Palo Alto residents are questioning the lack of benches at Palo Alto Shuttle stops, which they say discourages frail or disabled people from using the free bus service.
The shuttle's two bus routes the Embarcadero and the Crosstown have a combined 71 stops, but there are benches at just 20 of them, according to city planning staff.
That lack has prompted one resident to wage an email campaign seeking a remedy to the problem, which at least one disabilities-rights group said might violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Resident Werner Wadensweiler has lobbied the city for two years to add benches at key locations, such as Rinconada Park, the Lucie Stern Community Center, the Main Library and the Palo Alto Art Center. Wadensweiler, who has a disability, cannot stand for long without pain, he said.
"There are many Palo Alto citizens, especially the elderly or those with an injury or disability, who would love to use the shuttle to visit Town and Country Shopping Center and the library and Art Center but cannot because it is too painful to stand while waiting for a bus.
"Using the shuttle instead of their cars would also help reduce the traffic problem," he said.
Cicely Coetsee, 90, said she struggles to get to the Avenidas senior center for lunch three or four times a week. Sometimes her son drives her to the shuttle stop on Newell Road; at other times she walks. Two weeks ago, she had heart surgery and now takes the shuttle exclusively, which comes once per hour, she said.
But waiting without a seat, even if it's only five minutes, makes the trip burdensome, she said.
"I find myself leaning against the hedge to support myself while I wait, or I lean against the shuttle-bus signpost. I'm an ex-nurse, and I know that I could fall quite easily," she said.
The city has not added more benches along Embarcadero because it borders residential neighborhoods, and some residents are opposed to having benches in front of their homes, said Ruchika Aggarwal, an assistant engineer for the city.
The same issue exists along the Crosstown shuttle route, which runs from the senior-housing complex Stevenson House on Charleston Road, along parts of Kipling Street in south Palo Alto, to Midtown along Middlefield Road, and along Newell Road, Channing Avenue and Lytton Avenue, ending at the downtown Caltrain station.
Benches do exist at key stops: Stevenson House, near the Mitchell Park Library; the Lytton Gardens senior housing and the Avenidas senior center. But large swaths of Kipling, Channing, Newell and Webster Street, where the shuttles pass through residential neighborhoods, lack seating.
Some downtown stops, including one of the closest to Avenidas, also lack a place to sit.
The city has taken some action, however. It added a bench on Newell near the art center about a month ago, Aggarwal said. A bench on Embarcadero Road near Palo Alto High School was added last year. Four benches will be added along the Embarcadero Shuttle route in the next three to four weeks: on Embarcadero westbound at Geng Road, on Iris Way, at Newell near Rinconada Park and at Lytton and Alma Street.
Staff will also assess the need for benches along the Crosstown shuttle route.
But one of Wadensweiler's requested spots, in front of Town & Country, remains under review. The city must assess if it can build a cement pad to support the bench, Aggarwal said.
In addition, the city wants to expand its 14-year-old shuttle service by later this summer, upgrading shuttle stops with new signage, benches and bus shelters, according to city documents.
Brandi Childress, spokeswoman for Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, said the VTA provides benches at many of its stops throughout the county for customer convenience. VTA installs seating at stops used by a good number of people or where two or more routes intersect.
But she added a caveat.
"Benches can cause obstruction to customers with mobile devices, so benches are placed at bus stops that provide an accessible pathway and include wide-enough sidewalks," she said.
Palo Alto City Attorney Molly Stump said the ADA requires that bus stops be placed on firm, stable surfaces with minimum widths and clearances to allow a safe and unobstructed path of travel to board and alight from a bus.
"The relevant standards and guidelines do not speak to seating, and there is no specific requirement for benches or seats at a bus stop. ... The city often goes beyond the minimum requirements of the ADA to ensure access to city programs when it is practical to do so," she said in an email.
"The Palo Alto council and staff are supportive of an effective network of public-transit options throughout the community and have been working actively with VTA and other transit partners to increase routes and ridership," she said.
But if the absence of benches precludes a person's ability to access public services, that could be a violation of the federal act, said Kara Janssen, an attorney with Disabilities Rights Advocates, a Berkeley-based nonprofit organization advancing the civil rights of people with disabilities.
"The ADA does require that all persons with disabilities be able to 'meaningfully access' all (public) programs and services, including bus service. ... If you can't wait for (the bus), you are no longer able to access those services. The ADA covers access to anywhere the bus goes. An even stronger argument is that it could cover where people likely need to go. Would that not mean also a shopping center?" she said.
Seniors represent about half of the average daily ridership on the Crosstown shuttle, according to city data. Combined, the two shuttles serve 140,000 riders annually.