Thursday, July 03, 2008

Houston Transit Adventures

I've returned from the Houston trip, which was both fun and productive. On the whole, I discovered that Houston is far more appealing than I might have expected, partly because both the collector who invited me and the colleague with whom I stayed went out of their ways to show me around. The Houston area is very green, which always makes a good impression on me (not that I don't like deserts too), and the weather wasn't even boiling hot.
I did see one glaring problem while I was there, however: wheelchair access on buses.
Since I'm not in a wheelchair and don't currently have friends or family (that I know of) in one, I don't spend a lot of time contemplating wheelchair access. I had not paid great attention to advances in bus technology other than to observe that for quite awhile San Francisco has had "kneeling" buses (I wasn't hugely impressed with how that worked but didn't see it in action all that regularly) and that Pittsburgh buses have a very efficient system for loading and unloading wheelchairs.
On the one day that I took the bus in from Clear Lake to downtown Houston, a wheelchair passenger loaded at my stop, which was a large Park-and-Ride facility. The loading was not all that remarkable except that the bus had to be carefully aligned with a specific spot on the pavement or sidewalk, which the bus driver couldn't really see because the wheelchair door was in the center of the bus. An astonishing number of seats had to be folded up, however.
We were soon on our way, and the wheelchair passenger was soon involved in conversation with another passenger who had been studying her Organic Chemistry. It turned out that both of them intend to go to medical school, so they quizzed one another on organic chemistry and discussed their plans.
The faults of the Houston bus became evident when we reached downtown and the wheelchair had to be unloaded. I was seated directly behind, so I had a good view of all the machinations.
I should note that both the San Francisco and Pittsburgh buses put their passengers relatively close to the ground. There are still steps up, which is what their wheelchair mechanisms eliminate, but the passenger does not feel abnormally far from the pavement. The Houston bus was the kind where passengers sit very high, more as you would expect in a bus with a big luggage compartment under them. It was a little unnerving going on the many freeway bridges and having the sensation of teetering on the edge of a cliff. In any case, the altitude of the passenger area meant that the wheelchair probably had to go up and down about four feet. There was a lot of equipment, there were all sorts of controls, and it was rapidly clear that the driver had no idea how to operate any of this.
The driver fiddled with the controls and the ramp for what must have been close to half an hour before agreeing to get help (we were right by the transit center), which acutely embarrassed the unfortunate wheelchair passenger and made him late for his meeting. Fortunately the few people who were left on the bus at that point were in no hurry, and only one person bothered to get off and walk. I was pretty sure my stop was the next one, but I wanted to see how the incident ended; another passenger said that after spending three hours on an airport runway the day before, spending awhile in an airconditioned bus was no big deal.
The wheelchair was ultimately safely unloaded, but we were all made very aware that Houston needs to improve its wheelchair acess on public transit. I was not at all impressed with the complicated machinery on the bus, but it did ultimately work, so as Houston has already bought these buses, the drivers had better be properly trained to operate the wheelchair lifts. There was no excuse for such an incident.
My colleague, who graduated from my department a couple of years ago and thus knows the Pittsburgh buses well, said that Houston has a considerably younger population and thus fewer people who need wheelchair access. She did not think this was any excuse, but it is why the city has gotten away with poor wheelchair access. We agreed that Houston has got some nice bits of public transit (the light rail in the city is good, assuming it goes where you're going) but definitely needs to expand the light rail, develop more options for suburban commuters, and fix the wheelchair problem.
Our Pittsburgh buses don't seem like anything special (even if they do have multilingual greetings plastered all over them, which is a nice touch), but I have a new appreciation for how smoothly the drivers load and unload wheelchair passengers on a daily basis. Our main type of problem with wheelchairs is that often the 71A inbound can't pick up a wheelchair passenger because it already has one onboard and the bus is packed to the gills with standees. We could use a few more buses on that 71A route, okay?

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