by Janny Castillo, BOSS

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]iding the bus is difficult enough if you are able-bodied and healthy; but for our disabled community, limited by mobility problems or utilizing wheelchairs, a bus ride can become a nightmare; so much so, that many disabled persons do not attempt to use public transportation, adding to their isolation and depriving themselves of health care, fresh food and recreational activities.

A disabled person must have a special kind of perseverance and be of strong spirit to ride public transportation within a city, much less across the bay. One such individual is Cheryl, who wants our Street Spirit readers to know that she is a Berkeleyan, through and through.
She has been a Street Spirit vendor for a year and a half, and it helps pay her bills and transportation costs. Cheryl attends computer classes at the Berkeley Adult School. Lack of affordable housing forces her to live in San Francisco, but she commutes almost daily to her beloved Berkeley.

Her strength moves her

Cheryl suffers from a severe case of osteoarthritis in both legs. She used a cane for many years; and sometimes bus drivers could not or refused to use the lift, making it very difficult for her to climb the stairs. “I remember falling up the stairs and no one offered to help me up,” she said. For the last four years, she has been confined to a wheelchair; and no matter how hard it is for her to get to school, to therapy, and to church, her strength moves her through transportation obstacles that would defeat the best of us.

Cheryl gets around by availing herself of disabled transportation services like Para Transit. Unfortunately her experience has not been positive. “They are always late and sometimes they do not have enough drivers, so often your wait time is three hours,” she said. “Sometimes they tell you they do not have drivers and you miss your doctor’s appointment, and other times I am forced to take taxis. Even taxis take two or three hours, so I go back to the buses.” Cheryl said that Para Transit is too expensive to use in Berkeley; overall, she only uses it for emergencies.

“I was in a manual wheelchair first and it was the worst experience of my life,” she said. “I wasn’t great at steering. One time I waited for three hours until I realized that I was at a bus stop that did not pick up wheelchairs.” Many buses passed her up and no one took the time to tell her she was at the wrong bus stop. Trying to navigate the city in a manual wheelchair was exhausting and very painful. At the end of the day, her arms would hurt terribly from the constant force needed to pull her forward and sometimes up hills.

“One day I got stuck on the bus in San Francisco,” she said. “I got caught by a strap and the lift did not work. They had to call the fire department to help me off the bus. It took about an hour. Another time I was riding AC Transit coming from San Francisco to Berkeley and the seat belt got stuck again and they could not get me out. I had to ride all the way back to the city where they cut me out of the seatbelt.” She still did not give up. She rolled four blocks to the nearest BART station to find out the elevators were not working; so she rolled another four blocks to the next BART station where she finally found a way back to Berkeley.

“Nowadays the bus drivers are more courteous and are more aware, but they still need training on how to strap a wheelchair person in,” Cheryl said.

She laughed when I asked her about the elevators at BART. “Many times the announcer says that all elevators are working, but when you get off, you find out that the elevator is broken or just broke down and you have to ride to another station, which is often miles out of your way.”

She said other disabled people also have many problems riding the buses. “People have to be bold and courageous to try to ride the buses because the services are so bad. There are many disabled and homeless people who are left without a way to get around. I know quite a few disabled people who do not attempt it; they’re scared. You got to be determined.”

Motorized and doing better

The wheelchair that Cheryl is riding in now is motorized. She is teaching herself how to use the bike lanes to ride through Berkeley. She won’t ride the San Francisco bike lanes. “There is too much construction and it’s too dangerous,” she said.

Cheryl’s transportation costs eat up a large portion of her meager budget. She sells Street Spirit to make ends meet. “The paper helps me pay my bills, buy food and helps with transportation costs,” she said. Without Street Spirit, her disabled bus pass and the assistance she receives from Oakland Rehab, she would not be able to get to school and her many doctor’s appointments.

Cheryl must endure many hazards while using public transit. Janny Castillo photo

Not made for the disabled

Cheryl described the shortcomings of the new fancy disabled buses. “The wheelchair lifts are in need of improvement,” she said. “The system they have now; it’s a pain in the butt. The new buses are not even made for the disabled.”

She recalled several times when the bus driver would have such a hard time with the lift; it would malfunction and the bus would become inoperable. “The lifts are not sturdy and seem to tip the bus to the side,” she said. “It’s scary for me and I am afraid that my wheels can get cut. One time I was so unbalanced I was wavering and feared for my life and the seats are ridiculously high. I do not know how our folks with mobility problems can climb up on the high seats.”

Still, there was a time when there was no BART and no wheelchair lifts on the buses. Disabled persons had even fewer transportation opportunities. It’s the right thing that AC Transit and BART take into account our disabled community and provide services to accommodate their needs. It is clear that the equipment and the willingness to help exist; but better design, good maintenance and proper training is needed to provide the quality of service that our disabled community needs and should expect.

City of Berkeley Adopts Transit Equity Resolution

On Tuesday, July 12, the Berkeley City Council adopted a Transit Equity Resolution to support equity for AC Transit riders. Street Spirit has been reporting for the past six months on the struggle for justice and equity for low-income transit riders. This resolution by the Berkeley City Council is an important step forward for greater transit equity for poor people and people of color. The entire resolution is posted at This is an excerpt:
WHEREAS, transportation is fundamental for the ability of Berkeley residents to gain access to necessities of every kind, from jobs to school, and from health care facilities to shops that sell healthy foods; and
WHEREAS, Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) bus service enables Berkeley residents to meet their transportation needs without the use of automobiles, which contribute to worsening air quality, global warming and congested roads and freeways, and which prolong our nation’s extraordinary dependence on fossil fuels; and
WHEREAS, nearly eighty percent of the passengers of AC Transit are people of color, and more than seventy percent of AC Transit’s riders live in households with very-low incomes;
NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the City Council of the City of Berkeley requests of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that it allocate public funds for transit equitably, so that minority and low-income AC Transit passengers receive the same subsidy per transit trip from MTC that MTC provides to other transit operators having wealthier and whiter passengers, and so that AC Transit is able to move forward with the improvements contemplated in its “Strategic Vision.”
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City Council of the City of Berkeley encourages the AC Transit Board of Directors to continue to strive to seek equitable funding from MTC that will lead to improvements of service for the benefit of AC Transit’s minority and low-income passengers.