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North Oakland resident Joan Lichterman, who has been riding AC Transit for 34 years, calls the new buses "Van Hells." "A lot of people call them that," the 65-year-old said. "Neither the drivers nor the passengers like them. And getting into the seats is just horrible. Drivers don't want to wait for people to sit down before they lurch off."
Lichterman's complaints are echoed by the vast majority of the 100-plus passenger comments that AC Transit has received since the new buses went into service. The complaints also raise concerns about whether the Van Hools are dangerous, especially for the elderly and those with mobility problems.
Many of the criticisms centered on the elevated platform seating that resulted in Pamela Daniels losing her leg. And the complaints go to the heart of why AC Transit fell for the Van Hools in the first place.
One of the two primary reasons for why the agency went Belgian is the low floors. The low floors mean that when the bus stops, passengers don't have to climb several steps to get on board. However, they do have to step up to a 12-inch-high raised platform to get into their seats — often when the bus is already moving. The same problem occurs when they're trying to get out of their seats in anticipation of their stop.
One Alameda rider summed up the Van Hool elevated platform hazard in a July 2004 complaint made with the agency: "I was riding from Alameda City Hall to Webster & Santa Clara on Friday afternoon, 7/23/04. I was seated on one of the raised 'platform'-type seats on the new model #51 bus. When we approached my stop, I rang for a stop and stood up to leave the bus. Forgetting momentarily that I was on the elevated seat, I misjudged the distance to the floor, lost my footing, slipped and fell into the metal frame of the seat across the aisle, spraining my wrist and fracturing two ribs."
Drivers, meanwhile, are caught between angry riders and AC Transit brass who demand faster commutes and on-time performance. If drivers wait to pull away from the curb until all passengers are safely seated, or tell riders to remain in their seats until the bus comes to a complete stop, it slows down the commute, thereby defeating the purpose of Bus Rapid Transit.
Fernandez, however, downplays these criticisms. "It's a small percentage of people who complain," he said of the passengers in an interview before the drivers' survey was released. He also pointed to an agency graphic that showed that while passengers suffered 67 percent more falls on the Van Hools in their first year of service, the number of falls since May 2004 has been about the same as on American-made buses. Finally, he pointed to a survey the agency conducted in October 2002 of passengers riding on the first two Van Hool prototypes. "We got a very positive result," he said.
However, the neutrality of that survey seems suspect. For example, the questionnaire touts the Van Hools' design features before asking passengers a series of questions about some of those same features. "This bus has some very important design features that distinguish it from any other bus in North America," the survey began, and then listed ten features, including "extra doors" and "a low floor from the front to the very back, requiring only one small step between the curb and the front of the bus."
Joyce Roy, an East Bay transit activist and leading critic of the Van Hools, called the survey very unscientific. "You don't tell people how great the bus is and then ask them what they think of it," she said. "And the survey never asks about having to step up to your seat."
Moreover, an AC Transit internal report obtained for this story shows that the elevated platform, which characterizes the Van Hools, makes the Belgian buses more hazardous for riders once they pay their fare. According to the report, the number of passengers who fell after they boarded a Van Hool bus in 2003-04 outnumbered those on American-made buses by more than 600 percent. And though the number of onboard falls on Van Hools has declined since then, they still outpace American buses by nearly a two-to-one margin.
Pamela Daniels' attorneys have been in settlement talks with AC Transit for the past few months. She sued the agency in September 2006. In a court filing two weeks ago, one of her lawyers, Miles Cooper, revealed that Daniels has been out of work for nearly two years and would settle the case for $6.1 million. AC Transit offered $1 million. If the two sides can't reach agreement, the case is scheduled to go to trial February 19 in Alameda County Superior Court.
AC Transit General Counsel Kenneth Scheidig declined to say whether the agency intends to go to trial. But he did contend that Daniels' case was not proof that the Van Hools are unsafe. He said Daniels was not representative of whether the buses pose a risk to riders, because when she fell, she reopened an old skin graft that then became seriously infected. "She got a scratch on her leg," he said. "To use that as an example is to take this to the extreme."
Nonetheless, it's undeniable that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of East Bay residents with various disabilities, mobility problems, and old injuries ride Van Hools every day, and many of them could be just as vulnerable as Daniels. But it is unclear just how many of them have been seriously hurt, because AC Transit officials said they do not compile detailed rider-injury data based on the types of buses in its fleet.
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