In this episode host Melissa Culross speaks with longtime (and recently retired) SFMTA Director of Accessible Services Annette Williams and Nicole Bohn, Director of the San Francisco Mayor's Office on Disability, about transportation accessibility and the role activism and advocacy have played in making transportation more accessible. July is Disability Pride Month, and this episode celebrates that by highlighting a bit of the work that has been done to break down barriers disabled people have faced over the decades.
MELISSA CULROSS, HOST: There are, of course, a lot of ways to get around San Francisco…by car, by bicycle, by bus or light rail vehicle, on foot … But transportation can be more challenging for some people than others…and that’s where our accessibility efforts come in.
ANNETTE WILLIAMS: Everyone in the organization, at MTA, takes accessibility seriously.
MELISSA: Welcome to TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s official podcast. I’m your host, Melissa Culross, and today we’re talking about accessibility.
Advocacy and protest have played a significant role in creating broad transit accessibility, and longtime SFMTA Director of Accessible Services Annette Williams…who has joined us at the busy intersection of Market Street and Van Ness Avenue…says that for years, people with disabilities who couldn’t get where they needed to go pushed really hard for better access. Take, for example, the 504 demonstrations in the late 70s.
ANNETTE WILLIAMS: The 504 were regulations that were promulgated by the, uh, federal government making sure that services that have federal funds were accessible. But they hadn’t written regulations for what did that mean. And so what happened was not a lot was happening, and people with disabilities were like, “This is…you know, we’re still being discriminated against. We still are not able to fully participate.” And they took over the federal building here in San Francisco, and it was the longest sit-in that has ever happened in a federal building. And um, one of the really important sections was transportation.
MELISSA: When Williams started at the agency in the 80s, there still were only two accessible Muni lines: the 43 Masonic and the 17 Park Merced. But that would change over the next two decades.
ANNETTE: We decided that it made most sense to guarantee that a line would be fully accessible. So that if you were gonna take, say for instance, the 43 line across the city, you could know for sure that every bus on that line would be accessible, instead of spreading them out, you know, across the city. And so we deployed line by line, and we started with the diesel lines because those were the first buses to be replaced. And then later came the electric trolley lines, which have a lot longer lifetime, and so it took more years for those to be replaced.
MELISSA: Today all Muni bus and metro lines are accessible, as are the historic street cars that take riders from the Castro to the Wharf.
ANNETTE: We made a bridge that could bridge over the stepwell and a wayside platform so that people with disabilities could access those cars. And there are people that grew up here in San Francisco with disabilities and saw those cars go by them all their childhood and then finally were able to get on those cars. Because they were the trunk of the Muni Metro and now, you know, they run on the F line and on the Embarcadero, and people are able to enter them, a wheelchair user, by…it’s really a manual bridge but it works quite well and gets beyond this historic car, which is really fun, especially for people who haven’t had a chance to do that before, as well as it’s a really important transportation option. And then people in the Fisherman’s Wharf area even found that the wayside platforms are great for taking photographs. Many people enjoy riding those lines and being able to take pictures of all the different cars that we have from all over the country.
MELISSA: Today there also are information signs and announcements in the Muni Metro and Central Subway..
SUBWAY ANNOUNCEMENT: Arriving outbound…two-car T to Chinatown station. Next T in ten minutes.
MELISSA: …and on transit vehicles…
BUS ANNOUNCEMENT: Euclid…California…This is the last stop.
MELISSA: But accessible transportation is more than just bus and streetcar lines:
ANNETTE: We also wanna make sure that we have door-to-door services that pick people up at their house and take them to church or to school or to a doctor’s appointment. That’s also really important ‘cause there are many of us…like think about someone who’s on dialysis, for instance. Maybe they can take the bus to the dialysis appointment, but after that they’re weak and not able to get to the bus stop to take a bus home or to transfer. So the paratransit services are available for that. So those are, you know, on the transit side, and then also we’re looking at all of our programs, like for instance, traffic lights. You know, you wanna make sure that someone who’s blind is able to cross the street. So accessible pedestrian signals that have audible cues are really important to blind people.
PEDESTRIAN CROSSWALK ANNOUNCEMENT: Walk is on to cross Richardson.
ANNETTE: In terms of bike lanes, making sure that people with disabilities can easily get across the bike lanes, say, to a transit island or to parking, and also that those bikes lanes are also available to people with disabilities. Say a wheelchair user would like to use the bike lane, especially when it’s, you know, protected, that could be very helpful. So it’s looking at all of our services that we have across the MTA and making sure that people with disabilities are able to use them well, and also that they don’t preclude accessibility by their design.
PEDESTRIAN CROSSWALK ANNOUNCEMENT: Wait… (tapping sound)
MELISSA: In the early 90’s, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed…recognizing the civil rights of people with disabilities and prohibiting discrimination against them in everyday activities, including transportation. But Williams says Muni was a bit ahead of the curve when it came to accessibility.
ANNETTE: There was also the political will in San Francisco. Not to say it was not difficult here, too, but there was an understanding that people should be able to participate, that civil rights matter, that people with disabilities should have access to living their lives. And if you don’t have access to transportation, if you don’t have mobility, it’s really hard to work or go to school or do any of the things that you need to do to live a full life. And so I think, you know, there was that support, but it still took time, and it still took effort, and you know, and we’re still not 100% there in terms of, you know, there’s still things where it’s difficult for people with disabilities.
MELISSA: Not only does the work around accessibility never stop, but Williams notes that agency can’t do it ALL alone.
ANNETTE: How do you make something work better? It’s talking to people who are actually using it and understand what, what are the impediments? What are the difficulties? And we’ve been really fortunate because we’ve had a really active advisory committee, you know, all the years that I’ve been here. So we’ve always had that user input.
MELISSA: Some of that input has come from Nicole Bohn, director of the SF Mayor’s Office on Disability. She’s invited us to her office to discuss her own advocacy work, which began long before she took on her current role.
NICOLE BOHN: If I see a problem that needs fixing, I need to say something about it. And there are so many times, like, if I just think about the number of times that I’ve advocated for, for us to do better.
MELISSA: Bohn…who has cerebral palsy and has been a lifelong wheelchair user…has lived in San Francisco for just over a quarter century:
NICOLE: I live in an apartment in the city, and really public transportation has been my lifeline for the past 27 years. And part of the reason that I remain in the city, partially, is because I love it here. It’s a good place to live. But having accessible transportation has really been important, and not just important, I think essential, uh, for myself and for so many people to be able to, uh, live successfully and thrive.
MELISSA: So advocacy has been essential for her, as well.
NICOLE: First it started, actually, with um, with paratransit and the timing and also… So back in the day, so this was in the middle 90s when I moved to San Francisco, it wouldn’t be unusual to have to schedule for a half an hour trip, about half of your day to take that trip. So I think in the beginning, it was paratransit advocacy for me. And then when I started using public transportation, I took the above ground buses quite a bit, and there were many times, unfortunately, where the wheelchair lifts would get stuck. So I’d be stranded up in the air and then wait for the fire department to help get me down off the lifts. And so then I would advocate for, you know, what could we do to do better with that and with maintenance and the training. And then I moved into helping with light rail advocacy and trying to better by our elevators and notifications and making sure that folks did have ways to know what was avail…or what was working and what wasn’t. And a lot of these things, I think, the SFMTA had been gradually working on, but I think when the community calls in and has a voice, that does help move things along. And so I like to think that as a private citizen, before I worked for the city, that I had some impact and was able to help.
MELISSA: And Bohn hopes other private citizens will follow her lead.
NICOLE: I really appreciate all the work that we do and that we’re trying to do to keep our city and our transit accessible, and I just want to encourage anyone listening to this…if you see a problem, please do report it because it does help improve things. As a rule of thumb, I feel like if one person has an issue, so do 25 other people. So please do that because it helps us figure out where to prioritize. Accessibility is not only the law and a critical component of what we must do, but it’s also really a critical lifeline to so many people.
BUS ANNOUNCEMENT: 49 Van Ness-Mission to City College.
MELISSA: Back out on Market and Van Ness, we’re talking about wheelchair access on buses. Muni did, for years, use lifts like the ones Nicole Bohn mentioned, but then the industry moved toward ramps, which are better, and the agency worked with manufacturers to make sure the slope of the ramps aren’t too steep…as Annette Williams describes while a 49 bus is in front of us.
ANNETTE: So you can see the ramp here, and you see when it comes out, it’s completely level. And then we have the turning area. We’ve tried to maximize the amount of the space where someone turns in, and you can see that the fare box is kind of recessed back so that it doesn’t jut into where people are trying make that turn. And then we have really good handrails because a senior or a person with disability, they may need to hold that to pull themselves up onto the bus, especially if they’re coming from the street level. So all of those components make a big difference for anyone with a disability, or even all of us, you know, you wanna have a good grip.
MELISSA: As we said before, the work around accessibility continues, but we HAVE come a long way.
ANNETTE: In the early years, we were going around looking for wheelchair users, “Hey, we want you to know about our new bus system!” You know, now it’s really part of everybody’s life. Of course. You know, the fact that you need to be, you wanna be able to use the system, and you’re able to. It’s always something that has to be, we have to be vigilant about because you…it’s…you know, it comes down to inches sometimes. It’s making sure that everything that you’re building has that space so that people have easy access and has the systems, like the overhead signs and the audible announcements. And it’s exciting, like our new line, the Central Subway, you know, we have two elevators for every single level change. So that if one elevator’s out of service, there’s always another option. And that’s difficult on the older part of the system where there’s just one elevator, and if that’s out of service, then you have to go to a different station.
MELISSA: And what’s good for a few often is good for many.
ANNETTE-4: A lot of the times, the things that we do to help people with disabilities help everybody. Like think about curb ramps. You know, if you have a child in a stroller, how much easier is it to get up on the curb if you have that curb ramp that was put there originally for someone with a disability? Or say, an elevator.
ELEVATOR ANNOUCEMENT: Going up…Floor C.
ANNETTE: You know, climbing five flights of stairs, even if you’re able-bodied can be very difficult. So having the elevator makes it more accessible for everyone. And that’s really universal design: the idea that we design things so that everyone from a small child to a, to a senior to a person with a disability who’s using a, you know, a walker or a wheelchair, that all of us have easy access. I mean, it makes a difference for everybody.
MELISSA: And it truly is a team effort, even beyond the SFMTA’s specific accessibility team.
ANNETTE: Everyone in the organization, like, at MTA takes accessibility seriously. So that when the engineers are looking at new bus, that they’re already thinking about these things before they’ve even talked to us. You know, we’ve put in a stroller seat so that parents with strollers have a place where they’re not in the wheelchair securement area. You know, it takes the whole organization, really, to make an accessible system.
MELISSA: Thank you for joining us on TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION. We’re a production of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and you can find the latest episodes at SFMTA.com-slash-Podcast, as well as Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen. I’m Melissa Culross. Be well and travel well.