In Struggle for Accessible Muni Metro Stops, Parking Comes First

IMG_2965.jpgThe accessible outbound platform at Church and 30th Streets. Photo: Michael Rhodes

"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."

SF_712200722845.gifClick to enlarge: Few of Muni’s surface light rail stops are wheelchair accessible. Image: SFMTA

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.

  • Muni paid a serious price for building a metro system with high platforms and stairs for surface street service. It’s interesting the stupid city engineers didn’t think about this. Lowest bidder always wins… aye Muni?

  • If the N were built today all of the stops would have platforms, instead of what we have now. Then that way all of the stops would be accessible, even way out in the Outer Sunset, which would benefit everyone.

    This whole situation shows how once again, Muni spent a fortune on the TEP, only to ignore it. The TEP had a plan to deal with this, and because you have a Muni boss who doesn’t understand his job is to find money for Muni not give it away to other departments, they use the “we have no money” excuse to avoid implementing their own plan. Whatever.

  • If the N-Judah were built today every stop would be accessible, but they would probably be located every ten feet with service just as slow. Stop consolidation is often met with the same outcry that the elderly can’t be made to walk an extra half block either, and in the end when it gets added up, nobody should be made to walk anywhere or else they’re being victimized by someone else.

  • On a lighter note, does anyone else get a kick out of seeing nondisabled visitors (or residents?) standing on the street platforms, only to be very confused when operator doesn’t line up and open at the platform? (Or it opens up with stairs?) Of course, that’s a whole nother issue, but still…

  • The article shows that 10 years ago 400 Noe Valleyans could get all riled up to stop a platform. Now, I doubt they get 400 to stop completely blocking Noe Street at 24th. I’ll call that progress.

    If the plaza happens, we might get to see some interesting leaps of planning. There is an outcry that deliveries will be difficult if the plaza is put in place. The Noe Valley Association is recommending removing the bus stop at 24th and Noe – which is on the same block as the 24th/Castro stop, and painting it as a delivery zone – which can easily work for the Starbucks and Toast which are on the other side of Noe from the delivery zone, because Noe will be CLOSED. Reduction in stops for the 48, moving of deliveries from Noe to 24th, no removal of current parking, removal of cross traffic at Noe. Better for deliveries, MUNI riders, and drivers.

    The problem is those opposed to change look at the problem in a vacuum. “We can’t put a plaza in their, because of the deliveries and the people who double park at Starbucks”. If we can’t stop double parking and figure out how to deliver hashbrowns, we get what we deserve. But I honestly think we are entering a time when people will try to solve problems instead of find excuses. I hope I am right.

  • Tatiana A. Kostanian

    Thank you very much Street Blog and Journalist Michael Rhodes for bringing attention to the non-accessibility of the N-Judah Transit line. What is most perturbing for many our lives, is that countless thousands round the clock are given full “access and inclusion”, but the disabled, elderly on the N-Judah for over 40 years cannot access the system. For many of us walking just a few steps is more than difficult, or going just a few feet in a manual wheel chair is exhaustive, trying. Can you imagine how important ‘public transportation is to our lives? For many, it is our only viable way of purchasing food, dr’s appointments, visiting loved ones. It is unimaginable to think peoples without disabilities in the transportation industry, etc. are defining what we are-are not able to do, to gain access to our public transport lines. PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION LINE means it is for ALL, not just some lives. Not every one can afford a power wheelchair. Some 20 years, I have had to get around with a manual wheelchair and aid of 2 wooden canes. Its not easy believe me. Because of Independent Living (thank God) this last December, I was able to gain a power wheelchair (free) through the kindness of a dear lady who passed away from cancer, a power chair became available. Please do not think my story the only one. There remain countless thousands waiting to receive full ‘access-inclusion’ in our communities. With YOU, Your Families, our communities, YOU ALL can help make a difference in making sure ADA works for ALL of us. We did not ask for our disabilities at any age. Our issues soon will become YOURS. No one is impervious to becoming disabled or elderly. Please take time to think about our lives and yours and of the positive priorities we make sure we invest in for ALL unable to traverse freely. In a democratic society, we should make sure we work together to make sure no lives left out, especially the frail. Please do not allow apathy, indifference to take hold in and or for any of our lives. The least we can address for the citizens of our cities, any age, IS PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION For ALL.
    MUNI has stated over 40 years, it cannot afford us…when will they ever? How long will or would you be willing to wait for your bus line to receive you or a loved one? Before we continue to give to another country or peoples, please let us get our priorities right and serve ‘we the peoples here at home, first’ !

  • julia

    If you live on a rail corridor, why are you so concerned about parking?

  • Julia, if I may:

    If you live in a walkable/bikeable/transit rich city like San Francisco, why are you so concerned about parking?

  • Nick

    Judah’s center lanes are transit-only. That doesn’t stop people from driving in them. How hard would it be to issue 500 tickets to finance an accessible stop?

    The MTA should strong-arm these parking spaces away when they need them. They’re too sensitive to NIMBY whining. If the residents don’t want to give them up, just slap in some parking meters. A month later, red zone them.

  • Charlie

    Sadly, it’s an oversimplification to portray the issue as a matter of parking vs. accessibility.

  • EL

    Akit – I think it’s a cheap shot to blame designers of the Metro from the early 1970’s for the lack of ADA compliance, especially when the ADA didn’t come into law until 2 decades later. Why not also blame the old street car designers for the 80 years that preceeded Metro?

    Nick – Judah’s center lanes between 9th and 19th are MUNI only, but after 19th Avenue, it’s open to all traffic (except in the morning and afternoon when it’s MUNI and left turns only). Also parking meters would be perfect for commuters with legal/illegal disabled placards, since they could park all day for free (just like what we have in downtown).

  • Craig

    San Francisco Paratransit is the appropriate service for those with disabilities who cannot be reasonably accommodated by San Francisco Muni.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Muni’s world class consultants (BAH) and staff (many still sucking down city salaries and pensions) chose obsolete high floor streetcars.

    There was no possible excuse.

    The whole organization needs to be put out of our misery.

  • First off, this isn’t 1997, it’s 2010. The values of this nation have always been about widening the circle of opportunity for all. I believe that Creating Inclusive Communities is always worth the political battle. The Transit Effectiveness Project should be implemented as funds become availible- it’s good transit policy for you, me and for our grandparents.

  • JohnB

    The issue here isn’t about whether we want more disabled stops. It’s about how much will that costs, how many extra delays will more disabled passengers put on the city busiest transit route, and what would else you like to cut in order to save the money to achieve that?

    I’d like to see a study comparing the cost of making every transit stop in the city ADA-compliant versus the costs of a fleet of special disabled-only mini-buses that might stop at peoples’ homes and actually take them where they want to go.

    I’m not convinced the latter is more expensive.

    Oh, and Nick, driving is allowed on the Streetcar track lanes. It would be ridiculous to ban cars from a lane that is only used by a streetcar once every 15 minutes.

  • david vartanoff

    JohnB, the answer to your question is simple; “separate but equal” was outlawed in public accommodations/transport a half century ago. BTW, when I was riding the Sacremento LRT system, I noticed a significant number of nominally able bodied moms with baby strollers using the handicap ramps as well as folks w/ “laundry carts” full of groceries. As to cost and what to cut, see the SPUR list for how to fund Muni. After those are implemented, ALL SF city staff cars/ and parking for same go. It would be entertaining to see all the other unionised civil servants depend on the union brother/sisterhood at Muni.
    And about lanes for streetcars, your 15 minute headway is the new cuts in off hours, in baseday and rush the headway is much closer. (And I did not pay taxes to have that raised set of lanes built for smog generators)

  • michka

    First of all, I’d like to thank SF Streets Blog for writing about this very important issue- it’s not so often that disability issues are “mainstreamed” in the media- so thanks for this! Secondly, paratransit definitely costs the city, and taxpayers, significantly more money than bus trips. And while those of us who don’t take paratransit envision it as being convenient and cushy- but in fact, it’s not, as it requires waiting around for long periods of time. And it is a separate system, therefore segregating people with disabilities.

    As for our lovely Church Produce owner- a half a block can be a significant ways to walk, roll, limp, etc, if one’s mobility is restricted.

    Has anyone seen how far spaced the disabled platforms are on the N- at the end of the line?

  • Alex

    @EL Agreed. When the metro was designed in the 70s, who was running low floor trams? Anyone? When the Bredas were procured, who was running low floor trams? Anyone? Certainly Boston had huge problems with their low-floor Bredas derailing on straight, level track. With all the work that went into getting movable steps in these beasts, why not take them to task for omitting a proper wheelchair lift or ramp?

    Low floor vehicles are not a panacea. The semi-low floor buses that MUNI currently has are pretty terrible compared to the high floor buses in the fleet. Sure, there are better low-floor buses out there. But if MUNI specced low-floor trams, who’s to say that they would have been an improvement? As an example low-floor trams would not solve the issue of queuing in the street. Platforms of some sort have one HUGE advantage… and that is separating pedestrians from other vehicular traffic.

    As for characterizing the issue of accessibility as one of parking vs access, that’s a cheap shot. The NextBus signs on the street still bleat about unusable platforms on the M. Tatiana, where’s your outrage about that?

    @Jamison You don’t need to hypothesize at all. Look at the stop spacing on the failure that is the T.

  • anonymoose

    @Alex, low-floor discussion in general

    I’ll give Muni the benefit of the doubt in the 70s (though Muni’s engineers should have realized the problematic nature of creating streetcars that could work in a subway)

    But in the 90s, when the Breda vehicles were ordered? Low-floor was extraordinarily popular in Europe! As it is to this day!
    Take a look at tramway line T1 in Paris. It was opened in the early 90s (contemporarily with the Breda orders), borrowing ideas from Germany. It’s low floor, accessible at every stop, and has platforms to boot! (e.g. no queuing in the streets)

    The derailing issue on the low-floor Boston Breda cars has far more to do with Breda’s terrible track record at producing reliable vehicles for American operators.

  • david vartanoff

    All, the high platform design of the Muni Metro was locked in during the 60s when the construction began. As to low v. high, yes we got caught near the tail end of the high platform as standard for mass transit. The real point is LEVEL boarding at whatever height. As to low floor cars, the Hudson Bergen LR in Jersey has good reliable cars so as long as Breda is not involved, it can be done. This argument over raising the surface platforms or jackhammering the tunnel platforms shows up about once a year. IMHO, there is no good answer, Few readers of this blog would like to imagine the cluster f%#& in the Metro during a retrofit. So, the real issues, are I think,. how many more ramps/or full high level platforms can we insist on? And to the Church St Produce person, don’t look for me in your store, I WILL walk a few blocks to somewhere else w/ my $$.

  • Alex

    @moose Yup. More than anything, running streetcars in a subway was a stupid idea. However, the Germans certainly managed (ex: combined U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations in Stuttgart). They even manage with high floor vehicles on the street (go figure).

    @David Yes yes yes. Platforms. High or low it doesn’t matter. Encouraging boarding without platforms is a safety issue (see also: 22nd/23rd & Taraval).

    But… it’s funny that you bring up European transit. It’s my impression that the Americans take accessibility far more seriously. Take, for instance, London’s Underground. A small minority of the lines are wheelchair accessible, and those that are tend to have one or two accessible stops (usually at each end of the line!).

  • Nick

    I don’t understand how something as simple as a boarding platform should cost as much as $300,000.

    It’s just concrete, rebar, and metal railing. Seriosuly, wtf?

  • It’s not just concrete, rebar and metal railing. It’s the engineering studies, environmental reviews, public outreach meetings, competitive bidding, utility relocation, funding for arts programs, the teams of people needed to do all this, etc.

  • JohnB


    Or put another way, it would cost 30K if it were a private venture, but 300K if the government does it.

  • OK. Here’s the deal.

    Muni can build more idiotic, disruptive, streetscape-destroying, service-inhibiting high platform “stations” for its 30 year obsolete “light” rail vehicles … IF, and only if, a Muni or TA planner or engineering consultant is buried inside each one.

    Done? Done!

    “We cannot understand why these peoples erected these inutile structures in the midst of the thoroughfares and congregational areas. We speculate that they must have served some sort of ceremonial purpose. Careful excavation reveals the interred remains of a a proto-hominid species of exceedingly low cranial volume, buried with their grave goods of slide rules and cost-plus contracting documents. But the exact purpose and meanings of these structures will forever remain shrouded in the mists of time.”

  • tommy

    Wouldn’t the logical thing be to not add more platforms and instead greatly reduce the number of stops, then add a local (every 2 1/2 to 3 blks) bus line? if the street’s too crowded have the bus on the next block over? at least then you are not spending a ton of money for the benefit of a tiny segment of the population.

  • Ted K.

    @ Richard M. – Re : Archeology
    Try a satirical article called “Digging the Weans” (Robert Nathan, Harper’s, Nov. 1956). I’ve listened many times to Theodore Bikel performing a version of it on one of his albums.


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