Wheelchair Commute

Ralf Hotchkiss demonstrates how the gap between BART trains and platforms may be difficult for some wheelchairs.

Ralf Hotchkiss demonstrates how the gap between BART trains and platforms may be difficult for some wheelchairs.

En Español

Ralf Hotchkiss is a world traveler, a cofounder of an international nonprofit organization and a MacArthur Genius Award winner.

On this fall evening, however, he’s waiting at a San Francisco State University bus stop like everyone else, except for one visible difference: Hotchkiss is in a wheelchair. And when the shuttle comes, that difference becomes a divide. The driver asks Hotchkiss to wait for the next shuttle to BART, and we watch as everyone else piles on board and the shuttle leaves.

So begins an evening on public transportation with Hotchkiss — one of 146,000 disabled or senior passengers who ride Muni every day, and one of 32,760 on BART, according to data from 2008.

The 62-year-old Hotchkiss has used a wheelchair since he was in a motorcycle accident his freshman year at Oberlin College in Ohio. The accident not only put him in a wheelchair, it gave him a career. Nowadays he rides public transportation from the point of view of an expert — since 1989, he’s taught wheelchair design at SF State and run Whirlwind Wheelchair International, an organization that helps people across the globe build and obtain safe, reliable wheelchairs.

In the next three hours, we’ll encounter the idiosyncrasies of the city’s public transportation system, from out-of-place elevators to luggage in the wheelchair space. Throughout it all, Hotchkiss remains largely unperturbed: Public transportation is “all we’ve damn well got,” he says.

As a disabled rights advocate who carries a measuring tape so he can advise businesses if their buildings are inaccessible, his patience is borne of reality — wheelchair-friendly private vehicles are too expensive for most. “It’s $50,000 for a typical low-floor van,” he says.

He describes public transit service cuts as “devastating to the freedom and mobility of people living with disabilities.” Although Hotchkiss owns a 1991 low-floor van he bought for $9,000, riding public transit only costs $8.10 per day with his discount. Driving might cost him $25.

As we wait for the next shuttle, it starts to get dark, but Hotchkiss doesn’t mind. He launches into memories of actual danger: working in Nairobi during the presidential election three years ago, and for Ralph Nader in 1966, when he would travel through “the scariest part” of Washington, D.C. as late as 3 a.m.

“There were very friendly prostitutes who would push me up the curbs, and maybe push me to the next curb,” he says of Washington. “The same ones who pushed me up in the night would say hello in the morning.”

Meanwhile, the 10-minute wait at SF State turns into 15 minutes.

Hotchkiss looks a bit like a wizard, with tufts of wiry gray hair and a sharp gaze behind clear glasses. A former physics student, his magic is mathematical in nature.

When the shuttle finally arrives and the wheelchair lift begins to raise him into the air, he sputters the odds of the lift failing. “Fifty-fifty,” he begins. “85 percent. 75 percent….”

Already that week, two out of the five lifts Hotchkiss tried had failed, delaying the shuttles.

Lift failure can add up to an hour to his commute. When everything goes right, it takes an hour and a half for him to get from SF State to Rockridge. But delays are the norm. Several times, Hotchkiss has had to push himself nearly two miles from the Daly City BART station to SF State.

When stranded by public transit, “the most useful map is a bicycling map,” he says. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s map, for example, shows wheelchair users how to avoid steep hills.

This time, the lift works, but takes three minutes. Thirty people in line for the shuttle watch.

“Everybody’s waiting with bated breath, because they don’t know how long it’s going to take,” he says.  “Everybody looks and nobody smiles. It’s very embarrassing.”

Although he’s uncomfortable with the stares, Hotchkiss doesn’t avoid buses, but he has friends who do.

“Partly because it’s unpredictable, and partly because they don’t like to tie up the whole bus,” he says. “I’ve found it to be more serious when I’m traveling with another wheelchair rider. The driver has to flip up two seats.”

Hotchkiss is enthusiastic about the new low-floor bus designs, such as the hybrid buses Muni began to acquire in 2007. They offer ramps instead of wheelchair lifts, and now comprise about 7 percent of the fleet.

Having fewer steps on buses is better for everybody, he says, and it takes seconds, not minutes, for wheelchair users to push themselves on board.

As the Bay Area’s transit systems become more accessible, Hotchkiss says he encounters less insensitive language and treatment from transit operators, who have at times refused to speak to him, or used offensive terms.

He boards the shuttle and the driver braces him in. Hotchkiss would like to be able to secure the wheelchair himself.

Muni’s accessibility coordinator, Virginia Rathke, says that the upcoming Bus Rapid Transit fleet on Geary and Van Ness will offer an alternative system that riders can manage themselves.

As a BART rider for 30 years, Hotchkiss has watched the system improve — although somewhat illogically. At first there were no elevators, he says. Later, elevators were squeezed into inconvenient places.

At 24th Street, for example, he calculates that the elevator is more than 200 feet away from the accessible fare gate.

At Rockridge, the elevator to and from the BART platform is actually outside of the fare gates. To pay his fare, Hotchkiss has to go inside the fare gates through the emergency exit.

Worse than the distance, however, are out-of-service elevators.  “I’m most affected when I don’t hear or understand the announcement,” he says.  Sure enough, when we exit the 24th Street BART elevator we hear part of an announcement — but not the station it refers to.

If he encounters an out-of-service elevator, Hotchkiss has no choice but to go to another station. Some years back, he would have to call for someone to pick him up, but now he can take a bus to another station.

The longest it’s ever taken him to get home was nearly three hours one night in September, but because of problems any public transit commuter might face — a broken shuttle and a missed train.

On his way home, Hotchkiss likes to stop at the 24th Street BART station so he can get dinner at one of his favorite Nicaraguan restaurants — he developed a taste for the food after working in the country in 1980.

After dinner at El Trebol, we head back to BART to catch a 9:30 p.m. Pittsburg/Bay Point train.

The train is crowded. A woman glances at Hotchkiss and tugs her airport-tagged luggage further into the corner of the wheelchair space, so he can squeeze in.

At the 19th Street Oakland station, a man and woman walk onto the train, rolling a bicycle with a deflated tire. Hotchkiss offers them his pump. They seem surprised. “I have to take it with me for fixes on the road,” he says. “I fill it from my chair.”

“You’re that good?” the woman asks.

“It’s easier that way,” Hotchkiss says.

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