Disability Perspective: MTA Neglect of Disability Responsiveness

by Bob Planthold on January 5, 2009

This is a new and expanded critique regarding what has been approved by the MTA Board of directors for the much-publicized Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP.) Much has been written about how data-oriented and analytic has been the research and suggestions that formed the basis for the TEP. That allows the uncurious to form the impression that this TEP will provide better service.

Yet, careful reading of the document shows a lack of an emphasis on what has recently been termed “San Francisco values” — on service for ALL and inclusiveness for any and all, no matter where in the city they live, work, shop, go to school, recreate, or whatever.

Instead, the TEP takes a money-based view of transit service in the city of St. Francis. Keep that image in your mind while reading this -St. Francis on his knees before the bankers, begging for their permission to serve those in need.

Remember, the TEP got a major push from Mayor Newsom who, in his Supervisorial days, strongly and continually advocated for city agencies to take a “customer service” and improve it. Yet the TEP essentially seems to have two primary customers on whom it confers benefits:

* the insider-advocates who keep re-shaping MUNI to their whims, and
* those who commute to and from work during normal weekday daytime hours.

Low-ridership routes are those most targeted for elimination – or at least suffer drastic cuts. That can make sense, IF there was a documented history that MUNI reliably kept operating those lines at the frequency and times scheduled. There isn’t such a record, which is partly why the targeted lines had low ridership — due to the unreliability and infrequency of service.

The low-ridership routes often also are in hilly areas. Some of those hilly lines — such as the 36, 37, 53 — too often had missed runs or were later than MUNI rules allow. If MUNI cuts service to the hilly areas because it is too expensive, that means there isn’t a commitment to serve ALL but only to serve those for whom it doesn’t cost too much.

So, let’s apply that principle to other city agencies:

Why did the PUC build the Clarendon pumping stations to get water up to those same residents in the 36-line route area? Why didn’t PUC tell those same residents they had to provide their own water and build their own septic tanks? Because it costs too much?

Should DPW and DPT try to get out from under the costs of maintaining roads and streetlights on hilly areas? Because it costs too much?

Should the SFFD ignore improvements to the water tanks and cisterns in hilly areas? Because it costs too much?

THAT is the money-oriented approach that the MTA’s TEP has taken. Basically: If it costs too much, you’re on your own.

THAT is an internal inconsistency between MTA and the rest of the agencies providing city services to the people of San Francisco.

MTA is simply NOT in synch with the rest of city government. Separate from this difference, as to what values are the basis for decisions, there is also the performance gap between what MTA says in its TEP decisions and in MTA’s long-standing under-performance.

MTA says it will “monitor” the performance of lines it beefs up that supposedly will provide a better counterpart to those nearby parallel lines scheduled to be eliminated.

The best example of this is the 26-Valencia line. Currently, people who need to use the wheelchair lift often detour from Mission over to Valencia to be able to get onto a bus that is not so crowded as to prevent boarding. The MTA management and board of directors won’t agree to, nor even respond to, suggestions that it REQUIRE that any missed runs or absent operators on the beefed-up Mission Street lines be automatically filled, without delay.

Rather, MTA says it will “monitor” the performance.

“Monitor.” What does that mean, in terms of previous MUNI performance?

The point from the list below is to make clear that MTA may issue policies that SAY what they think is palliative and re-assuring, but in fact make ZERO commitments to service. Another win for the spin-meisters that run city government.

For over FIFTEEN years, some in the disability community have noted, without any timely positive response, a continuing lack of monitoring of disability-focussed aspects of MUNI passenger vehicles:

* Pull cords aren’t always strung over the front seats where seniors and people with disabilities have priority seating, meaning those least agile and energetic have to stand and lean back, while the bus is moving forward, to pull the stop cord.

* All passenger vehicles are supposed to have their kneelers and wheelchair lifts tested fully every day before they go into revenue service. Too often, operators claim by the end of the morning rush hour that the lift is out-of-service — meaning either the test wasn’t done or that the lift was poorly maintained to fail after only a short time in service.

* Overhead signs directing passengers to yield the front seats aren’t kept in place. That means able-bodied passengers who sit up there aren’t properly informed, allowing these scofflaws to dispute seating rights with those properly entitled to sit up front.

* Ticketing people who smoke in the bus shelters.

When management and the MTA board are specifically asked at public meetings about each or any of the above problems, what is the response? Silence.

When management is specifically asked at public meetings whether any disciplinary action is taken against whoever is responsible for the
shift that put these non-compliant and unsafe busses into revenue service, what is the response? Silence.

These are some example of MUNI’s long-standing history of ‘monitoring” that isn’t monitoring. So, why should the disabled believe MUNI will professionally and accurately monitor it’s TEP performance in a timely way?

An AGNOSTIC might have more chance of becoming a convert to theism, than for people with disabilities to believe the TEP will take MUNI into the Promised Land. The disabled now have new victims of the TEP — those living in hilly areas. Another constituency is ignored and excluded from reliable MUNI service.

Let’s not stop there, though. Too often previous columns have offered the opinion that elected officials view MUNI as primarily either:
* a labor contract issue, or
* a money issue and not a public service issue.
That’s because those public officials don’t personally rely on MUNI.

So what has been the experience of residents who complain to their respective District Supervisor about the TEP changes? Some Supervisors, such as those representing Districts 10 and 5, have gone to bat for their constituents. And gotten MTA to listen.

Other Supes., in other districts [ UNnumbered and UNnamed, to protect the UNresponsive Supes. ], haven’t fought for their constituents. So, as so often has been the case in SF, the disabled have to look to a lawsuit to get transit service that provides parity with the agile and able-bodied advocates and staff who concocted the TEP.

The fix is in. The TEP is responding to these agile, able-bodied advocates [ disproportionately white males ] who support those in power. “Majority rule” is the way this TEP works, even though other major policy issues in the state are contested on the basis of not infringing on the rights of a minority.

That gets into the bias and selectivity by the City Attorney’s office in legal responsiveness to people with disabilities. But, that’s a column for a later date.

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