Letters for the week of April 28-May 4, 2004 

Kudos for our account of the problems with disabled access on AC Transit bus lines, but also the driver's perspective.

"Waiting for the Bus," Feature, 4/7

No accountability
Thank you for your hard-hitting piece. I am a nonhandicapped user of AC Transit, and also have many frustrations with AC Transit. I find that buses routinely leave their destinations ahead of time, which has caused me long trip delays, especially with their now-reduced schedule. What's worse is when the bus that just pulled away three minutes ahead of schedule is the last one of the day, which has happened to me on a few occasions. I have also found that drivers aren't always aware of where their stops are. I have had buses pass me right by, even as I was standing in the street screaming and waving in front of a sign that is clearly marked with that bus' route number.

The worst part is that, as detailed in your article, there seems to be no accountability. AC Transit takes customer complaints, but despite my repeated calls, as well as letters to management and boardmembers, I have noticed little improvement on the lines that I ride on. Your piece illuminated how this culture of irresponsibility is compounded for the mobility-impaired. It seems as if both drivers and management have forgotten whom they were hired to serve.
Rory Cox, Oakland

Disabled and nondisabled passengers don't mix
The intractable problems described by Katy St. Clair are caused by the insistence of advocates for the disabled that local transit agencies equip all regular buses with wheelchair lifts in addition to providing Paratransit. It isn't cost-effective to do both, yet once the buses are equipped it becomes cheaper to shunt riders onto buses even though superior Paratransit would be cheaper to provide.

But moving disabled riders onto regular buses will wreak havoc with schedules, further degrading the already abysmal reliability and quality of bus service for everyone else. I used to ride AC Transit all the time, and it simply isn't practical to have a system where most passengers get on and off the bus in ten seconds but some passengers take five minutes to get on and three minutes to get off. This is true not just because individual buses are slowed down, but also because the uneven flow of disabled riders produces huge gaps in service as buses that are held up fall further and further behind.

To be fair, it isn't practical either to let UC Berkeley students ride free so that they now routinely clog the buses around the campus to take a five-minute ride to avoid a fifteen-minute walk. These misguided transit policies only serve to discourage ridership and erode fare box revenue, loading more of the cost onto hapless local taxpayers. Certainly, they are the main reason I don't ride anymore.
Robert Denham, Berkeley

Drivers are people too
I was horrified, to put it mildly, at the hit piece you did on AC Transit and its treatment of our disabled passengers.

While all drivers are bound by the edicts of the ADA, as well as AC Transit policy, our primary duty is to negotiate a forty-plus-foot vehicle through heavy traffic, keeping a watch out for bicycles who don't believe the traffic laws apply to them, and fellow motorists and pedestrians who think we can stop on a dime; and give our passengers a safe, speedy, and comfortable ride to their destinations.

Let me address a few of the points raised:

Pass-ups: When a driver is operating a bus, we have to constantly be looking out for hazards. In heavy traffic, your eyes never rest. Occasionally we can, and do, miss seeing a passenger. But many times it is the passenger's fault they are passed up. When a bus operator comes to a bus stop that serves multiple routes (think University or Shattuck avenues) and no one gives the operator a sign that it is your bus they want to board, we pass them up. Then they call AC Transit and blame the driver.

Broken wheelchair lifts: You are correct that each driver is to check the operation of his/her lift before leaving the yard. However, lifts do fail en route, and that is not the fault of the driver. But passengers will still call in and blame the driver without knowing the full story.

Inadequate securement: The securements on AC Transit buses are generic and will simply not fit all the various designs of wheelchairs now in use, particularly the scooters and power chairs that are becoming so popular. We do, however, secure the passenger as best we can.

Calling out stops: We do the best we can to call out all the required stops, as well as when a passenger has a special request; however, our primary responsibility is safety. When driving in heavy traffic, looking for intending passengers, occasionally we do forget to call out certain stops. But once again, the passenger has certain responsibilities too. Few passengers are completely in the dark as to where they are going; they can easily remind the driver. If the passenger in your story saw they were getting close to their destination, they could have mentioned it. Instead, they let the driver pass it, then complained to management.

Full buses: During rush hours, many of our lines are standing loads. If a driver comes to a stop with a passenger in a wheelchair, and there is simply no room and no one on board will make room, what is the driver supposed to do? Order several people off the bus so the disabled passenger can board? And if they say no, what then? Call a sheriff and wait and have a minor riot on your hands?

Complaints: While many passenger complaints are at least partially valid, a great number of them are simply false. Passengers know that no matter what the complaint, the driver will be investigated, and that can be very disturbing to drivers who do their best. I recently had a passenger complaint that was completely false, but I still had to have an interview with my superintendent and defend myself. This, more than anything else, can sour drivers to passengers.

The upshot is that there needs to be some accountability from the passengers, disabled or otherwise. We are not their babysitters, regardless of their disability. We are only human and cannot please everyone all the time, or give the personal attention that many people think they deserve, while doing our job safely.

This is not to defend dangerous or just plain rude drivers. However, your article would have been more balanced if you had spent a week on various lines and seen what drivers have to put up with. I have been physically assaulted by passengers, routinely cursed out; have passengers who think I am supposed to read their minds when they miss their stop, yelled at because THEY are late for work -- and the list goes on. After all is said and done, I try to do the best I can for ALL my passengers. But for some people it is never enough.
An AC Transit driver (name withheld by request), Oakland

Walkers are people too
Katy St. Clair reminds us that "Under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, bus agencies are required to offer equal transit access to everyone regardless of their physical or mental condition." But do transit agencies violate that law when lack of funds forces them to cut services that leave transit-dependent patrons stranded? No. Transit provisions of ADA do not require anyone to provide transportation for those who cannot, should not, or choose not to drive cars.

California's planning code does not require new urban or suburban development to be accessible or functional for those who don't drive. Sidewalks and alternative modes of transportation are not mandated. Where there's no alternative to driving, ADA is limited to nontransportation accommodations. While the past half-century of discriminatory urban and suburban development "for motorists only" is not in violation of ADA, it clearly violates the rights of all citizens who cannot, should not, or choose not to drive.

Driving is a privilege, not a fundamental right. Our right to life is violated when we're forced to rely on modes of transportation so dangerous that they require seat belts, air bags, or crash helmets. And our right to equality (with motorists) is violated by a planning process that does not require location of our daily needs in walking (or wheelchair) distance of our residences.

If walking isn't a fundamental right, then what is? Everyone is entitled to a transportation alternative that isn't disrupted by accidents, bridge suicide attempts, or labor strikes. Those dependent on public transit should start demanding state legislators to amend the planning code. Right now they'd rather try to figure out a way to give drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants so they can get to all those job sites that are inaccessible to citizens who don't drive.
Art Weber, El Cerrito

"In Denial," Music, 4/7

Come as you are
I was just in Seattle and have been reading all the stuff on Kurt "Elvis" Cobain. From that I have decided that Kurt did his job as he saw it. He wanted to be a painter; he was. He wanted a child; he had a beautiful little daughter. He wanted his spirit to live after he died; it seems to have. He wanted to provide for his family and give his daughter a good life; he has. He wanted to end his suffering; he has. It is only those who worshiped his art that won't let him go and perhaps that is a good thing.
"Cy Figh," Oakland

"Revolving Doors at John George," Cityside, 3/17

Cancel the contract
Your story about questionable contractual incentives for a medical company at John George Psychiatric Pavilion begs the question why a private, for-profit group is responsible for any part of patient care at the county psychiatric facility for the poor and indigent. This company provides only a small number of doctors to John George, while all the rest of the doctors, nurses, and specialists -- indeed, every other caregiver at John George -- is employed directly by the hospital. Yet this company is getting huge profits for enticements of dubious ethics.

Our study shows that if the hospital directly employed these few doctors as they do every other clinician in the facility, the Alameda County Medical Center would save hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. For a system that is $70 million in debt, giving away that kind of money for no clear benefit does not make sense, especially if it is leading to profiteering over patient care. We call on the county and the medical center to quickly review this situation and cancel this contract.
Gary Robinson, executive director, Union of American Physicians & Dentists, Oakland

"Should She Stay or Should She Go?" Feature, 3/31

Family law flaws
I could not help but to be moved by the letters concerning this case. Family law is in deep trouble in this country, and mostly for all of the reasons stated in these letters. A new approach has to be found if we are to save our children from the pain and misery of divorce. The family law system does not work today, and must be revamped quickly if we do not want our family structure to slide into a quagmire it cannot get out of.
Brian Markham, United Fathers of America, Orange, CA


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