To many, Muni’s new hybrid buses are successful on several fronts. Not only are they environmentally responsible, but their low floors let passengers board quickly — a crucial element in speeding up the system’s notoriously inefficient service.
However, for the tens of thousands of disabled and senior passengers who take Muni, advocates say that the unfriendly design of the low-floor buses present yet another accessibility obstacle. And with the agency contemplating the purchase of 200 more in the coming years, the problem could become even worse.
Introduced in 2007, the 86 low-floor buses lack boarding steps, so they don’t have to “kneel” — the slow hydraulic process that buses use to lower their clearance for senior and disabled passengers.
But because they don’t kneel, the buses are actually higher off the ground, and thus harder for seniors and disabled passengers to board, according to Bob Planthold, an advocate and member of the Senior Action Network.
Planthold also complained that the hand railings on the buses are poorly designed and don’t allow passengers to get enough leverage to pull themselves on board. Finally, the buses’ narrower and shallower interiors make it more difficult for wheelchair users to maneuver around and to see their upcoming stop out the window, he said.
The disabled and senior community first raised these concerns 3½ years ago, yet Muni still went through with the rollout of its 86 low-floor buses.
“We don’t necessarily have problems with these kind of buses,” said Planthold, who noted that parents with strollers also face obstacles on the vehicles. “But there are design elements of the vehicles that are problematic, and Muni has refused to address these issues.”
Transit trends, and Muni’s current state of repair, suggest that the agency could add more such vehicles in the future. John Haley, Muni’s director of transit, estimates that the agency needs to replace about 200 of its 800 buses over the next three years.
Haley noted that vehicle manufacturers are increasingly building low-floor vehicles because the maintenance costs are much lower and the faster boarding speeds are highly coveted.
Transit activist and former Muni engineer Jerry Cauthen said such buses would be crucial in speeding up service in heavily used corridors such as Stockton Street. Muni officials estimate that their agency could save $76 million just by raising systemwide speeds by 1 mph.
However, achieving that goal at the expense of disabled and senior passengers would not go over well, according to Byron Yan, a community access specialist with the Independent Living Resource Center.
“We’ve recommended some changes to Muni,” Yan said. “But they have not listened to us.”
Haley, who started working at Muni after the agency bought its existing fleet of low-floor buses, said he was not aware of some of these concerns and that the design of the low-floor buses could be modified to address the needs of the disabled and senior community.
“We don’t have to be married to the configuration of these vehicles,” Haley said.
800 Buses in Muni fleet
86 Low-floor buses
200 Buses that need to be replaced over the next three years
25,000 Senior Muni Fast Passes sold each month
7,000 Regional Transit Connection tickets (passes for disabled passengers) sold each month