SF public transit excels in accessibility for the disabled

A recent wheelchair-access complaint against a luxury bus service in San Francisco revealed just how comprehensive San Francisco’s own transit system is when it comes to disabled riders.

The complaint, filed in March with the U.S. Department of Justice, alleges that Leap Transit swapped its wheelchair accessibility for luxury accommodations. But the filing also highlights how Muni expanded accessibility beyond federal requirements.

Ramps that might have served wheelchair users on Leap buses were removed to make way for the reclaimed-wood coffee tables, the complaint alleges. Promotional videos for Leap show riders sipping expensive coffee and working on laptops at these tables.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act is cited in the complaint. Passed in 1990, it “prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity” for people with disabilities, according to the Federal Transit Administration. The agency also offers guidelines for transit providers.

But the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, has its own mandates to aid those with accessibility needs that go beyond ADA requirements, agency spokesman Robert Lyles said in an email.

Leap CEO Kyle Kirchoff did not respond to requests for comment.

Chris Pangilinan, the man who filed the complaint against Leap, was intimately aware of Muni’s accessibility, as he is a former SFMTA engineer who now lives in New York City.

“Given ADA was 25 years ago, this sets a bad precedent,” Pangilinan said of Leap’s lack of accessibility access. “I wanted to make sure transit companies follow the law.”

Pangilinan has cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user who rode Muni for years.

For a wheelchair user, some aspects of Muni can be challenging. Bus stops on steep inclines are often inaccessible, and cement islands like those on Market street are only accessible if they have ramps. And underground stations can only be accessed by elevator.

“A lot of time you’ll have a bus operator who will do what they can to help you if you need it,” Pangilinan said.

For vision-impaired riders, a button on most Muni shelters starts an audio announcement of anticipated wait times for the next bus or train. There’s also information about the stop in braille.

Muni’s new low-floor buses extend a small ramp for boarding, much like “a castle with a moat,” Pangilinan said. On board, the aisle is spaced wide enough for a wheelchair to roll through. Two sets of seats can flip up, revealing a three-point restraint system to dock wheelchairs.

Braille is also used aboard buses for things like the vehicle number.

Blue stickers are placed above seats suggesting that they should be given to the elderly and those with disabilities.

Wheelchair users have their own blue button, or sometimes a yellow strip, to call for the bus to stop. And, Lyles said, this activates an illuminated message on the bus operators’ dashboard so they know to activate the wheelchair ramp.

A digital voice announcement system also serves vision-impaired riders.

Beyond riding a bus or train, the SFMTA also has a Multimodal Accessibility Advisory Committee that’s made up of everyday Muni riders who advise the agency’s board of directors on accessibility issues.

And Muni is now free for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

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