The Subject of Wheelchair Access on the buses comes up a lot. Howard Chabner has done a lot of traveling in a wheelchair and has written extensively on the systems he encounters. I asked him about the low-floor buses. His comments are below. He also sent some links to travel articles he wrote with his wife Michele.
Wheelchair Access, by Howard Chabner
Low floor buses are by far the best design, not only for disabled people
but in general. I first experienced them in Paris in 2003. The Parisian buses are great. Michele’s and my articles about wheelchair are attached. I’ve written about these buses. In Spain they also had low floor buses. Also in Italy. Also in London. Some designs are better than others, but they all have in common a ramp instead of the big, clunky, scary lift that is in the old SF Muni buses. In most of the European ones, the ramp retracts under the floor. Much less to go wrong, much quicker to get on and off, much less chance of falling off a ramp than falling off a lift. The new SF buses have a folding ramp, which is even better than a retractable one because the ramp is longer so the angle isn’t as steep, and it’s simpler than a retractable ramp. In Rome a few years ago I also used buses with a folding ramp.
A big advantage of the lowered floor buses is the center of gravity is much lower, so the ride is smoother and the buses can go quicker. Also, it’s easier for everyone to get on and off, making the whole process faster. One trade-off, perhaps, is that there are fewer seats and more places for people to stand. But in my experience over various cities, younger and more able-bodied people give up their seats to older, frail people who need them.
I believe that the ride on the low floor buses in SF is not quite as smooth as in Paris, London, etc. I’ve talked to a few drivers who say that this is due to a lot of the motor and electrical stuff being on the roof of the SF Muni buses, instead of below. Essentially they are a bit top-heavy. This may be changing in the next generation of buses. But even so, the ride is much better than on the old high floor buses in SF Muni. Over the past couple of years almost all of the 5 Fulton buses are low floor. The 21 Hayes is still the old clunky high floor buses. Typically I will take the 5 Fulton for that reason, plus it’s more direct and faster from downtown than the 21 Hayes.
Another advantage of low floor buses is that there can be a lot more window space, so the bus feels more open, more sunny, and one can see the outside world better.
Although some low floor designs are better than others, and there are trade-offs, my sense is that the world is moving away from high floor buses to low floor buses.