Wanda Avery travels from her Paquin Tower apartment to the Columbia Mall on a regular basis for a haircut, to use the bank and to buy household essentials. Often times she will use the Columbia Transit System because at 75 years old and in a wheelchair, she finds it convenient. However, a new bus policy at the Columbia Mall is going to make life a little more difficult for Avery and others like her.
Instead of dropping riders at the Columbia Mall entrance, the Columbia transit buses will stop at a new bus stop, which is expected to be completed later this month. Riders will have to travel from the new bus stop on Bernadette Drive, near Dillard’s, through the parking lot to the mall entrance.
Mall administration has decided to change the bus stop from the front of the building to the street because it has become a safety hazard for the buses to drop off in front of the building, said Katie Essing, the group vice president of marketing for the Columbia Mall.
“The buses have tried to have a stop on Bernadette before and it was very dangerous,” Avery said. “I had to go all through the parking lot in my chair where drivers can’t see me because I am down lower.”
According to Mark Stone, executive director of Services for Independent Living, the new mall policy could cause several problems for members of the community. Although it appears to be safer, Stone said for others like Avery it will be more dangerous. The aisles on the bus are too narrow and the drivers are not allowed to push or lift anyone in a power wheelchair, they can only guide them.
“I am tired of being treated as a second-class citizen because my body is handicapped, it doesn’t mean my mind is,” Avery said. “I have no business waiting on a busy street in a wheelchair for a bus and neither do others.”
According to Essing, the Paratransit system, which caters to the needs of those with more severe disabilities, will still be allowed to drop riders off at the mall entrance.
But the Paratransit system can only assist so many, said Michelle Rose, Paratransit customer service representative. They take applications daily to find out how severe a person’s disability is and why they cannot use the regular transit system. Paratransit accepts applications based on who needs the service most. Those who are not accepted must try to use the regular fixed-route transit system.
“It has become a hazard to pedestrians for the buses to continue to stop in front of the mall and we want to ensure the safety of our customers,” Essing said. “This decision was made for the best interest of all.”
The Columbia Mall contacted the director of transit, Mark Grindstaff, and requested that the buses no longer drive in the parking lot as soon as the new bus stop is completed. Grindstaff said the mall is paying for the construction of the bus stop, which could cost up to $10,000.
“The mall is private property,” Grindstaff said. “Like a homeowner, they have the right to make the decision to say the public transit system is no longer allowed in the parking lot and we have no say against it.”
Nonetheless, Stone said the move will have a negative impact on some in the community.
“Several elderly and those with disabilities use the fixed route transit system, to change the stop is a step back for accessibility in our community,” he said.