Every night when Juma Muhammad comes home, his wife scrubs his wheelchair's wheels with bleach before he rolls through the door. It keeps him from tracking human waste across the floors where his 16-month-old son plays, but it doesn't protect him from skin infections he believes come from riding BART's germ-ridden elevators.
Bathrooms in 12 BART stations — including four along Market Street — have been locked since 9/11. Instead, some folks use BART's elevators as Porta-Potties, grossing out wheelchair-users, cyclists, parents with strollers, and anyone else requiring the lifts.
Muhammad, who regularly rolls through Civic Center station, wears latex gloves in the elevators but still got a severe facial infection after touching the buttons.
"This is a big public-safety issue," says Jessie Lorenz, executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco (ILRCSF). "They say if there's a problem to call the station agent, but they're left dirty. It's obviously not a priority."
BART has 22 to 33 service workers on duty at any time, four of whom are assigned to the downtown stations. One of their jobs is to scrub the elevators twice daily, plus whenever they're fouled, says spokesman Jim Allison.
"Nowhere is the quality of your work showcased better than in the elevator, where there is a virtual 'captive audience,'" says a page from the BART service workers' handbook. "John Q. Public should be able to ride our elevators without worrying about stepping on trash, foul odors, or rolling over unknown substances." Mopping, deodorant soaps, and Lysol ensue.
The problem actually predates the 2001 terrorist attacks. Berkeley's Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) led a class-action lawsuit against BART in 1998 over elevators' frequent breakdowns and feculence.
"When we brought our case, 50 percent of the time, people who needed to use the elevators were encountering filth," says Larry Paradis, DRA's executive director. "They had floors rotted out from all the urine."
These days, BART doesn't track how often elevators are defiled or unavailable during cleanup. It does offer free tokens for the public loos on Market Street — another condition of the DRA settlement. Although there are eight restrooms within walking distance of downtown stations, they're frequently broken or dirty.
ILRCSF has pushed for more cameras in elevators, helping BART police catch tinklers in the act. Violators face a $250 fine and up to two days of community service, Allison says.
It may be security theater, but BART plans to keep the bathrooms closed indefinitely. Meanwhile, Muhammad has dealt with the problem his own way: His wife now drives him to work.