Corbett OToole and Tara Ayres are neighbors and friends. They also both use wheelchairs.
Now the pair has something else in common: Both have been clamped down on by BART’s fare gates.
Ayres had her wheelchair headrest clamped down on by BART’s new double-tall fare gates, which feature two sets of mechanical wedges that cinch together after BART riders pass through them.
BART also designed these wedges to stay shut with more pressure to prevent them from being forced open by fare cheats.
The new gates installed Monday at the Richmond BART station, that soon will be piloted at other stations, are part of BART’s multi-million dollar effort to clamp down on fare evaders.
But Ayres said the new gates clamped down on her, first.
“It startled me, so I pulled forward,” Ayres told the San Francisco Examiner. “It shook me, it scared me. If it had slammed forward when I was another six inches further back, I could’ve been badly hurt.”
OToole, an advocate in the disability community, posted a photo of herself next to the new fare gate on Facebook that shows how the wedges are in the perfect position to close on her head. The photo, which shocked many, netted nearly 600 shares by Wednesday afternoon. OToole, who also was clamped down on by BART’s older gates, which pinned down her wheelchair joystick, said, “This is dangerous, I’m frightened.”
BART is feeling the pinch from fare evaders, which cost the agency an estimated $15 to $25 million annually. The agency responded by launching a fare inspection program last year and is designing taller gates around BART stations. The double-tall fare gates are designed so people can’t vault over them.
BART previously clashed with the disability community on fare evasion efforts when the agency locked side doors used by people in wheelchairs, which were also exploited by fare cheats. So far, only one fare gate designed for wheelchair access, at the Richmond station, has been modified with taller gates.
The agency defended its moves in an email on Tuesday.
“BART staff has reviewed footage from cameras installed on the gate and confirms that the upper flaps have not hit riders nor caused injuries,” said Anna Duckworth, a BART spokesperson, in a statement. “In response to concerns, we have positioned BART staff at the fare gate to show people how it works and to answer questions.”
Since last winter, BART has retrofitted fare gates systemwide to increase the air pressure used to cinch the barrier closed, Duckworth added, which increases the effort needed to force the barrier open. “This has proven successful in reducing forced openings.”
But it also threatens people in wheelchairs, said Ayres, who has worked as a disability access consultant for more than 30 years and was certified in Wisconsin as a facility access surveyor. A resident of Richmond, she commutes by BART to San Francisco every day.
In late May, the BART Board of Directors directed staff to go with the double-tall fare gate design instead of making new fare doors, with cost among its considerations. Increasing the height of current fare gates systemwide is estimated between $15 million and $25 million, while more robust redesigns could cost $100 million or more, according to BART documents.
BART board director Lateefah Simon met with OToole this week to hear her concerns.
“Here’s the deal, BART is modernizing our system. There will be hiccups,” Simon wrote to the Examiner, in a text. But, she said, “When our riders express frustrations our role is to listen. Disabled riders are transit dependent, as am I. Those voices are critical. We’ve got to make this right!”
When asked if that means changes will come to the fare gates, Simon said they may need more time to evaluate what changes need to happen.
“We’ll get to the bottom of it,” she said.
This story has been corrected to indicate the increased air pressure does not increase the speed or pressure at which the fare gate wedges close, it merely keeps them shut harder.