Waiting for transit

People with disabilities find it increasingly difficult to catch a train, bus, or taxi in the Bay Area

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RENDERINGS COURTESY OF BART

joe@sfbg.com

Transit options for wheelchair users and people with disabilities are under threat in the Bay Area, and riders are losing ground on multiple transit fronts.

In late April and early May, hundreds of advocates for those with disabilities took to the streets, protesting BART's Fleet of the Future, a touring mockup of a new BART trains slated to roll out in 2017.

The trains are a step backward in wheelchair accessibility, among other issues, advocates said.

Just last month, advocates for senior and those with disabilities stormed a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors meeting, asking for free Muni for the most economically disadvantaged among them. They were denied based on dollar amounts, while drivers were given an $11 million giveback restoring free Sunday parking meters.

The SFMTA promised to revisit the issue in January. Meanwhile, San Francisco's wheelchair accessible taxi fleet has seen its drivers flee to so-called "rideshare" companies — whose cars aren't equipped to carry wheelchairs — causing what officials say is a record low number of wheelchair accessible taxi trips.

Compounding that decision was the SFMTA's March adoption of its Transit Effectiveness Project, which the agency billed as expanding service by 12 percent and improving the system's efficiency, but some advocates for seniors and the disabled noted it removed some bus stops, requiring longer walks by those who have a hard time getting around.

The transit troubles cover most of the transportation options available to San Franciscans with disabilities, and that's the problem.

"We're one of the most transit-dependent populations," Peter Mendoza, a community organizer with the Independent Living Resource Center, told the Guardian. He also uses a wheelchair. "Everything we do in our everyday life, we mostly do with public transportation."

Their needs are simple: getting groceries, seeing a movie, picking up their kids from school. People with disabilities are now in a multi-pronged fight for their right to everyday mobility, and to do so with dignity.

 

BART'S FLAWED NEW FLEET

A walking tour of BART's Fleet of the Future shows much is new: computer screens with live GPS updates of the train's location, triple-bike racks, and redesigned seats. BART Vehicle Systems Engineer Brian Bentley proudly showed us the new touch screens in the driver's cockpit.

For people with disabilities, the Fleet of the Future is a step backward. Their first beef with BART's new trains is a simple one: there's a pole in the way of the door.

Hundreds of disability advocates protested BART's public tour of its newly redesigned trains just last week, with more protests planned for the future. All they want is the damned pole moved.

The handhold in question features a triple-pronged design: what begins as one vertical metal column branches into three partway off the ground.

"Where the pole is now is in the path of travel for the accessible seating area," Mendoza said. "People holding onto the poles and the power wheelchairs will be in a sense be trying to occupy the same space."

BART's Fleet of the Future will arrive in limited numbers in 2015, and fully roll out by 2017, according to the BART website. BART plans to use the new trains for decades. So will BART move the pole to a different location in the car before then?

"It's too soon to say," BART spokesperson Alicia Trost told the Guardian. "That's why we're doing outreach."

Trost told us BART did its due diligence by garnering feedback from the BART Disability Task Force. But the DTF, a volunteer body serving like a consistent focus group, informed BART of the pole-problem years ago.

"From day one, they identified the pole as being a problem," BART Access Coordinator Ike Nnaji told us. Now, he said, "the pole has been moved slightly."

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