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The Ups and Downs of Ontario's Elevators
Vertical Living Has Multiple Benefits, But Also Comes With Frustrating Challenges
By Megan Molloy | Other articles by Megan Molloy
You approach the elevators in your condo building. The "Out of Service" signs that have been posted on two out of the four elevators for the past three weeks are still there. You roll your eyes. The call button has already been pressed by another waiting resident. You make sure you press it again, just in case. Thirty seconds go by. More residents show up to wait. You press the call button three more times just to make sure that glowing light actually means something. There is a loud impatient sigh. It may have come from you. Another minute passes. An elevator finally arrives. You enter and move to the space farthest away from other riders. Of course – your floor is the last stop. You consider whether to make small talk or stand awkwardly in silence. You choose silence and contemplate what would happen if the packed elevator got stuck. You heard it happened last week. It doesn't this time. Six stops and ten minutes later, you are finally home.
If you are a resident of a high-rise or lowrise condominium corporation in Ontario, you've likely had an experience similar to the one above. Vertical living has multiple benefits, but also comes with frustrating challenges. Elevator breakdowns, maintenance issues, and their resulting entrapments are old news, but have only intensified as Ontario's condominium market continues its booming expansion. With many new condominium developments reaching previously unimaginable heights, elevators have become a crucial aspect of Ontario's transportation system, and most particularly for aging communities, the mobility-challenged, and first-responders attempting to access a building in an emergency situation.
Data collected by the Technical Standards and Safety Authority ("TSSA"), the regulator that administers and enforces technical standards for elevators in Ontario, reports that in 2017, there were over 10,000 buildings in the province serviced by elevators, with roughly 655,000 trips being taken per day in 19,900 individual elevator cars. These users include tenants of rental buildings, condominium owners, or people using a hospital, assembly, school, or other public facility. They also include seniors, persons with mobility issues, and residents completing daily tasks. The Globe and Mail reported that elevator maintenance issues that year had led to 9,649 confirmed entrapments – meaning that Ontarians were trapped in elevators an average of 26 times a day. Condominium buildings, as opposed to commercial or institutional buildings, had the lowest rate of elevator functionality, at just 93% availability.
Climbing stairs makes for great exercise if you're capable – but hauling yourself, groceries, children, and/or pets up 20, 40 or even 70 flights of steps when there's one working elevator in a building with 400 residents is far from a realistic alternative for most people. Elevator delays can cause major disruption to the life of the average person, but for elderly or mobility challenged residents, an absence of elevator service can leave people virtually captive in their own homes. More than just about accessibility, elevator issues can also pose serious health and safety concerns for many Ontarians.
There is no jurisdiction in the North America that currently enforces elevator availability, largely because the factors and parties affecting elevator issues are complex and varied. However, in March 2017, MPP Han Dong tabled a private member's bill in the Ontario legislature, seeking to address what some have deemed a crisis in Ontario. The proposed Bill 109, the "Reliable Elevators Act, 2017" was comprised of two main sections: one would amend the Consumer Protection Act and set time limits for getting broken elevators back in service — 14 days for most buildings, seven for retirement homes and long-term-care facilities – and the other called for changes to the Ontario Building Code which would mandate elevator-traffic studies for new high-rise buildings.
In response to Dong's proposed legislation, emerging concerns associated with elevator functionality, and the lack of data on the topic, the TSSA commissioned an independent and in-depth study on elevator availability in Ontario in June 2017, which was led by the Honourable Justice Douglas Cunningham. The purpose of the study was to define and assess the state of elevator availability in Ontario, as well as to determine the key drivers of unavailability, and propose both regulatory and non-regulatory solutions to inform key policy decisions and assist in the implementation of new legislation.
The fourteen-week assessment included a jurisdictional scan of peers to Ontario, and was based on information gathered from a series of over 50 interviews and workshops with stakeholders, a primary research survey sent to more than 3,000 elevators owners and operators in Ontario, risk-based assessment of TSSA data, and analysis of TSSA, long-term care home, and municipal data.
Justice Cunningham's final report, released in December 2017, casts a wide net of blame for "real and perceived" problems within the elevator industry, and states that "specific isolated instances of elevator problems have created a misperception of widespread elevator outages and unresponsive service companies that are both inaccurate and irresponsible."
While residents may be quick to blame their condominium boards or property management companies for the shaft in service, the structure of the elevator industry may actually be the main source of the problem. Justice Cunningham's report finds that there are four large manufacturers which own more than 75% of Ontario's elevator market: Kone, Otis, Schindler, and ThyssenKrupp. However, the big four employ only 40% of repair technicians, who are typically unable to keep up with demand for completion of necessary repairs. Instead of supplying third party elevator companies with their parts to assist in increasing service availability, repairs are kept in-house, effectively monopolizing the industry.
Shortage in supply is a problem in any market; however, with the influx of new elevators, service technicians are spending more of their time attending to repairs, which means less time for preventive maintenance. Without regular preventative maintenance, elevators are prone to develop more problems that need repairs, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle where more and more elevators are grounded awaiting repair. However – there is no "quick fix" – Justice Cunningham's study concludes that elevator availability is a complex issue, and no single solution will solve it.
In response to Cunningham's recommendations, the Ontario government introduced new legislation which attempts to restore reliability in the elevator industry. In May 2018, the Access to Consumer Credit Reports and Elevator Availability Act, 2018 (the "Act") – which mandates regulators to create penalties and deadlines for elevator downtime, among other improvements in our elevator infrastructure – received "royal assent", making Ontario the first jurisdiction in the world to establish standards for elevator repair times. Some of the data collected under the Act would then be made available in a searchable format so that prospective residents would be able to make an informed decision elevator situation in a building before they move in.
While the Act creates some optimism that there may be a solution to these issues, those waiting for a lift may be grounded longer than expected. Though it received royal assent, the Act hasn't been proclaimed into law – it's not yet in force, and there's no signal from Premier Doug Ford's new Progressive Conservative government to suggest when or if it will ever become law. For now, all we can do is continue to press the elevator call button and wait.