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
  • curiousKulak

    Actually, banning all cars and banning all alcohol might have a curative effect. And banning bikes would keep things from getting worse.

    I’m of mixed opinion on whereto to allow bikes ‘off peak’. However, as the article sez, MUNI policy already is to allow folded folding bikes on board. I don’t see a change in policy here; I only see an awareness, recognition, and compliance with current policy.

  • curiousKulak

    But seriously, how much time was spent on argument at the time?

    Seems to me the wisest course is getting to the ER ASAP. Get on MUNI. Call a cab. Lock up the bike(s) and ride. Call 911. I understand the reluctance, but … .

    And as a corollary. sue MUNI for the dangerous cover plate!!!

  • curiousKulak

    And yet, she had a folding bike – which is perfectly legal. She should have been allowed (not sure about Jim). Seems like this is the case of a law suit payout – not a change in policy.

  • Taurussf

    Pay attention to the headline
    “N-Judah Incident Highlights Need to Examine Muni Bike Ban”
    and a quote from the article
    “why are we banning bikes on late-night trains in the first place!…
    … But what would be the big deal if bikes were allowed, space permitting, during off
    hours?”
    That’s what I’m responding to.

  • Gary Sebben

    What class is going to teach me confidence on slippery roads, low visibility, and rain and wind in your eyes. There are some situation that are not worth risking your life in when $2.50 will get you home safe and mostly dry. If you don’t see that then you’re a cycling zealot and you shouldn’t be directing the conversation.

  • citrate reiterator

    The cost of an ambulance in the USA is a giant problem. An (involuntary!) ambulance ride cost me nearly a grand several years ago, and I had pretty okay health insurance through my employer. I can totally understand why people would do almost anything to try to avoid that, particularly if they were broke enough that affording insurance was difficult.

  • curiousKulak

    The incident is being used to broach a subject that is only tangentially related to the event in question.

    And you don’t want to replicate the BART broken system or blank-out periods. So you either open it up entirely or keep the ban.

    The question shouldn’t be ‘why don’t we permit all bikes?’ – it should be ‘why doesn’t MUNI acknowledge its own rules and maintain its own property?’ Now that’s a headline I’d like to see,

  • 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 choice 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 Republicans 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…

  • Vehicular Cycling (and the Effective Cycling classes) solves all issues from a lack of self-confidence while driving one’s bicycle to allow even you to handle all hypothetical situations.

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