N-Judah Incident Highlights Need to Examine Muni Bike Ban

Katherine Roberts at last night's Bike Coalition meeting. Photo: Streetsblog
Katherine Roberts at last night's Bike Coalition meeting. Photo: Streetsblog

Katherine Roberts was biking home to the Haight from a Passover Seder in the Dogpatch at 11:30 on April 11. It was raining heavily. She got to Church and Duboce and slowed to let an outbound N-Judah pass. When she started to pedal again, the wheel of her folding bike slipped and got caught by a steel plate that wasn’t flush with the pavement. She crashed and smashed her head.

Her partner, Jym Dyer, was with her. Another outbound N-Judah train approached. They realized the fastest way to get medical attention was to take the N-Judah to UCSF Medical Center, a ten minute ride. “It can go through the tunnel,” said Roberts. “I didn’t want to wait for an ambulance–that takes four times as long.”

But the train driver wouldn’t let them board with their bicycles.

They both had folding bikes, which are permitted on Muni as long as they are folded. But the train was empty, and given her injuries and the crack on the head, it didn’t occur to her to fold her bike. “As soon as I showed the driver my injuries, I thought he would just say ‘okay’ and drive the train,” said Roberts. “I was disoriented and weak and I wasn’t really thinking ‘oh, it’s really important for me to fold the bike right now!'”

The driver told them to get off the train and refused to move. He called over a fare inspector. The inspector forced them off the train and told them to call an ambulance if they needed help. But for some reason he also told them they could take the next train, which was right behind them (that’s three N-Judah’s bunched in a row, in case anyone’s counting). However, he still wouldn’t let Dyer on with his bike, folded or not, because it is a larger, folding cargo bike model. Dyer had to ride his bike behind the train while Roberts–with cuts and a large bump growing on her head–was left alone with her now-folded bike.

The train driver, meanwhile, stopped at the next stop, at Duboce Park, and came out of the cab to yell at Roberts to “secure her bike” which had flopped over on the floor. “I was weak. I had a concussion,” she said. “The car was almost empty. I wasn’t blocking anybody.”

Roberts finally got to the hospital, where she was treated. She is slowly recovering, but she hasn’t been back on her bike yet. “I’m woozy and I’m tiring very easily. I’m not ready to bike at all.”

From Streetsblog’s perspective, the incident highlights two issues. Firstly, if there’s any truth to what happened that night, it speaks to real problems with Muni’s employee culture. Two drivers and an inspector can’t show a little compassion in such a situation? As it turns out Roberts injuries were not life threatening, but she could have died as a result of their time-wasting shenanigans.

And secondly, why are we banning bikes on late-night trains in the first place!

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition fought hard, and finally succeeded, in opening up BART to bikes at all times. Obviously, Muni trains are much smaller. Nobody’s arguing that full-sized bikes should be allowed during peak periods. But what would be the big deal if bikes were allowed, space permitting, during off hours?

As this old edition of the SFBC’s newsletter talks about, if New York can handle bikes on its subway, and Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and many other cities can handle bikes on their Light Rail Vehicles, what makes Muni so special?

Either way, “the incident with Katherine is disheartening, both in terms of how she was treated and in light of the strict enforcement of an antiquated policy, especially in an emergency situation,” said Rachel Hyden, Executive Director of the San Francisco Transit Riders. “San Francisco Transit Riders is supportive of a policy amendment that would allow bikes on LRVs, especially during off-peak hours.”

Erica Kato, an SFMTA spokesperson, told the San Francisco Examiner that the drivers and inspector were just following policy and that “protocol when it comes to medical emergencies is to call Central Control, which will then dispatch emergency services.” She also used the “liability” excuse. Streetsblog has asked for clarification from SFMTA and will update this post.

But if we’re going to talk liability, Roberts crashed because of a steel plate that the city failed to properly maintain (it’s still sticking out, by the way). If the city can’t maintain the streets, the least they could do is take us to the hospital when we crash as a result.

The plate that caused Roberts to crash--still sticking up, waiting to trip another cyclists or pedestrian. Photo: Jym Dyer
The plate that caused Roberts to crash–still sticking up, waiting to trip another cyclists or pedestrian. Photo: Jym Dyer
  • Mario Tanev

    While I understand SFMTA’s liability concern, I think the N might be faster to the hospital here than an ambulance, so it’s the right thing to do for the injured person. It seems like a policy that cares more about saving their ass than helping people. There must be a better way.

    Also, at some point they let her in, but not her partner who was not injured. So it sounds like the issue wasn’t liability, but the bicycle (which was totally legal, since it was foldable).

    Also, this policy disadvantages transit riders. A driver can choose to drive themselves if injured and are not required to wait for an ambulance. If the person boarded without the driver seeing them (which would be most likely if they didn’t have a bike), then SFMTA would have been just as liable. It seems the only difference here is the bike!

  • thielges

    While I agree that the Muni employees were rude and insensitive, in this sort of situation the victim should not mess around with trying to hitch a ride on public transit. Any injury potentially dangerous like a head concussion calls for immediate 911. That’s the fastest way to get EMTs trained to stabilize potentially dangerous trauma to the victim. Cost should be no object when life is at stake.

    Part of the problems with public transit in the USA are because transit orgs are saddled with increased requirements that fall outside of operating an efficient transit system. Bus stops every block so passengers don’t need to walk too far, circuitous routes that bring lines closer to the doors of vocal community groups, etc. These are all good ideas to support the needs of residents but many are in conflict with transit efficiency. We don’t want to add “emergency lift to the ER” to the list of Muni’s non-transit obligations.

    It is understandable that those involved in this incident wanted to take the N to the hospital. It was a straight shot and the car was nearly empty. Muni should have made an exception here. But really, how common is this situation? And what happens when the patient’s condition becomes radically worse while the bus they’re on gets stuck in traffic. Could they sue Muni for NOT refusing entry and redirecting them to call 911?

  • I’m against bicycles on Muni metro at all hours. I ride the N-Judah on weekends and almost all the time, it’s standing room only. I’ve seen someone put their bike on board, and while the driver didn’t make any demands, it was easy to tell how much room it takes.

    I don’t think the new Siemens cars will be able to accommodate bikes, but if it were able to, I would have ripped-off the VTA light rail’s version that holds them vertically.

    Secondly about using the train to get to the hospital. Muni is not an ambulance and in this world of litigation gone wild, I can understand they do not want to take that risk.

    Lastly, please be careful when riding over rail tracks and metal covers, especially in wet weather. I’ve seen people slip and fall too many times, especially along cable car routes.

  • bobfuss

    Muni might have been faster but that is really not the issue. The issue is that a streetcar is not an ambulance, the driver is not a para medic, and the emergency services should have been involved.

    A few other questions that this article skirts is why was the cyclist not wearing a helmet, why could she not see a clearly visible inanimate object and why did she not have health insurance?

    I feel sorry for the chick but she is not the poster child for Muni negligence.

  • david vartanoff

    So transit is a boutique service? The person RIGHTLY computed that a quick ride through the Sunset Tunnel to UCSF Med was the faster option. The inspector and the drivers were being officious bozos especially given the nearly empty trains.
    Yes, bicyclists and pedestrians need to be careful on the street,–the steel lid in the pic is clearly dangerous.

  • Don’t give me that garbage about a boutique service. If someone just broke their leg and bleeding all over the ground, and wanted a ride to the hospital on a bus or train, Muni has every right to say no. This is why we have paramedics and EMT trained firefighters to respond first to make sure the patient is stabilized and transport them to the nearest hospital.

    While unrelated: The incident happened at Church and Duboce, CPSC is the nearest medical center, UCSF is too far away.

  • bobfuss

    Bollocks. Somebody’s judgement about what may or may not have been the “fastest” route is irrelevant. No vehicle operator is obliged to take on an injured and possibly deranged passenger. The correct response is to call 911 but this cyclist apparently demurred because she had not bought insurance.

  • bobfuss

    Agreed, and bear in mind that both this “victim” and her accompanying partner are activists who will always try and parlay such incidents into a major drama

    Headline – chick rode a bike without looking and got creamed.

  • Andy Chow

    Many more people are using TNCs to get to the emergency room because of the high cost of an ambulance ride. But it is not advised because those drivers lack medical training or experience to take the patient to the right medical facility, as well as to take care of medical needs during the trip.

  • SF_Abe

    Ugh– that’s it, you’re blocked again. I pity anybody who has to deal with you IRL

  • Calgary allows bikes on their Siemens S200 trains (the same trains we’re getting) during off peak hours and weekends. They don’t have any special mountings, the bikes just take up space in the aisles, which are wider than Muni’s current trains.

    What’s different is Calgary’s trains doesn’t have stairs. They have high-platform stations where bikes can be rolled on and off.

  • saimin

    Please report the loose plate to the city if it hasn’t been already. This level of street maintenance is really unacceptable.

  • eugene

    I don’t mean to be flippant, but the closest emergency room would have been the Davies Hospital ER…0.5 miles away from Church and Duboce.

    FWIW, I don’t support bikes on Muni trains and I ride a bike every day … the steps are too difficult to navigate and trains can be crowded at off-peak times too. Many of the rail lines also have parallel bus service.

    Using an event like this to advocate for a policy change beyond addressing the Muni employee protocols in a situation doesn’t seem compelling.

  • dat

    Total toad.

  • david vartanoff

    I’m confused as to why some suggested Ms Roberts didn’t have insurance. Yes, the hospital at Castro & Duboce is closer–maybe she in fact has coverage at UCSF which would have refused to pay for her at Sutter, don’t know. Bottom line, badly handled all around.

  • rickbynight

    That’s actually true, but I would have totally forgotten about that too, as I’ve always gone to UCSF and it doesn’t seem that far.

    That said, I disagree—bikes on LRVs during non-peak hours should be fine. If there’s no space, the bike should not board. There can be a limit of two bikes per car. But when you’re not causing a disruption, I don’t see the reason for a ban.

  • bobfuss

    It’s really too bad that different opinions scare you so much

  • bobfuss

    I had the same thought – Davis is just one stop away from that location. in fact you could walk it in less time than was spent arguing with the driver here.

    I don’t have a view on whether bikes should be allowed on Muni, and I believe that some buses can carry bikes in a special container. But a driver has every right to refuse entry to an injured person. Calling 911 is the correct procedure.

  • bobfuss

    You should take a trip along Masonic right now. There are potholes and plates on every block between Geary and Fell. It’s a nightmare. The city should be billed for every tire damaged and suspension that breaks.

  • bobfuss

    Agreed, but a Muni driver has no medical training either.

    The cost of an ambulance is only an issue here because the victim didn’t have insurance – something which is technically illegal under ObamaCare

  • p_chazz

    If it truly was an emergency, then she should have had the driver summon emergency services. If it wasn’t an emergency she could have walked three or four blocks to the nearest emergency room at Ralph K. Davies Medical Center.

  • p_chazz

    Allowing bikes on Metro during off peak hours assumes that trains are less crowded then which is frequently not the case. I have ridden cars that are jam packed late at night. Allowing rude bicyclists to force their way on to a crowded Metro train is one more transit indignity that I shouldn’t be forced to suffer.

  • CrankyOldGuy

    No, it was not, is NOT “technically illegal”. It merely meant (note past tense) that one paid a relatively small tax penalty.

    “Meant” because the Republicans are “fixing” the ACA. Surely health insurance will be so much more affordable, and available to all, when they’re done…

    “Relatively small” tax penalty because the fine was in the hundreds of dollars rather than the $4K or so “affordable” health insurance cost per year even under the ACA.

  • CrankyOldGuy

    I’m amazed at the number of patronizing comments that sniff that Ms. Roberts should have used emergency services. As if it was that simple. The reality, not one well-off Americans want to acknowledge, is that a growing number of working Americans can’t afford the sort of health insurance that pays for luxuries such as $3K+ ambulance rides. And certainly can’t afford to pay the cost of ambulance transport out of their own pocket.

    I once suffered a cut to the head when I was knocked to the sidewalk by an assailant. The police called for an ambulance despite me telling them I didn’t want one. When the EMTs arrived I adamantly refused transport. The EMTs said fine, just let us bandage your wound. A couple of weeks later I received a bill for $2,300! That’s quite a profit on a 30-cents length of gauze and a couple of cotton pads.

    The insanely high costs of health care in the U.S. mean that a growing number of ordinary working Americans, as in the large majority of Americans who aren’t wealthy, have NO choices but to forego medical services. At the same time, health care’s insanely high costs are reflected in health insurance premiums that can be as much as 30%, or more, of an ordinary working person’s yearly income. Ms. Roberts made the sort of decision that more Americans will be making; especially after the Republican’s get done “fixing” health care for us.

    I’ve been riding Muni since 1976. I’ve encountered very few “bad” Muni drivers. And quite a few extraordinarily helpful ones. It seems that the driver mentioned in the article mis-handled the situation. The solution to that problem is not to suppose that everyone can afford to call emergency services. Many of us can’t. And it looks like even more of us will be unable to afford those sorts of luxuries going forward…

  • gb52

    I agree in many ways that with a bit of common sense this would work out fine, but it’s the few people that ruin it for the rest of us. Deciding when a train is too full to allow a bike on, and while a train may have been empty when the bike got on, it may fill up at the next stop and the bike would not likely get off. It puts both the courteous biker and the rest of the passengers in a sticky situation that neither wanted to be in. I think in this case, bikes are really just too big to be maneuvered safely and respectfully and should not be brought on board.

    (Unfortunately this is my problem too, from the outer sunset, there’s not an easy way to get to BART or to get my bike to other parts of the city without going over some pretty monster hills)

  • rickbynight

    That’s not what I’m proposing. I’m proposing a ban on bikes during peak hours, and an allowance at other hours when a train is not crowded. I am not proposing bikes are allowed on every train regardless of crowd.

  • bobfuss

    ACA mandates that you buy healthcare insurance, so not carrying it is illegal. Might just be a fixed penalty with no criminal record, like a traffic offense, but illegal nonetheless

  • p_chazz

    And I am disputing your assertion that trains are not crowded during off-peak hours. The problem with bikes is that if you allow them at all, you will have bicyclists shoving their way onto packed trains. I’ve seen them do it on BART.

  • rickbynight

    I am not asserting that trains are not crowded during off-peak hours. I am *only* asserting that they *are* crowded during on-peak hours—thus the complete ban during that time. There will be some bad actors, but there are bad actors in life. We shouldn’t ban cars because some drivers run red lights or behave badly. We shouldn’t ban alcohol because some people get drunk and commit crimes. We shouldn’t ban bikes on trains because some people can’t follow rules about when to board a LRV.

    The rule would say bikes are NEVER allowed in the following scenarios:

    1. No bikes 7AM – 10AM, 4PM – 7PM, period.
    2. No bikes on any crowded vehicle.
    3. Maximum of one bike per door.
    4. No bikes at the front door that would compete with ADA compliance.

  • Gary Sebben

    Why couldn’t the cyclists have locked there bikes up where they were and boarded the train? Why couldn’t they have locked them up and taken a taxi or a lyft? I’m assuming from the story that one of them was uninjured. Why didn’t he have a clear head about what to do? I’m not even arguing that they shouldn’t have been allowed to take their bikes onto an empty train. I’m just saying there were a million different options that didn’t rub up against this policy. Pointlessly arguing about it just cost them unnecessary time. It really meshes with the idea of the entitled cyclist.

  • Regardless of what you’re against, Muni policy allows folding bikes, with guidelines that address your concerns. Regardless of what you experience “almost all the time,” both trains in this incident were practically empty.

    Secondly, nobody mentioned the risk of litigation at the time, that’s just an after-the-fact rationaization. All any Muni employee mentioned was the bikes, and they were enforcing non-policies about the bikes.

  • We have folding bikes, as this article reports. Muni allows folding bikes, as this article reports. Nothing is being ruined by people putting folding bikes on empty trains at 11:30pm at night, in accordance with Muni’s guidelines..

    http://www.sfmta.com/cms/bcomm/BikesonMuni.htm

  • The quickest conveyance to the E.R. was the train that was right there. The only impediment was authoritarian, bureaucratic functionaries who were enforcing a non-policy.

  • Taurussf

    I’m a bicyclist, and I could directly benefit from being able to get my full sized bike on muni, and I oppose a rule change to allow full sized bikes on Muni.

    Why? Because like many things that seem like a no brainer at first, it’s not that simple.

    1 Muni is not BART
    Bart cars are considerably wider, making more room to pass a pile of bikes. Muni is often too crowded for even a folding bike (I own one and have used it on Muni. I know)

    2 Muni is not BART
    BART is a regional system, over 50 miles from end to end over several uncrossable obstacles. Muni light rail goes about 5 miles. Unless you’ve got a malfunction, you can ride the whole distance.

    3 There are alternatives
    For occasional use, Muni buses have racks.

    4 load is unpredictable
    Muni cars fill up, wheelchairs get on. What was an empty car can become a crowded nightmare a few stops later, even during off peak. We should remember what a mess restricted hours were on BART, with blackout periods rarely coinciding with real train loads and massive confusion about the restriction schedule, let’s not replicate that.

    In a perfect world, I’d love to have full access to all transit, but just opening the doors isn’t going to do it. Let’s hope this is the start of a dialog, and doesn’t devolve into a stupid turf war between bicyclists and idiots who hate bikes, just because bicyclists feel like we’re being denied something.

  • Bear in mind that @bobfuss is a drama troll who keeps getting banned from websites under his many sockpuppet IDs. I make no bones about being a bike activist, but don’t worry, I’m one of the good ones.

  • You make a good point, though at the time we didn’t even think of Davies, nor did anyone suggest it. It is, however, something of a climb up the hill to get there and much less effort to get to the E.R. at UCSF. It would have been even less effort if Muni employees hadn’t impeded us the way they did.

  • I don’t usually mention this because my Red Cross training is woefully out of date, but I have taken the full EMS training and was briefly a volunteer EMT. I checked her thoroughly after the crash, she wasn’t in shock, was ambulatory and coherent, but in pain. With that determined, the next step is to get her to the E.R. to be checked out, which was what we did.

    I can also add here that the crash happened right outside the door of the Muni facility where nobody came out to help someone who’d slipped on their grate (including the man who’d later pop through that door to impede our journey). There were homeless people there who were more compassionate and helpful, including one man who had also clearly had Red Cross training.

  • Polk street and Van Ness are the same way. Gravel tires are practically a requirement to bike anywhere safely in this city.

  • I have what I’m told is very good health insurance by my union, and it barely covered any of my partner’s $1600 ambulance ride. It only covered 50% after a $500 deductible, so we were out $1,300. Does anyone actually have heslth insurance that fully covers SF ambulance rides? I would love for my union to change providers.

    If I’m conscious and not bleeding, I would probably opt to take a taxi to the ER as well, because I wouldn’t want to deal with another $1,300 ambulance fare. Maybe some of you have extra cash you’re okay burning, but for me and a lot of other people an ambulance ride is a just luxury most of us can’t easily afford.

  • Gary Sebben

    Blah, blah authoritarian, blah, blah. Why didn’t they lock their bikes and get on the train? They would have had to lock them up at the ER. Don’t go on a rant about fascism if you can’t answer that pretty simple question.

  • In fact the E.R. was fine with bringing the bikes inside.

  • Gary Sebben

    Still not answering why they didn’t lock their bikes up before boarding.

  • Corvus Corax

    Not only does he have MANY as you say ‘sockpuppet’ IDs, he often disputes with himself or agrees with himself using multiple IDs in one thread. Even when he if just pretending to be bobfuss, he usually takes up a full third of the comments in each thread. Here is a (partial) list of his IDs: AlTate, RichLL, Todd, Timpson, Susan, Ringo.

    My best advice is to block him so you don’t have to be annoyed by his often contradictory posts. It is much better to see a line of ‘this user is blocked’ than to try to avoid his baiting for argument.

  • Christopher Childs

    Are you trying to bait us into a discussion about the curious phenomenon of “communal bike ownership” in San Francisco?

  • Gary Sebben

    I’m not baiting for anything. I’m just looking at a situation where two cyclists thought their bikes were more important than their lives. I mean, the guy rode in the rain after the train to the hospital? That’s crazy. Why would they even ride in the rain at night at all? I bike all the time and I would never do that because my ability to bike safely would be seriously impaired. Just like I don’t drive after drinking. You would expect me to leave my car where it was and I would be an idiot not too even if it could be ticketed, towed, or stolen. Buses have racks. Use them. If you can’t get in a bus or train because of a bike in a dangerous or life threatening situation then lock up your bike and take the bus or train. Why is that unreasonable to ask?

    That doesn’t take away from the fact that the driver and inspector were completely and dangerously incompetent and cruel. But the cyclists didn’t need to be in this situation at all. They deserve a Darwin Award.

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