passenger,” he said. “We can’t block aisles and have unsecured objects.” In one email, a passenger with a walker complained that another passenger wouldn’t move his stroller, which was blocking the aisle.

“Within those parameters, what can be done? I don’t know,” Schramer said. “We may have to say our policy is our policy.”

Drivers and passengers in that case would need to know that the policy is strict because people need to be kept safe, he said.

“That could happen as soon as this fall.”

Schramer said he sees a Sept. 16 all-employee meeting as a deadline to resolve the stroller problem. Administrators will use that meeting to hear input from drivers.

“I don’t want to give a final commitment if somebody comes up with a good idea at these discussion sessions,” Schramer said. “Maybe there’s something we haven’t thought of.”

Mark Lowry, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 843 representing WTA employees, said the stroller policy isn’t a serious issue.

“I don’t know that it’s really a problem. With driving a bus, it’s always about competing priorities,” Lowry said.

“It’s part of the game, part of what we do,” he said.

Cassar said her experience with drivers in recent weeks has been better. But she starts nursing school in a few weeks at Bellingham Technical College, and she’s not sure her new commute will go well.

“I’m really worried I’m going to have issues every day, getting on and off the bus twice a day to and from child care,” she said. “I’m getting a little nervous about it.”

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.

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