Riding BART With My Dad

onboard bart

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time. I’m a big fan of BART, the Bay Area’s rapid transit system — I appreciate how convenient and economical it is for us to get to San Francisco to visit our son, fly out of SFO, or go to a show or dinner in the West Bay. [Aside: When my parents, my brother and sisters and I first moved to Oakland in the late 1960s we became friends with Harre Demoro a transportation aficionado and reporter. Through Harre and his connections we got to ride on the prototype BART trains before the system opened. When the Transbay Tube was first completed, he took a group of us on a short walking tour of the Oakland terminus of the tunnel. Harre’s passion instilled in me a love of trains and public transportation that continues to this day. My decision to make a four-day, cross country rail adventure back in 2010 grew from the seeds Harre planted in the 60s and 70s.]

My dad loves to ride BART, and I suspect he was infected by Harre’s passion, too. Dad also likes to remind us (nearly every time we enter the system) that one of his parishioners at First Lutheran Church was an engineer who helped design BART. After my siblings and I abandoned our childhood nest, my parents packed up and moved to New York City where they lived for almost 20 years. They lived in Washington Heights, very close to the NYC Subway system’s revered A Train. Because of dad’s late-in-life battle with the long term effects of polio, his dependence on a wheelchair made it difficult to navigate the pre-ADA New York Subways. So when they moved back to Oakland a few years ago, he was delighted to be living in a community that took accessibility seriously. He rides the bus on in his wheelchair, gleefully sharing his opinion about the best routes to take to get to IKEA or Piedmont Avenue from our Adams Point neighborhood. He and my mom still fly around the world to pursue their eclectic interests, and they almost always prefer to book flights out of SFO due to the easy access via BART.

A few weeks ago Anna and my folks and I decided to take BART to Zina’s gallery opening at Adobe Books in the Mission district. We set out on foot, dad in his chair, for the 20 minute stroll/roll to the train. The elevator to the 19th Street station is located on Broadway, tucked into an alcove between to The Community Bank of the Bay and Selix tuxedos. The elevator drops you at the mezzanine level of the station, where a passenger in a wheel chair needs to enter the station to process his/her ticket, then exit again to get in a different elevator to the platform. The elevator to the train platform is outside the paid area of the station on the mezzanine level, so for visitors to Oakland—or any first time user of BART, it would be easy to inadvertently get on the train without  "paying*" to enter the system. Dad is experienced, so he knows he needs to take this extra step. He wonders why BART doesn’t install a ticket reader in the elevator so that disabled riders don’t need to make this extra loop through the turnstiles before proceeding to the platform?

Once our tickets are processed (on the honor system) we drop to the train platform and wait for our ride to the City. Getting on and off a train in a chair is pretty easy, and every car has a space where wheelchair-bound riders can jockey with bicycles for a spot near the door. In our several excursions with dad on BART we have never encountered a cyclist who wasn’t extremely polite and accommodating, always moving to make room for this endearing, talkative man in his chair.

When we arrive at the 16th and Mission station we get off the train, and the longest part of our hike within the station begins. Inexplicably, the elevator for disabled riders is at the opposite end of the platform. We pad the length of the station to reach the elevator and ride upstairs to the mezzanine level, only to find that the exit turnstiles are at the other end of the station. To top it off, the elevator from the station to the street is located halfway back down the length of the station towards the end from which we walked to go through the turnstiles. I kid dad about the fact that the parishioner who attended his church didn’t think through the location of elevators when they designed the system. Why on earth, I wonder, did they set up the station so that a passenger with mobility issues who enters the system at 19th Street in Oakland and exits at 16th and Mission needs to travel the full length of the station two-and-a-half times, just to get from the platform to the street? (That added nearly 7 tenths of a mile to our round trip that night.)

That’s not the only station where this situation occurs. When traveling from 19th Street to the Coliseum station (Anna and my folks and I rode BART to an A’s game a few weeks ago) we encountered the same situation. We got on the front of the train where the elevator dropped us at 19th Street, only to find that we needed to navigate the full length of the significantly narrower platform at the Coliseum station to get to street level. (Because the platform is narrow, navigation in a wheelchair is difficult because the clearance between various structures and the yellow safety stripe at the edge of the platform is very limited, especially when there are people waiting for trains.) Again, the elevator drops one outside the paid area of the station, so we needed to take our tickets back to the station agent to get them processed. There’s a non-functioning ticket reader set up halfway between the elevator and the agent’s booth at the station where a disabled passenger could presumably process a ticket, but it wasn’t working when we were there. And its placement is downright odd: if BART can set up a random reader for this purpose, why didn’t they put it next to the elevator where it would be readily accessible to the people who needed it, rather than in the middle of a crowded area where it’s not easy to find?

BART is an appealing system, and in comparison to some older systems, very accessible to the elderly and those with mobility challenges. There are some quirks that make accessibility less than ideal. Solving some of the bigger problems (the odd placement of the elevators) may be too expensive and require extensive retrofits to be feasible. But there are a few things that might be easily solved, like putting ticket readers in the elevators that are outside the system. In November we have a chance to elect some bright, progressive BART directors who will consider some of these issues. (Go Rebecca!)


  • BART passengers actually pay when leaving the system, but a ticket must be processed upon entry so the system can determine the appropriate fare. back ^

Monday May 28, 2012 — Mark —