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Infested BART: Inspection Reports Reveal Serious Pest Problems

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by Beth Winegarner
September 12, 2012

Trying to keep BART stations clean is akin to bailing out the Titanic with a shot glass.

For starters, you’ve got folks using elevators and escalators as their own personal toilets. Then there are the rats and the pigeons, skittering and swooping and excreting willy-nilly. It’s enough to drive a station agent bonkers, as we discovered recently when we examined a stack of station inspection reports.

June 12, 24th Street station: “RAT PROBLEMS MAJOR RAT PROBLEMS.”

June 18: “CAN WE JUST SIMPLY GET SOME MORE RAT TRAPS PLEASE.”

June 19: “RATS RATS RATS.”

June 25: “Greeted this morning by the residential rat. Then a few early morning passengers (older females) were startled (she says it nearly gave her a heart attack) by two (2) rats (not mice). Rats running up down the stairs playing in the plaza (her words).”

June 26: “RATS ARE STILL TAKING OVER THIS STATION”

Twice a day, BART station agents report how well service workers are keeping the concourse, platform, stairs, and conveyances clean. There are 20 separate chores each day, from wiping escalator rails to mopping platforms, says BART spokesman Jim Allison.

Station agents file these reports to provide an objective look at service workers’ performance. But the demands of coping with tense BART customers can leave agents feeling less than copacetic — hence the theatrics, Allison says. “Some are obviously upset about what’s going on at that station, and maybe emotions are running high when they write the reports.”

While investigating BART’s elevator-tinkler woes, SF Weekly requested a month’s worth of inspection reports for San Francisco stations. The results revealed a BART computer glitch preventing 13 days’ worth of inspections being reported (which they fixed once we inadvertently alerted them to it), 22 soiled elevators in the remaining 17 days, and a wildlife population that would pique Jeff Corwin‘s interest.

And it isn’t just the rats.

On June 5, at Powell, the agent reported, “Pigeons are nesting, having babies throughout the station.” There was so much pigeon poop, the report stated, that passengers were slipping around in it.

Throughout the month, agents at Colma station begged for more pigeon-proofing measures, pigeon-dung cleanup, and “DO NOT FEED THE PIGEONS” signs, which are not standard in BART stations. Rats are not an ongoing problem, and when they arise, BART hires an exterminator to set out traps, Allison says. Pigeons, on the other hand, are regular denizens of the transit system, prompting plenty of counter-measures.

“Pigeons are pretty resourceful birds, and they find a ways around a lot of the anti-pigeon measures,” including nets, spikes and barriers, he says. He doubted anti-feeding signs would be added: “There is probably more important information we need to convey to customers.”

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 12, 2012 at 11:16 PM

Surprise: BART Elevators Are Filthy and Poorly Serviced

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by Beth Winegarner
July 11, 2012

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.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

July 11, 2012 at 10:23 PM

Fare Hack: Exploiting a Clipper Card Flaw Is Easy

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by Beth Winegarner
Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Not that we think you would, but with a visit to Radio Shack you could hack into that Clipper card in your wallet, allowing you to load it with free rides or create and sell copies for profit — and funnel money away from the Bay Area’s crash-strapped public-transit agencies.

What it would take: an oscilloscope, an antenna, a transponder, a bit of know-how, and about seven hours.

That’s according to David Oswald, a Ph.D. student in IT security at the Ruhr University of Bochum in Germany, who broke the encryption in Clipper and similar transit cards last year. Clipper cards contain a chip that uses radio signals to talk to fare gates and the transponders on buses, making it easy to “eavesdrop” on the conversation.”It’s comparable to a professional thief who can open a safe by listening to the mechanical clicks of the lock. In our case, we are listening to electromagnetic fields,” says Oswald.

From there, a hacker can narrow down which key will break the encryption and gain access to the information on the chip. Lest you think it takes an IT degree to read the data, the Farebot app for Android phones lets you peek at the travel history and balance on your own card — or anyone else’s nearby.

The vulnerability poses “a severe threat to the security of real-world systems” that use the chip, Oswald wrote in a paper published in October.

Cubic Transportation Systems, the company that supplies Clipper cards, downplays the finding. “Cubic continually monitors card activity to determine if unauthorized modifications have been made,” says Derick Benoit, vice president of customer services.

However, Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin says card-cloning is possible. That’s a problem, since Andres Townes, a former employee of Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and later Cubic, was indicted for selling millions of dollars’ worth of cloned magnetic-stripe transit cards on Craigslist. Townes kicked off his alleged racket in 2007, before Cubic took over the MBTA’s transit-card system, but wasn’t arrested until 2011 — well after Cubic got involved.

The MTC has asked Cubic to finesse the Clipper system in light of Oswald’s findings, and Cubic is “considering this request,” Goodwin said. Cubic also plans to use a new, less-vulnerable chip in Clipper cards this year, but that still leaves over 1 million weaker cards in circulation.

“No smart card is, or will ever be, absolutely 100 percent hack-proof,” Goodwin said. “The goal is to stay at least one step ahead of the people that would look to take advantage of discovered vulnerabilities.”

That’s easier than staying out of cities with Radio Shacks.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

February 1, 2012 at 9:42 PM

Posted in San Francisco, Transit

New low-income apartments planned near Caltrain station

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
August 16, 2006

A plan to build 60 affordable apartments next to the Hillsdale Caltrain station demonstrates just how difficult it can be to create living space for low-income workers on the Peninsula.

San Mateo will loan $5.3 million to the Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition to purchase land at 2901 and 2905 South El Camino Real, the current home of a Goodyear tire shop next to the rail corridor and across from the Hillsdale Shopping Center.

The San Mateo City Council on Monday unanimously approved the loan, which Mid-Peninsula Housing will use to purchase the one-acre site while it raises more money to demolish existing buildings and design and build a mixed-use site with ground-floor retail and up to 64 apartments for families, according to Mid-Peninsula Housing President Fran Wagstaff.

“That’s what it costs for one acre,” Wagstaff said. “That’s why it’s so hard to build anything.”

It is also rare for landowners along El Camino Real — one of the few regions zoned for multifamily housing — to sell their properties. When they do, agencies like Mid-Peninsula Housing often compete with condominium developers for parcels, and the buyer with the most money frequently wins, according to Wagstaff.

In 1999, the Association of Bay Area Governments recommended that the city of San Mateo create 2,437 new affordable units by 2006, including residences for low-income renters and buyers. By 2006, San Mateo had built 1,276.

“Even at the greatest theoretical densities, this project will be maybe 60 units,” said Robert Muehlbauer, San Mateo’s neighborhood improvement and housing manager. “When you compare that with the hundreds that are needed, it’s a struggle; where does the money come from?”

San Mateo’s loan was cobbled together from redevelopment agency funds plus federal and state grants for very low-income rentals. When the El Camino project is built, all of its apartments will be guaranteed to rent at below-market rates for 55 years, according to Vice Mayor Jack Matthews.

Despite the difficulty in creating such projects, the site is seen as ideal for work force housing, since it is located where the Hillsdale Caltrain station will be moved as a part of the Bay Meadows Phase II Redevelopment, according to Bay Meadows Land Company spokesman Adam Alberti.

The new multimodal station will have four tracks and pathways for easy pedestrian and bicycle access.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 16, 2006 at 10:13 PM

Posted in Housing, San Mateo, Transit

Teen’s friends call for Caltrain fence

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
May 3, 2006

Family and friends of a Burlingame teen killed by a train gathered Tuesday to remember him and urge Caltrain to install more fencing and barriers along the rail corridor.

Burlingame Intermediate School student Fatih Kuc, 13, died April 18 after being struck by a train south of the Broadway train station. About 75 people attended Tuesday’s event, organized by the Kurdish-American Cultural Center.

“We want Caltrain to build fences so that we can stop digging graves,” said John Akkaya, president of the cultural center and a Kuc family friend. Fatih’s death was the seventh on the train tracks in 2006, one of three deemed accidental.

Fatih’s uncle, Metin Kuc, remembered the boy as a “wonderful kid” with a passion for soccer and singing Turkish songs. Fatih’s father, Ali, came to America from Turkey 20 years ago and raised the money to bring his wife, son and two daughters here in 1997.

“I don’t know how we’re going to recover from this,” Kuc said. “We want to make sure he’s the last to die on these train tracks.”

Kuc read a letter from Fatih’s sister, Selma, in which she pledged to carry out all the dreams she and her brother had planned when he was alive. “You are my hero,” she wrote.

Mayor Cathy Baylock attended, in part because her son was one of Fatih’s classmates. “It’s devastating,” she said of the death. “So many kids were touched by this [accident], they’re never going to forget it. If there’s any silver lining, this has taught them a lesson.”

Baylock is organizing a meeting May 11 with the Burlingame Traffic Safety Parking Commission to discuss increased safety along the rail corridor, which Caltrain officials have been invited to attend.

Caltrain officials Monday announced a new safety campaign, “Don’t Shortcut Life,” aimed at making sure locals are aware of rail-related dangers, according to spokesman Jonah Weinberg. During the campaign, Caltrain will work with local schools to teach students about train safety, and will work with Peninsula city officials to identify places where pedestrians frequently take shortcuts across the tracks.

“You should always assume a train is coming, even if you can’t see it,” Weinberg said. Because of their weight, it takes most of the rail service’s trains one-fourth to one-half mile to stop completely. “Our engineers do slam on the brakes, but it’s almost wishful thinking.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

May 3, 2006 at 1:48 AM

Teen’s friends call for Caltrain fence

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
May 2, 2006

Family and friends of a Burlingame teen killed by a train gathered Tuesday to remember him and urge Caltrain to install more fencing and barriers along the rail corridor.

Burlingame Intermediate School student Fatih Kuc, 13, died April 18 after being struck by a train south of the Broadway train station. About 75 people attended Tuesday’s event, organized by the Kurdish-American Cultural Center.

“We want Caltrain to build fences so that we can stop digging graves,” said John Akkaya, president of the cultural center and a Kuc family friend. Fatih’s death was the seventh on the train tracks in 2006, one of three deemed accidental.

Fatih’s uncle, Metin Kuc, remembered the boy as a “wonderful kid” with a passion for soccer and singing Turkish songs. Fatih’s father, Ali, came to America from Turkey 20 years ago and raised the money to bring his wife, son and two daughters here in 1997.

“I don’t know how we’re going to recover from this,” Kuc said. “We want to make sure he’s the last to die on these train tracks.”

Kuc read a letter from Fatih’s sister, Selma, in which she pledged to carry out all the dreams she and her brother had planned when he was alive. “You are my hero,” she wrote.

Mayor Cathy Baylock attended, in part because her son was one of Fatih’s classmates. “It’s devastating,” she said of the death. “So many kids were touched by this [accident], they’re never going to forget it. If there’s any silver lining, this has taught them a lesson.”

Baylock is organizing a meeting May 11 with the Burlingame Traffic Safety Parking Commission to discuss increased safety along the rail corridor, which Caltrain officials have been invited to attend.

Caltrain officials Monday announced a new safety campaign, “Don’t Shortcut Life,” aimed at making sure locals are aware of rail-related dangers, according to spokesman Jonah Weinberg. During the campaign, Caltrain will work with local schools to teach students about train safety, and will work with Peninsula city officials to identify places where pedestrians frequently take shortcuts across the tracks.

“You should always assume a train is coming, even if you can’t see it,” Weinberg said. Because of their weight, it takes most of the rail service’s trains one-fourth to one-half mile to stop completely. “Our engineers do slam on the brakes, but it’s almost wishful thinking.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

May 2, 2006 at 10:30 PM

Posted in Burlingame, Transit

Coroner identifies woman killed on train tracks

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
February 3, 2006

Residents at a Samson Street apartment building left flowers Thursday by the door of their longtime neighbor, Bonnie Heitz, who was remembered as a “kind-hearted person.”

Heitz, 58, lived in her Redwood City apartment for 35 years and commuted every day to her job at the Kelly-Moore Paint Co., according to longtime friend Mark Mitsch. She was crossing the Caltrain tracks at Brewster Avenue on her way to a bus stop Wednesday morning when she was struck and killed by an oncoming train.

“It’s affected our whole building — she lived here for so long,” Mitsch said. Neighbors were leaving flowers by Heitz’s door yesterday in a makeshift memorial.

Heitz leaves behind a brother, James, who lives in the East Bay, along with a pet cat named Chantilly, who Mitsch will likely wind up adopting. She liked gardening and was a very social, very protective person.

“She was like my cop,” Mitsch said. “She kept a watch out when I wasn’t there.”

Heitz’s death raises questions about rail safety and the barriers Caltrain has in place to keep people off the tracks.

Most of those who die on the Caltrain tracks are people seeking suicide. Others are killed thinking they can beat the train, either on foot or in a car, according to Jonah Weinberg, spokesman for the San Mateo County Transit District. That’s what happened in Heitz’s case.

Although all crossings have arms that block vehicles, and some have secondary arms that block sidewalks, people still find ways to cross the tracks whether or not trains are coming, according to Weinberg. Fences have been installed along some portions of the tracks, but people cut through them.

“In an ideal world, it would be impossible for people to get on the rails,” Weinberg said. “Right now, there’s no way to keep people off them.”

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

Written by Beth Winegarner

February 3, 2006 at 9:03 PM

Posted in Redwood City, Transit

Will downtown revival leave cyclists in the dust?

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
July 13, 2005

As Redwood City moves ahead with plans that will draw thousands to the city, some bicyclists are wondering where those plans leave them.

This week, the City Council adopted a plan to re-stripe Jefferson Avenue between Middlefield Road and Marshall Street to make it safer for drivers and pedestrians, but some have said the plan ignores — or even endangers — bicyclists.

Proposed curb bulb-outs, which narrow the roadway and make it safer for pedestrians to cross, force bicyclists to swerve into traffic, resident David Minche said. Adding angled parking on the east side of Jefferson means cars will now be backing into traffic.

Although some have suggested that the city add a bike lane while Jefferson is being reconfigured, traffic engineer Rich Haygood insisted that won’t be necessary.

“Bicycles will be able to travel at a safe speed along with the traffic,” he said.

“I feel safer cycling in a bike lane — even on a four-lane road,” said resident Billy James.

At a June forum held by the Friends of Redwood City, traffic discussions lingered on the city’s bikeability. Many residents spoke in favor of adding more bike lanes and widening existing bike lanes.

Some pointed out that the Jefferson Avenue underpass connecting Sequoia Station and El Camino Real to the new retail-cinema complex doesn’t offer a bike route, making it difficult for residents to cycle to the movies.

However, a current map of suggested bike paths recommends Jefferson between El Camino Real and Alameda de las Pulgas.

“In reality, that’s terrifying,” said Kathy Schrenk, a member of the Redwood City Bicycle Coalition, an ad-hoc residents group consulting with the city on future general-plan amendments.

Although Redwood City does have some designated bike routes along Alameda de las Pulgas, Hopkins Avenue and Arguello Street, it suffers because those lanes aren’t connected to each other, Schrenk said.

“Things are pretty disjointed, especially if you want to get north or south on El Camino, which for some people can be pretty intimidating,” Schrenk said.

In addition to connecting the city’s bike routes, Schrenk said bicyclists need to come up with their own map of recommended routes.

Schrenk and others have been meeting regularly with city planner Gary Bonte to direct amendments to the city’s general plan, which is currently under review.

“We are trying to get more people out of their cars,” Bonte said.

Bonte and coalition members are working on ways to link Redwood City’s bike paths with each other, with routes in other cities and with the Bay Trail.

Eventually, the plan is to build a north-south commuter bikeway from San Francisco to San Jose that would connect with most of the Peninsula cities’ downtown areas, Bonte said.

Creating safe bike routes means striping the streets, erecting signs and making sure streets are in good repair. Potholes and grates that don’t pose a problem for cars are obstacles for cyclists.

It also means making tricky intersections, such as the one at Woodside and Middlefield roads, safer for bicyclists, and using traffic-calming measures to slow drivers down, Bonte said.

In Palo Alto, city officials have established a series of bicycle boulevards, striped city streets to make way for cyclists and even adapted bike-friendly signaling.

But those kinds of programs cost money, Bonte cautioned.

“We want to encourage more nonmotorized transportation. The question is, How do we get there?” Bonte said.

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

Written by Beth Winegarner

July 13, 2005 at 8:56 PM

Popular shuttle rides into the sunset

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
June 12, 2005

San Carlos’ city-run shuttle, SCOOT, will ride off into the sunset this week, leaving city residents and officials scrambling to come up with transportation alternatives.

SCOOT, short for San Carlos Optimum Operational Transit, was founded three years ago to relieve gridlock at busy intersections around the city. The City Council has voted to drop the program, however, because feels it can no longer support SCOOT’s budget — which runs $700,000 to $900,000 a year, according to Brian Moura, assisstant city manager.

A $59 parcel tax, intended to pay for the free shuttle, failed at the polls in March.

SCOOT operates nine regular routes that run between 6 a.m. and 6:45 p.m., and offers door-to-door service by request. By the end of last year, SCOOT was supporting between 15,000 and 17,000 riders per month, according to city surveys.

Because so many congested intersections were near schools, SCOOT has become a resource for San Carlos students. Traffic at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center went from service level F, the worst possible, to service level C after shuttle service began, Moura said.

SCOOT is also used by seniors, many of whom have flooded the city’s phone lines in recent weeks, asking officials to replace it with another service.

“It has provided a tremendous amount of independence to our seniors and youth, and brought back a sense of neighborhood,” Mayor Inge Tiegel Doherty said. Many friendships have been made on the shuttle, she added.

Charlie Raisor, a 9-year-old Brittan Acres student, rides SCOOT every day. “It’s fun,” he said, adding that he hasn’t yet figured out how he will get to school next fall.

Riding SCOOT is clearly a bonding experience between Raisor and 10-year-old Jacob Toms; they talk and play all the way home from school. Toms doesn’t like the older students who ride with them in the afternoons. “There are a lot of mean kids,” he said.

The students greet driver Bill Wood like an old friend as they board SCOOT each afternoon. Wood, a former limousine driver, said he loves driving — and will have to find another source of income when SCOOT shuts down next week.

SCOOT has enabled many parents to send their children to schools outside their immediate area, according to San Carlos School District Board President Mark Olbert.

“It’s too bad, but I can certainly understand the community not wanting to pay for something that is not used by a lot of people,” Olbert said.

The district held its first community roundtable last week to discuss other methods for transporting students without returning to gridlock. If they can’t find alternatives, “the intersection Alameda and Dartmouth will revert to being a disaster at 8 in the morning,” Olbert said.

Police suggested increasing traffic patrols to make parents feel safer letting kids walk or bike to school, said school board member Norm Whiteley. However, a recent survey performed by the district showed that most parents preferred to drive kids to school.

Doherty is forming an ad-hoc task force to study shuttle options that will meet over the next three months to discuss ways to maintain limited shuttle service in San Carlos. One option is to find a donated van and a volunteer driver, Moura said.

The task force may also study whether another parcel tax vote makes sense. Consultants found strong support for a $39 tax to cover part of the cost of SCOOT; asking for $59 was “one of the worst decisions that we, as a council, made,” Doherty said.

If that happens, they will need to overcome naysayers like former City Council Member John Hoffman, who doesn’t support SCOOT’s current structure or the parcel tax.

“I think providing a free lunch for everybody and doing it in a Rolls Royce way is simply too wasteful,” Hoffman said. He cited Palo Alto’s shuttle, which serves a larger city with a single route at half the cost of SCOOT, as an alternative model.

But Doherty and others are reluctant to cut back on the service that won the city a Helen Putnam award in 2004.

“We’re supporting a tremendous number of riders,” she said. “If we were able to do something for less, it wouldn’t be the same.”

SCOOT’s last day is June 17.

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

Written by Beth Winegarner

June 12, 2005 at 9:19 PM

Posted in San Carlos, Transit