Celebrating a Five-year Victory for Transit Justice!

by Zach

Pop the champagne corks—or the apple Martinelli’s! It’s been five long years of struggle to access buses in my wheelchair and reach a settlement with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and the City and County of San Francisco. The ink is dry, and it’s time to celebrate!

What has this long and arduous litigation accomplished? Actual changes to SFMTA rules, training, website access, disability discrimination reporting process, operator incentive programs and so much more! Both passengers and bus drivers are set to benefit from the hundreds of hours of work I’ve poured into this, fighting not just for my rights, but for all of our rights to enjoy the great public transit this city has to offer.

This lawsuit not only holds SFMTA accountable to its own policies, it also expands protections for disabled riders and eliminates some alleged discriminatory practices that were previously standard practice. Some highlights are that SFMTA has agreed to incorporate content from disabled people into their operator trainings, it will no longer require ramp users to provide their destination when boarding, and it will explore new disability incentive programs to acknowledge drivers who excel at welcoming disabled passengers. The lawsuit also coincided with changes to keep camera footage from buses longer, giving riders more time to access evidence; a new ADA-complaint website; as well as complying with the Transportation Workers Union’s contract to provide annual paid customer service training to drivers. The full settlement text is published on my website, along with lots of videos on YouTube youtube.com/@DisabilityActivismSF. There is also a video of the events that lead to the lawsuit in the presentation I gave for Transit Equity Day 2023 available at youtu.be/rmoQon-6aoA.

Our unhoused disabled neighbors win the most from this settlement, since thousands of San Francisco’s disabled are without permanent shelter or without rights and protections. In my travels around San Francisco, they are most commonly refused boarding or accommodations simply for how they are dressed, how they look or what medical aids and belongings they carry. 

This is also a win for our environment, as public transportation remains the most ecologically friendly solution for travel by far (sorry, Elon) and saves budget, out-of-pocket costs and time over the broken separate but unequal paratransit system.

I started off this journey around 2017, but I was never planning to file a lawsuit or anything like that. As bus operators routinely passed me up, refused to put down the ramp or stop next to the curb, I learned that there was a different kind of San Francisco than the one I experienced back when I could walk. I thought things could be fixed if our officials just knew about the problem and how bad it was out here. 

I started attending dozens of public meetings of every oversight committee there was—Mayor’s Office on Disability, Mayor’s Disability Council, SFMTA Multimodal Accessibility Advisory Committee (say that three times fast), SFMTA Executive Board hearings, and more—articulating the discrimination I was experiencing. I posted videos on YouTube and emailed SFMTA staff. I engaged in a broken ADA complaint system and went to hearings. Sadly, every official ignored me; not a single one communicated any desire to work with me and the bus operators to improve things.

Then, I reached out to the Transportation Workers Union (TWU) Local 250A.

One thing I made sure to do in the beginning of this process was to stress that I support the union. Unions are vital to our survival in an economy where the top three billionaires own more than the bottom 165 million Americans. Say what you want about union dues, bureaucracy or anything else—without unions, this country dies. Unions gave us a minimum wage. Unions gave us the weekend (no, not The Weeknd, that’s something else). Unions gave us New Deal programs, Social Security, Medicare, Veterans support, and oh so much more. Yes, as the song goes, “There Is Power in a Union!”

But in this scenario, I was facing discrimination from union operators. I had to peel the onion, and look beneath the surface. SFMTA appointed “neutral hearing officers” (who are anything but) and worked tirelessly to blame the bus drivers for my misgivings. I didn’t buy it. After all, the city has millions upon millions of dollars to fix this problem, yet City officials were the ones ignoring me.

I began chatting with some union folks and people in the transit activism scene. Eventually I met Roger Marenco; then president of TWU’s Local 250A. Roger isn’t your typical office bureaucrat or public official. He’s got that OG Mission vibe, if you know what I mean: curt with an often stern expression, ready for action, and always emphasizing the correct pronunciation of his last name, “Roger muh-rain-coh.” A no-BS kinda guy who won’t waste a second of your time with flowery talk or soothing words about the weather. Clearly proud of his heritage, proud to be a transit worker and proud to be a San Franciscan.

Back in 2020, before this legal victory, Roger and I sat down for coffee when he came out to my neighborhood to meet me at an accessible place. 

I watched his face as he scrolled the YouTube videos I offered up on my phone; bus drivers yelling at me, passengers cussing at me, operators closing doors in my face, and not pulling up the curb because of my wheelchair. His was a poker face though; he didn’t reveal anything. I was expecting Roger to do the same as every other official had: ignore me, gaslight me, or get really defensive.

But Roger isn’t every other official.

“Which bus routes are these? Which ones are giving you the problems?” he asked. He wanted to solve this immediately. The trouble was, it was a huge problem that spans every bus line in the city, with hundreds of Americans with Disabilities Act discrimination cases coming into 311 every year. Did he want to look like he was fixing it, or put in the elbow grease over months and possibly years to make it really happen?

I learned before long that it was the latter, that Roger was a fighter and a fine example of what I call a “getshitdone-ist.” He attended the Transit Justice meetings at Senior Disability Action, hosted by the wonderful Pi Ra. He took my calls and responded to my emails. He even convinced coworkers to attend those disability meetings to learn our perspective. In this whole process, I learned some pretty interesting things:

  • I learned that disabled people played zero role in the training of bus operators.
  • I learned that less than 1% of the 400-hour new bus operator training is devoted to ADA issues.
  • I learned that bus operators are given fixed cutthroat time schedules that penalize an operator for “going slow” to say—oh, I don’t know—spend an extra 10 minutes to board a wheelchair or an unhoused person who needs the ramp for their walker or laundry cart.
  • I learned that bus operators were being paid a measly $26 per hour—a shockingly low amount for such a dangerous occupation.

The union was the last place I thought I’d receive help, but there it was. Can you say, “unlikely ally?” 

As things progressed, and SFMTA wasn’t budging, it became clear that my last resort was to file a lawsuit. The American with Disabilities Act is a severely limited set of laws that provides us no enforcement mechanism except through the courts. It’s one of the great tragedies of the disability movement today, as we often see people with disabilities or “serial litigants” as the subject of much hatred and disdain in the news, instead of seeing the constant bigotries and discrimination that corrodes our society and segregates us from the communities we love. There are also unusually short time windows to file an ADA lawsuit—in some cases only six months! So if you are thinking of talking to a lawyer to protect your rights, I suggest not to wait.

One sobering realization I found was that nonprofits are often useless in these struggles for civil and human rights. Senior and Disability Action (SDA) was in no way interested, despite the great work they’d done for transit access. “It’s biting off the hand that feeds them,” said the late disabled activist Bob Planthold. Some individuals in the organization gave behind-the-scenes support, but I could not get any kind of official help. 

Fortunately, I found a few attorneys that were very interested. Some couldn’t take the case due to other trials and such, and gave me free guidance. Others, like attorney, mediator, and professional negotiator David Geffen, helped to make a massive impact. 

Credit is also due to SFMTA and the City Attorney’s office for coming to the table. While nothing seemed to get accomplished before, once there was a lawsuit in place, I seemed to have the attention of City departments. I finally got to meet Annette Williams, the head of the SFMTA ADA department, who was surprisingly nice. We had long meetings where we began to flesh out what the issues were, and what some cost-effective solutions might be. 

It’s hard to describe how wonderful that feeling was, to finally be treated like a real human being by the agency for the first time. It reminded me of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous Memphis picket with striking sanitation workers, holding up signs with the simple yet powerful slogan, “I AM A MAN.” 

I wasn’t “speaking truth to power,” sometimes a fruitless exercise (as one friend told me, “power knows the score—to them I’m just an obstacle!”). I was negotiating with power! Reaching to find our collective humanity, for all of us to get away from legal jargon and develop ways to improve transportation for everyone. To SFMTA and the City Attorney’s great credit, they worked with me and we created together some really exciting and positive changes which you can read about here!