Life without Muni presents hardships for seniors and disabled residents

James Pounders is a regular at the Trader Joe’s on Fourth and Market streets.

James Pounders is a regular at the Trader Joe’s on Fourth and Market streets.

He loves grocery shopping. He says it allows him to flex his culinary creativity, making up his meals depending on what’s in stock. Plus, it gets him out of the house.

Pounders, a 64-year-old Tenderloin resident, suffers from severe arthritis in “practically every joint,” and lives with three stents in his chest to treat congestive heart failure. It’s left him unable to walk more than a block or two without getting winded.

Home is the Cadillac Hotel, only a half-mile from Trader Joe’s. For many, it’s a distance easily covered. But Pounders relies instead on the 31-Balboa to make his grocery runs, pick up his medicine and travel to twice-weekly cardiac rehabilitation at University of California San Francisco’s Parnassus campus.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency cut the 31-Balboa in April, along with Muni rail and all but 17 bus routes, in order to manage its budget crisis and balance limited operator availability with declining ridership demand.

The resulting Core Service Plan concentrated limited resources on transit-dependent residents while prioritizing access to life-giving and life-saving destinations like food and hospitals for The City’s neediest, including older adults and the disabled, according to spokesperson Erica Kato.

But Fran Taylor, a member of local nonprofit Senior and Disability Action, says this focus on destinations, though well-intended, has actually neglected the needs of many older or disabled individuals.

“That doesn’t take into account where you live, maybe the number of blocks or the grade of the hill you have to traverse to get to the bus, like the former Muni service did,” Taylor said. “People who live at the top of hills, for example, are really stuck, especially if you’re walking with a cane or don’t have the energy that a younger person does,” she said.

Taylor, 70, points to the increased number of transfers as proof the less mobile haven’t been adequately considered.

Even living in the Mission, where two major bus lines — the 14 Mission and 9 San Bruno — continue to operate with high frequencies and fast travel times, Taylor says people have to transfer “to get just about anywhere.”

Maneuvering a wheelchair, walker or even just a grocery cart while boarding a bus is hard enough to do once, forget twice, Taylor said, adding older individuals are more vulnerable to the virus and, therefore, reticent to risk increased exposure at multiple bus stops.

“I know we’re supposed to stay inside, but we still have to do some basic things like get to the drug store or make trips to the bank,” she said.

Similar concerns have arisen around plans for Muni Metro’s return in August which will limit the number of train lines that enter the tunnel to three, and therefore require some passengers to transfer when traveling to or from downtown.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has committed to making surface transfer platforms at West Portal and Church Street and Duboce accessible before the rail starts by installing temporary ramps, removing one-off parking spots and making street changes, as needed, according to Kato. She also said they’d even run the J into the subway like before “if all else fails.”

Bob Planthold, a disability rights activist, said the proposed changes don’t sufficiently mitigate the risk for individuals who are unsteady on their feet and have to navigate tricky crossings. He also said he feels SFMTA’s messaging hasn’t been provided in a “simple, easy-to-understand way” to the people who require the most help.


Lost access to transportation doesn’t only impact how these communities navigate essential services, it impacts their ability to maintain independence and stay socially connected.

David Elliott Lewis lives on Ellis Street in the Tenderloin. Like Pounders, he relies on the 31-Balboa as well as the 27-Bryant to access essential services, but he also depends on it to see friends or enjoy an escape from his “very compressed, high-density surroundings.”

“It’s a true hardship for me. I can’t afford to take Lyft, Ubers or a taxi,” he said. “It’s not healthy to just live in this environment around the clock. People need to get out.”

When asked if he could walk for respite, Lewis said he doesn’t feel safe on the sidewalks near his residence. He described having to step into traffic on Jones Street to avoid overly-congested sidewalks filled with tents, clutter or people congregating and maintain physical distance.

“It may only be only 20 minutes to walk somewhere, but it’s a difficult journey,” he said.

SFMTA created the Essential Trip Card program to fill gaps left behind by service reductions. Senior and disabled individuals can apply for city-provided subsidies worth $60 per month, roughly two to three round trips.

According to city data, 2,141 applications for the ETC program had been submitted and 1,545 had been approved, as of July 14. A total of 5,363 trips had been taken using the subsidy with the majority of riders over the age of 65 but not experiencing a disability.

Advocates from SDA say that’s not nearly enough and critique SFMTA’s outreach, an area the agency conceded it could improve in a presentation to a citywide working group on July 16, particularly as it pertains to the Latinx community.

But the ETC card only covers a fraction of essential expenses for Pounders, who estimates he spends roughly $20 on a taxi each way to UCSF for his rehab sessions twice a week.

He was recently referred to SF Paratransit, a door-to-door shared van service for people unable to use fixed-route transit independently. It has continued to operate during shelter-in-place, adding precautions such as a two-person maximum capacity, regularly cleaning and masks provided to all drivers.

At print time, he’d recently received his application by mail, and, since he doesn’t have access to a fax machine, planned to send it from his rehab facility’s office on Monday.

As SFMTA slowly brings back additional routes, seniors and those with disabilities will continue to be a priority, Kato said. Already, a number of “incredibly viable” mobility solutions exist as The City works to provide expanded service tailored to their needs, she added.

Lack of representation

Planthold describes Muni as a “limousine” for people like him who consider it their primary means of mobility. But he feels SFMTA’s focus in deploying service has been misguided.

“So many of the changes are being done with regard to the able-bodied public and to get businesses back in shape, but it’s seniors and people with disabilities who are often the most likely to need transit to get around,” Planthold said.

He largely credits the disconnect to the lack of representation on the SFMTA Board of Directors, which he describes as “demographically narrow in terms of representing the variety of transit and transportation experiences in The City’s population.”

Until May, SFMTA’s Board included Cristina Rubke, a trademark attorney and disability activist who was appointed by then-Mayor Ed Lee in 2012. Though she was reappointed to a third four-year term by Mayor London Breed this year, the Board of Supervisors, which must rubber stamp the appointments, voted to reject Rubke instead.

The rejection came on the heels of a spat between the two governing bodies over Muni fare hikes. SFMTA’s Board of Directors, including Rubke, unanimously passed a two-year transit budget in April that included the price increases, flying in the face of the supervisors’ public call for their removal.

Andy Lynch, press secretary for Breed, said the decision not to approve Rubke consequently left the SFMTA Board without someone to represent this community, despite their continued reliance on public transportation: “When it comes to public transportation, how we design our streets and how we move people about The City, it’s critical that everyone have a voice in the process.”

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