Disability Perspective on: Transit Effectiveness Program for MUNI

by Bruce Oka and Bob Planthold on August 28, 2006

Much has been written recently about the much-vaunted study of the MUNI-oriented Transit Effectiveness Program. Thankfully, this shows people’s awareness of MUNI’s problems–and therefore indicates also expectations of results from this new approach. But, little thought or critical observation has happened with HOW this transit effectiveness study is set up and functioning, possibly even in violation of ordinance and policy. So, let’s take two looks at the TEP: 1] from the perspective of transit-dependent constituencies—seniors and the disabled, rather than from the viewpoint of those who are running it or who dominate its discussions; and 2] from compliance and / or conformity with ordinance, public policy, and precedent. The unfortunate conclusion: the disabled are often the first to be ignored and the last to be consulted.

Why should a disability perspective make such a point about compliance and conformity with laws and regulations? Precisely because the disabled have so many requirements and restrictions on getting necessary services that we have to learn and abide by rules and regulation in order to function, if not to survive–whereas many able-bodied have far less reason to think through how to get things done.

While many MAY– reluctantly, and often only if pressed–admit that seniors, the disabled, and youth are disproportionately THE groups that absolutely, positively always need transit to function, that disproportionality doesn’t show up in the numbers and types of agencies selected to have representatives on the so-called Transit Efficiency Program Citizens’ Advisory Committee.

Instead, many of the groups and reps. on this CAC are composed of active, agile, healthy, for the most part childless, working adults [ a very small, narrow, demographic segment of the city’s population–and so statistically unreliable as to capacity to represent and respond to SF’s many populations ] who HAVE a choice of transportation options, i.e., not similar to those who are transit-dependent by being restricted to transit, paratransit, or walking.

Since SF so often cites its diversity and prides itself repeatedly on inclusiveness as a necessity of appropriate credibility, wouldn’t it seem that these many groups on the CAC reflect that diversity, i.e, include seniors, the disabled, and youth amongst their leaders and directors? Not so.

Some of the groups with a rep. on this Citizens’ Advisory Committee are remote, aloof from, or even unresponsive to involving seniors + / or the disabled in their boards of directors and policy-making processes. How so? Look to see how many of their directors or staff come from senior or disability-focused advocacy groups that have experience and accomplishments on transit issues.

Somehow, it never crosses the consciousness of people at City Hall to ask about, or even pay attention to, what the disabled perceive as glaring gaps in responsiveness of so many respected and sought-after groups. The assumption so prevalent–that every group in SF is responsive to diversity–has become such an article of faith that reality, or even simple curiosity, just doesn’t penetrate that veneer of self-flattery.

Examples? Transportation for a Livable City, now morphed into Livable City, has an appealing name–but a restricted outreach. Neither of us has yet heard of any solicitation to any senior or disability-focused transportation / transit group about either helping in the initial formation or even now becoming members.

Nobody at the MUNI Access Advisory Committee, the SF Paratransit Council, Planning for Elders in the Central City, Senior Action Network, or amongst the SF members of MTC’s Elderly & Disabled Advisory Committee has been sent anything by this group. Does that affect its credibility at City Hall about the “livability” or transportation livability” of this group’s plans? Not one whit.

Similarly, when looking at the board of directors list of the much-vaunted SPUR, it’s evident there is outreach to make sure various constituencies have members on its board of directors, EXCEPT for the disabled. Yes, their office is accessible; and yes, SPUR accepts membership fees from anyone, including the disabled.

But, SPUR doesn’t do any outreach to nor attempt to be sure its board reflects accomplished people with disabilities. After several notes to and brief conversations with top management at SPUR, it just didn’t seem worth paying money to belong to an organization that refused to even respond about appropriate diversity and inclusion.

Want more? One of the groups on this Transit Effectiveness CAC is the MTA’s own CAC [ Citizens’ Advisory Committee ]; the Chair of this MTA CAC even seems to have an automatic seat on the major power within this Transit Effectiveness project, the Policy Advisory Council.

The MTA CAC is subject to the city’s Sunshine Ordinance; yet it continues to violate that ordinance by meeting in the inaccessible offices MTA occupies at 1 South Van Ness. It wasn’t until a second complaint was filed with the Mayor’s Office on Disability that something got started recently to make it possible to independently enter some of the interior office doors.

( MUNI staff are supposed to get more detailed training on compliance with the Sunshine ordinance, according to a Sunshine Ordinance Task Force decision earlier this summer. )

Though MTA staff never alerted the MUNI CAC to the access problem at 1 South Van Ness,still, one doesn’t expect the CAC–especially through its leader–to be sensorily oblivious to what is obvious.

Even after the 2nd disability access complaint, though, there’s a gap in entry / exit compliance. After the end of the normal business day, the accessible street-level doors are turned off / locked off.

There’s no independent evening exit by some people with a disability; the kindness of others is a necessity to exit. This not only violates the spirit of the A.D.A. to help the disabled BE independent, but also makes the disabled person wait on some able-bodied person’s timetable of exit.

MUNI seems to be channeling Blanche DuBois in requiring the kindness of strangers for the disabled to enter and exit the building and the MUNI offices after normal business hours.

Even apart from the membership bias, this Transit Effectiveness Program has other limitations that adversely affect seniors and the disabled. The CAC was told we can only consider the MUNI component of MTA.

Yet, it is DPT that assigns and maintains the diamond lanes for faster bus travel; it is DPT that is responsible for enforcement of double parking, parking in bus zones, parking across curb ramps, etc. Certainly these can be relevant factors for transit effectiveness. Why are we so limited in what we can consider? Like little kids, we are told: Because staff said so.

One final example of disability bias–but this time from the “Policy Advisory Council”. The material leaked to the media from this “Policy Advisory Council” so far only deals with the interests of the agile, healthy, able-bodied, mobile population who have choices in transportation modes.

When the MTA Director, Nathaniel Ford, was interviewed by KCBS on the evening of Friday, August 11, he said one suggestion the Transit Effectiveness Program will consider is to reduce the #s of bus stops and expand the distance between them. That was ONE DAY after the CAC was given a printed handout that said stops should be very close to people’s residences and close to ONE block apart.

Not only does that show people within MTA aren’t talking to each other–which therefore affects credibility, but it continues the side-lining of seniors and the disabled, the populations most affected by any lengthening of distance between bus stops. Those who most need and use transit might not hear of this interview and proposal, except for this column—since the only two reps. for the disabled and senior constituencies on the Transit Effectiveness CAC didn’t ever hear the CAC get such an option mentioned.

As a follow-up, one other member of this Policy Advisory Council made a very pointed comment late last week, to the effect that IF the disabled ever allowed distance between stops to be lengthened, that would speed up MUNI. Somehow, the disabled are seen as having authority to grant / allow such to happen? But the disabled never get told of proposed changes to the distance between stops?

How can that be, that we have power but don’t get told of an option for change? Again, people within the Policy Advisory Council aren’t communicating clearly with each other, nor is the Policy Advisory Council communicating with the CAC.

What readers need to know here is that this TEP is restricted to MUNI only, even though various CAC members have pointed out how DPT is critical to smooth, uninterrupted flow of MUNI. DPT makes the decisions on where to place diamond lanes for bus-only traffic; DPT also sets policy and staffing levels on enforcement of parking violations–such as double parking, parking across curb ramps, parking in bus zones. So, DPT decisions and actions affect how easily and quickly MUNI can travel, but the TEP CAC can’t consider their impact on assisting MUNI to function better.

The disabled are impliedly accused of thwarting improved MUNI service by resisting lengthening the distance between bus stops–though that is only one way to improve service; while the TEP itself is hamstringing the entire process by refusing to let other obvious improvements to be considered–simply because those aren’t within the jurisdiction of MUNI but of DPT. Somehow, most voters would have thought there’d be co-operation and communication between these two halves of MTA, but the TEP doesn’t think so.

Worse though, this Policy Advisory Council didn’t think to bring this concept to MUNI’s own federally-required advisory group for seniors and the disabled–the MUNI Access Advisory Committee. Instead, it will be floated through this Policy Advisory Council and through a Transit Effectiveness CAC that is massively demographically skewed against those who absolutely, positively need transit to work all the time–seniors, the disabled, and youth.

We’ve pointed out some ways privileged groups and members on this Transit Effectiveness Project, as well as MTA staff, are unresponsive to the transit-dependent / transit-intensive constituencies within SF. Whether that spurs the MTA management and policy makers into re-orienting membership and participation on the CAC and on the Policy Advisory Council, time will tell.

Let’s look at the second concern of this analysis–compliance with ordinance, policy, and precedent. Go back to the name of this group–a CITIZEN’s Advisory Committee, i.e, it is not a STAFF Advisory Committee. We still don’t know the names of those who recommended and then those who made the picks of groups and reps. from the groups on this CAC; but, it is reasonable to assume they weren’t strangers to SF or to MTA-MUNI. Yet, two of the public policy bodies with a seat on this CAC , the Small Business Commission and the Youth Commission, didn’t have their elected chair listed as the primary rep.

Instead, the unknown string-pullers picked the executive directors of each of these two policy bodies. So? In most cases–whether by establishing ordinance, by resolution, by internal rules of order, or by precedent, the Chair of a public policy body is the spokesperson for that body, by reason of having been elected by the members of that policy body. Not necessarily so for an exec. director, many of whom are selected by a Mayor based on recommendations from that policy body.

As helpful and knowledgeable as executive directors may be, still the chair is seen as the representative of the public policy body. Nevertheless, the Chairs of the Small Business Commission and of the Youth Commission are assigned a subordinate role by the MTA Transit Effectiveness Project. In addition, the MTA staff have even put one person in a “conflict of loyalties” position, between Transit Effectiveness suggestions for a better MUNI and other official duties.

Here again, as with MTA’s allowing meetings to be held in accessible locations despite the Sunshine Ordinance requirement for accessible meeting spaces, MTA staff just don’t show they really know, or care to abide by, ordinances, policies, and precedents. Yet, they are proceeding unrestrained down a path of a biased input.

Who says SF knows how, at least for MUNI? Certainly not the people with the most at stake for an effective MUNI–seniors, the disabled, and youth.

As one city staffer knowledgeable about disability matters has said: The disabled are often the first to be ignored and the last to be consulted.

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