"Stops are too close together on Judah Street" goes the common refrain among many of Muni’s N-Judah riders — at least the able-bodied ones. Barely 300 feet of relatively flat terrain separates two stops in an especially egregious case. But for Tatiana Kostanian, who lives near the N-Judah line and relies on a wheelchair to get around, the bigger issue is that wheelchair-accessible stops are too far apart.
Way too far apart.
In fact, the great distances between accessible N-Judah stops are just as unreasonable as the short distances between the rest of its stops. From the stop at UCSF to 9th and Judah, it’s 0.6 miles. From there to Judah and 19th, it’s the same. Judah and Sunset to Ocean Beach is 0.7 miles. And the prizewinner: Judah and 19th to Judah and Sunset is a full mile.
Instead of using the N, Kostanian has no choice but paratransit. She’d like to take the N for trips downtown, but she mostly uses a manual wheelchair, so traveling that far simply isn’t an option.
"If you’re in a manual wheelchair and you have disabilities — I have eight of them — it should be available for people," said Kostanian. "To have that distance in between stops when it’s a functional route for thousands of people really is a terrible statement to make."
The N-Judah is hardly alone in failing to meet the needs of people with physical disabilities. Nearly all of the Muni Metro lines have huge gaps between accessible stops once they reach the surface-level portion of their routes.
The trouble is that, unlike Muni buses, light rail vehicles don’t have built-in mechanical ramps that can allow wheelchair users on at nearly any stop. While Muni Metro subway stops under Market Street are widely spaced too, they’re duplicated by above-ground bus service that stops much more frequently.
When the N-Judah, the L-Taravel, or nearly any of the other Muni Metro lines reach the surface, they’re often the only nearby transit option. As a person who uses a wheelchair, you’d better hope you live near a stop with an accessible ramp platform. Of the six Muni Metro lines, only the new T-Third line is wheelchair accessible at every stop.
Part of the problem is money: ramps can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to design and install. That’s what SFMTA Board member Bruce Oka — a wheelchair user and longtime disability rights advocate — cites as the main obstacle.
"We won’t be able to solve that until the money is available to fix that," said Oka. "The only way to fix that is to bring in more high-level platforms. It’s not difficult if we have money."
But, Oka added, "we don’t have money right now."
Parking Concerns Often a Roadblock
Some advocates for the disabled say there’s a bigger problem than funding — one familiar to transit, bicycling and pedestrian advocates — and that’s the fight over parking.
"In boom times, in the late ’90s, during Willie Brown’s time, there was potentially money the city and Muni had available," said disability rights advocate Bob Planthold. "Muni did nothing to build in extra accessible street stops. Partly because all sorts of residents were just apoplectic about having their driving patterns altered and the prospect of losing their curbside parking."
At the time, the city was in the process of making its major rail stops accessible — not because advocates like Planthold told it to, but because the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) required it to. Planthold and others helped Muni develop a Key Stops Program in 1992, which identified the most important stops to make accessible, followed by several tiers of stops that would be made accessible later, when money was available.
Given how much trouble Muni had installing even the sparse collection of accessible Muni Metro stops it has now, it should come as no surprise that barely any "optional" accessible stops have been built. The truth is, funding isn’t the biggest obstacle.
"It’s parking and it’s access to driveways," said SFMTA Accessible Services fixed-route coordinator Jamie Osborne. "This is on established rail corridors, but the residents who live on these rail corridors are concerned about parking."
"The Church Street Rebellion"
Take the corner of 30th and Church Streets, for instance. At that intersection thirteen years ago, the Public Transportation Commission — which operated Muni before the SFMTA was created two years later — planned to put in accessible inbound and outbound J-Church platforms.
Over 400 raucous Noe Valley residents and merchants packed a meeting with city officials to protest the plan. Parking, it turns out, was more sacred than accessibility.
"I call this the Church Street Rebellion," Noe Valley Democratic Club President Dave Monks told the Noe Valley Voice at the time. "Muni came in here with extremist proposals, and the merchants said, `No, you’re not going to ruin our businesses by eliminating most of the parking. Go back to the drawing board.’"
Mayor Willie Brown, keenly sensitive to the unrest of a neighborhood that supported him in his election, told Muni to find somewhere else to put the stops.
In the end, the Noe Valley neighbors, merchants and Willie Brown lost. Facing a potential lawsuit for failing to comply with the ADA fast enough, the Public Transportation Commission voted to build the ramps as planned.
"I’m really, really tired," said John Hilas, owner of Church Produce at 30th and Church, who opposed the ramp placement, after the vote. "I’ve been to every single meeting over the years, and at every meeting they say they feel sorry for us, they ask some questions, and then they vote the same every time."
Despite the outcry, the ramps were built and Church Produce is still in business today. The same kind of battle occurred over the N-Judah stop near UCSF.
"These stops are really contentious," said Osborne. "Neighborhoods, for the federally mandated key stops, we had to fight tooth and nail to get them in."
The city has since mostly caved on pushing for additional accessible ramps. Kostanian hopes that people with disabilities don’t also give in. "Too many people are beaten down, they don’t want to fight anymore," she said.
TEP Calls for More Accessible Stops
At last December’s meeting of the Muni Accessibility Advisory Committee (MAAC), Planthold and others got an update from the SFMTA on plans to expand accessibility beyond the original key stops. Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP) manager Julie Kirschbaum explained that expanding the Key Stop program was an objective and that the SFMTA is now developing an implementation plan to identify priority locations for new ramps once funds are available. They’re seeking input from the MAAC and other groups on the plan.
According to the minutes from that meeting, Planthold and others came up with suggestions for additional stops by looking at issues such as "distance between stops, adjacent senior and disabled focused services and proximity to switch-backs and cross-over tracks where vehicles would be asked to ‘short loop’ or turn around."
As for cost, Osborne said it’s hard to give a concrete figure. Platform costs are predictable, but, he asks, "How do you quantify the amount of outreach and energy that has to expended?"
Sometimes it’s easier to just point people to paratransit than to make Muni accessible. But it’s not necessarily cheaper.
"Basically it’s balancing," said Osborne. "Is it worth it for the agency to provide more paratransit trips? Is it worth it to fight this political battle?"
While Osborne and others at the SFMTA are clearly passionate about improving accessibility, they face an uphill battle. The Mayor’s Office of Disabilities is frustrated with the pace of expansion, too.
Perhaps no one’s more frustrated than Tatiana Kostanian, though. She’s been tireless in fighting for an accessible N-Judah stop between Sunset and 19th Avenue, sitting out on Judah Street with a big sign that says the stop isn’t wheelchair accessible, and attending countless meetings.
The day the Public Transportation Commission voted on the location for the accessible ramp at 30th and Church in 1997, Church Produce owner Hilas said, "We asked them to move one — just one — of the ramps off Church Street. The disabled people can go a half block further. But it’s as if the disabled people have every right, and we have no rights."
Kostanian and the city’s other wheelchair users would certainly disagree.