Muni leaving riders in the dark

With frequently packed platforms and fast-moving crowds, boarding at Muni’s underground stations can be an uneasy experience, but it’s particularly precarious for blind passengers.

Muni has no physical barriers at the edge of its platforms, and the tapered design at the end of its light-rail vehicles can mislead blind people into thinking they’re entering an open door, not the gap between two connecting cars.

In the past, several blind people have fallen between the gaps of the trains, and although there have been no recent fatalities, one rider was injured badly enough to receive a $100,000 settlement from The City.

To rectify the problem, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, proposed putting bollards — small plastic posts — on the boarding platform to prevent passengers from accidentally stepping into the train-car gaps. However, more than a year ago, a Superior Court judge ruled that solution was insufficient, and the agency has yet to come up with an alternative.

“With this issue, Muni has not been in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Robert De Vries, an attorney who’s suing The City due to its lack of barriers for blind passengers. “The agency should be coming up with a solution, but they seem to be ignoring it.”

Unlike BART trains, Muni’s light-rail vehicles become narrow at the end of each car, creating a space that could be mistaken for an open door, De Vries said.

He said the SFMTA has options to prevent future accidents. One possibility would be to set up motion detectors or noise chimes above each doorway to indicate the correct entrance point. Connecting cables could be attached to trains, De Vries said.

The only solution the SFMTA has come up with — the bollards — was rejected in February 2009 because the bollards don’t “prevent, deter or warn” passengers, according to Superior Court Judge Tomar Mason.

SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said the agency is working with the California Public Utilities Commission, the state body that monitors rail safety issues, to come up with an improvement to its earlier bollard design. Rose said the SFMTA hopes to have a new design ready within two weeks, and if that meets approval from the commission, it will be implemented on a 120-day trial period.

“We’re committed to implementing these safety precautions as soon as possible,” Rose said.

De Vries said if the SFMTA doesn’t have a solution soon, he would seek to charge it with contempt of court for failure to act on Mason’s ruling.

“They have to come up with something,” De Vries said, “because the system they have right now doesn’t work.”

Taking public transit

25,000 City residents receiving benefits for visual disabilities
700,000 Average weekday boardings on Muni
$750 million SFMTA budget for 2011 fiscal year
6 Muni light-rail lines
151 Light-rail vehicles in fleet

Sources: SFMTA, www.city-data.com

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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