Elevating social justice...with working elevators in BART stations

Photo credit: Richard BendixIt’s a wonderful feeling to roll my wheelchair out of an afternoon concert with the San Francisco Symphony knowing accessible rail transit is only blocks away. The Bay Area pioneered disabled accessibility, so it’s no wonder that the Muni Metro’s Van Ness Station has an elevator.

But today it also has a sign that says “Out of Order.” I push the button.  My wife pushes the same button. We follow the handwritten advice on a whiteboard: “Use Civic Center Station.”

The BART station isn’t that far, but it’s been a long day. My wheelchair is running on batteries, but my wife is running on legs, and she's tired. I’m tired of sitting, but never mind, for here we are on the BART station concourse reading another sign: ”Elevator to Trains Out of Order.” We ignore another magic marker advisory: “Use Van Ness.”

BART is an aging system, I am an aging person…and now I regret urging my wife to use public transit. Rush hour is in full force by the time we make it to Powell Station. In a few minutes, we’re home in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood where the BART elevator works.

And yet, this same elevator didn’t work a couple of nights ago. I spent two hours on the Glen Park BART platform getting to know a couple of technicians who repair elevators full-time. Their account of BART’s aging infrastructure wasn’t pretty. Elevators throughout the stations are falling apart, and it would take twice the number of current repair personnel to keep them running reliably.

Flickr: ~dgiesIn the 1960's BART began constructing stations without elevators. Then, facing legal pressure, it decided to add them.  This further burdened a cash-strapped transit project already under political attack for being wasteful and unnecessary.

This history helps explain why the elevator at Montgomery Station is far from the platform, down a long utility corridor where homeless people sleep at all hours. As a disabled person and a victim of street crime, I admit to feeling vulnerable here.

Yet transit elevators are a democratizing experience. We all need to get places, old and young, rich and poor. Some elevators smell of urine, others of Pine-Sol, and if they work, everyone can be grateful. When it comes to public transit, we are in this together.

Still, if BART trains can transport thousands under the Bay, why can’t its elevators get a few passengers to the street? Transit elevators serve, and underserve, a cross-section of riders. This includes the disabled, bicycle commuters, the elderly and parents with strollers.

That’s why elevators need to be, well, elevated in priority. BART has announced plans to upgrade the flooring in about 100 lifts. This will make elevators less smelly, but addressing their mechanical decrepitude will take a much bigger commitment.

BART Directors’ top priority should be overhauling and modernizing the current system. That’s why I support TransForm’s work to urge BART to put a big funding measure on the 2016 ballot, and keep BART safe, frequent, reliable, and affordable. 

BART needs to serve its 400,000-plus daily riders well, no matter whether we’re on two feet or two wheels. As a citizen and voter, I join TransForm in supporting a ballot measure to ensure BART can make the repairs and upgrades it needs to keep us all rolling smoothly, wherever we need to go. 


December 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. #IDPwD15

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TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.