East Bay | SF City Life

Missing the Train

THE PROBLEM WITH BART

BART is on everyone’s mind right now, and not in a good way. In 2010, a few years after BART’s 50th anniversary, the transit system is closely associated with controversy and mismanagement, and at the same time it is more essential than ever to people’s daily lives in the Bay Area. BART’s presence in the headlines consists of the shooting of an unarmed passenger by a BART police officer, the loss of $70 million in federal funding for non-compliance with the Civil Rights Act, and the giveaway of a $2.3 million surplus to passengers in a fare-reduction that will save riders pennies while wasting funds that could be put to good use. Meanwhile, with Bay Bridge tolls rising sharply – from $4 to $6 per car during peak hours and $5 on weekends, and from free to $2.50 for carpools – more and more Bay residents are bound to be considering riding BART.

Stop to stop, city to city, the BART system is part of the connective tissue that holds us together in the Bay Area. We know it’s expensive, it’s limited, it has a trigger-happy police force and a staff of public employees making six figures a year. But unlike SF MUNI, AC Transit, and other regional transit systems in the Bay Area, BART is wide-ranging, reliable, and best of all, fast. So we rely on it. I ride it nearly every day, to get to work, to visit friends, to get from neighborhood to neighborhood. And at this 50 year mark, myself and many other riders are asking for more. BART works; its principal shortcoming is that there is simply not enough of it.

Riders are asking for more: more trains, later schedules, more stations, more access for different communities, more safety, more sanity, and more vision. What is BART’s problem? Is it a lack of imagination, political will, money, or physical infrastructure? Or a combination of all of them? This is my admittedly biased look at the problem with BART, or rather, several problems with related causes and solutions. I have a few suggestions, too. You should take them with a grain of salt, since I am admittedly no expert. If they are flawed, I hope at least they can fuel the discussion – a discussion we need more of.

GUNS, TASERS, AND PUBLIC SAFETY

We’re all familiar with the events on New Year’s Eve 2009, when at the Fruitvale Bart Station, BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle shot unarmed 22-year old passenger Oscar Grant in the back, killing him. After passenger-documented videos posted online became an internet phenomenon, the slaying sparked public outrage, including a protest shutting down the Fruitvale Station and continuing into Downtown Oakland, where demonstratators smashed windows and lit cars on fire. Witnesses to the shooting claimed they were beaten and illegally detained, and sued BART. Grant’s family sued, and received a settlement a year later.

In ’09 and ’10, Oscar Grant’s picture became ubiquitous in Oakland, appearing in store windows and apartment windows. The public clearly felt that the young African-American shot on the BART train by a white officer spoke to their experience. Grant became an icon, a symbol, and the media followed Mehserle’s verdict with the expectation of more unrest in Oakland. When it came down as “involuntary manslaughter” – many were hoping Mehserle would be charged with murder –there was a mostly peaceful response, with pleas by Grant’s family to keep it quiet. There was some rioting that followed, but of the 78 people arrested, presumably mostly for property damage, only 19 of them were Oakland residents.

What was BART’s response to all this? In the days after the shooting, the agency managed to react at least somewhat competently. BART cooperated with local authorities in Alameda County to give them the means to charge Mehserle with murder. BART called together a committee to respond to “major police events.” And BART quickly suspended BART Officer Tony Pirone, the racial-epithet spewing cop who violently escalated the situation between Grant and the police with displays of unnecessary force. The man whose knee was on Grant’s neck when Grant was shot. But BART continued to pay Pirone’s salary for over a year before getting around to firing him. Pirone collected over $100,000 while BART was figuring out what to do. BART also paid other officers connected to the shooting who were on administrative leave.

In the wake of the verdict, a year and a half after the incident, BART has yet to respond significantly to the shooting death of Oscar Grant. Evidently because Mehserle confused his taser with his gun (many remain skeptical of this claim by Mehserle’s defense) BART leadership has gone back and forth on the taser issue, revoking the use of them and then allowing them, then recently recalling them again after a BART officer tased a 13-year-old boy for the grave crime of hopping a turnstile.

Here’s my first suggestion: if BART wants to address the concerns of thousands of citizens and riders in the wake of the Mehserle trial, how about a comprehensive program for training all BART Police in non-violent conflict resolution or some other professional training that will instruct them how not to taze, shoot, wrongly detain, beat, or otherwise mistreat passengers? I am sure there are organizations and non-profits that could assist BART in educating its police force. It’s not like BART can’t afford it.

TAKE OUR MONEY, PLEASE

BART’s problem isn’t money. They have so much, they don’t know what to do with it. Otherwise why would the visionaries on the BART board temporarily reduce fares by an insignificant amount, saving riders pennies over weeks and months, rather than take the initiative to do something with their $2.3 million in spare cash? The money comes from a $4.5 million surplus that the BART board divvied up into unimpressive improvements such as car cleaning (the cars always seem pretty clean to me, but I rode MUNI for years so maybe I have low standards).

Now, I’m just as willing as the next person to get a deal at the turnstile. A permanent fare reduction would allow Bart to extend access to people who need it and can’t afford it. That might even help their civil rights problem (more on that later), part of which is surely equal access in the community. But a temporary reduction is just stupid. Bart riders I have asked indicate that they won’t even notice the 3% fare reduction, and would rather have the money used to improve the system or expand service.

There are many good uses for this money. As I mentioned before, they could retrain their law enforcement staff to restrain their use of force. Another potential use would be employing a temporary staff to go into stations and gather feedback, interviewing passengers to get their feedback. Since BART framed their temporary fare reduction as an “economic stimulus” wouldn’t it be better to actually give a few people jobs, at least for a while? The most obvious, and boring, use for the money is just to save it so that future, permanent fare increases can be avoided or at least postponed. But that wouldn’t give our officials on the BART board much to talk about come election time. Better for them to make a big deal out of the five bucks they saved you in 2010.

CIVIL RIGHTS AND PUBLIC OUTREACH

BART has a civil rights problem. The Obama Administration thinks so anyway. BART lost $70 million in federal stimulus funds earlier this year when the Feds found them in non-compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. BART wanted to use the money to build an extension to Oakland Airport, and the Obama administration took a look at BART’s plan–and perhaps other things about BART that a Google search might reveal as unimpressive – and said no. You have to applaud, really. The extension from the Coliseum station to the Oakland Airport would cost half a billion at current estimates. Given how these things go, let’s round it on up to a billion. Social justice groups filed the Title VI complaint with the Feds, claiming that the extension is a misuse of public money that would serve a small, affluent group of Bay Area residents, and that the BART system could put the funds to much better use if its intention is to serve all Bay Area communities.

BART’s response is defiant. They plan to go ahead with the Oakland Airport connector anyway, cobbling together the funding from various sources, without federal help. In a way, I understand. Would it be a bad thing for Oakland Airport to connect with BART? Of course not. Yet most Bay Area residents, myself included, fly in and out of SFO. The BART access to the SF airport is great, but here’s the thing: it’s not why I fly in and out of SFO. It’s because when looking at flights, I’m looking for the cheapest tickets and so I want to biggest airport with the most direct flights. And in the Bay Area, that’s SFO.

If BART were to really go out and ask people who ride the system on a daily basis what they think BART needs, I guarantee you that a connection to the Oakland Airport would not be first, or even tenth, on their list of priorities. Deep down, I’m sure the BART board knows this, and if so, that would explain why their efforts at getting public feedback are a big waste of money, a half-assed effort at getting the public’s opinion and involvement.

In what the Oakland Tribune called a “case study of government bureaucracy run amok,” BART is holding a series of outreach meetings to get community input. The poorly publicized meetings are so ill-attended that the Tribune estimated BART spent $375 per person at the meeting. BART is blowing through $1.2 million, having held 53 meetings so far. I ride the BART every day, and I was unaware BART was even having public input meetings. If there were, say, posters in the BART stations advertising them, I don’t see how I could have missed them.

I certainly never miss the enormous ads in BART’s stations. If BART was serious about getting public feedback, there’s many ways they could go about it for that kind of money. Start with advertising the outreach meetings. Then cut the number of meetings in half, and spend some of the half million left on hiring a small army of temporary workers, sporting BART logo t-shirts and armed with voice recorders and clipboards, to go out into the stations and document riders’ viewpoints, priorities, and requests.

Maybe this would violate some of BART’s union contracts. If so, a half mil is still a good bit of money to throw around. You could even pay a lucky handful of feedback-gatherers six-figure salaries, as far as that took you, and I bet that after a few weeks you’d have more substantive feedback than what comes out of dozens of these meetings. BART’s meetings are bound to be attended mostly by people with an agenda of their own and an axe to grind. Ask every-day transit riders for their big ideas, and I’ll tell you what they’ll say. They’ll ask for trains more often, for space for bikes, for real discounts for regular riders and college students, and more accessible discount tickets for children, seniors, and the disabled. And they’ll ask for something else too – something that I would ask for and have long wished for – late-night service.

PLEASE DON’T STOP!

Why do the trains stop at midnight when our lives don’t? In a sort of transit-enforced curfew, the stations shut down and tell us to go to sleep. But why should the Bay Area go to sleep? In New York doesn’t the subway run all night? Trains run around the clock in Chicago, too. And Philadelphia. Not to mention outside the U.S., in London and Copenhagen. Many stations around the world run all-night trains on the weekends, including Berlin, Stockholm, Vienna, and Warsaw. Barcelona’s trains run all-night Saturday. Why is it that our trains don’t run all night, or even late on the weekends?

While it’s nowhere on the map in terms of political issues one hears discussed in the news, the dream of a 24-hour BART came back to me in the form of a very active and popular Facebook page. Nate Payne, a young candidate for the SF Board of Supervisors in the district representing the Tenderloin, started the “Make BART Trains Run 24 Hours” Facebook page in January 2010. The page soon exploded in popularity, winning 17,830 supporters. The page has become an active forum for BART users, with people sounding off on all the issues discussed in this article, and many more. It has the energy of a grassroots campaign, and with this fresh impulse behind it, and increasingly frequent articles asking with frustration why the Bay Area doesn’t have 24-hour BART service, it seems that this is an issue whose time has come.

Time for some highly speculative calculations. What would it actually cost? To estimate BART’s operating cost per hour, I took 168 hours in a week minus 34 hours in maintenance down-time, to get 134 hours a week of operating time over 52 weeks, or 6,968 hours of operating time. Divide that into the 08-09 budget of $558,609,478 in operating expenses, and it costs somewhere around $80,000 per hour to run the entire BART system. That means the $2.3 million surplus that BART is handing back to ticket buyers could be used to run the system an additional 28 hours a year. That could keep BART going two hours later on Saturday nights for the whole summer!

Of course, this is assuming that the engineering constraint BART claims is the reason is has no owl service is legitimate. BART says that it needs to shut down tracks for daily maintenance. I’m no engineer, but I don’t see why this necessarily prohibits limited late-night or all-night service. The Transbay Tube has two tracks, which during the day carry trains in opposite directions. But couldn’t the BART be single-tracked for selective service at night? Only one train at a time, one way at a time. Maintenance could be conducted on one track while the other is in operation.

I have yet to hear an explanation of why this wouldn’t work, but maybe it just couldn’t. If so, the last hope for 24-hour (or late night) BART service is another tube. This might not be as far off or undreamed of as you think. Currently BART estimates that the existing tube will be at capacity by 2030. Since planning and building a new tube will take 20 – 30 years, there are some planners already considering how this will be built. Transportation planner Tom Matoff suggests a new tube serving Alameda before going under the bay and emerging at the Transbay Terminal. The tunnel would have four tracks, two for BART and two for California’s new High-Speed Rail. Since High-Speed rail has political steam behind it, and money, a second Transbay Tube just might happen before I’m too old to care about running around the Bay Area at 3 a.m.

BART FOR ALL

With all the anti-sprawl sentiment in the Bay Area, you would think that universal public transit accessibility would be a more urgent political issue. In the Bay Area, we tend to think of LA as the urban area in California that suffers from unabated sprawl. But look at us. San Francisco proper has less than a million people–except during the daytime, when it swells considerably– while the surrounding region including SF and other bay counties has more than 7 million. Counting all the other counties, the Bay Area is the 6th largest urban area in the country. And while San Francisco may be 2nd after New York in urban density, there’s an awful lot of sprawl in the greater Bay Area. San Jose is actually our biggest city, not San Francisco. The lack of transit access in the inner city encourages sprawl. If you’re not able to live a viable urban life with the advantages that can involve (ready access to the rest of the metropolis) then why not just get out and move to the suburbs?

What some have in mind for the future of BART is very discouraging. An SF Chronicle article on BART’s 50th anniversary in ’07 featured a bad set of plans for the Bay’s urban majority. A speculative map (pictured above) featured a line connecting some point south of Fremont with Pleasanton, Walnut Creek, and Martinez… an epic new rail line further connecting already-served low-density outer Bay counties. With the exception of a new Transbay Tube, there was little else on the map adding service to the Bay’s densest neighborhoods, the places where common sense – and the parking situation – tells me people actually use transit the most. According to BART’s own numbers from a 2008 study, 81% of riders at 16th and Mission in SF, 71% in Downtown Berkeley, and 70% at 19th St. in Oakland got to the station by walking. The numbers for Fremont, Dublin/Pleasanton, and North Concord? Respectively 17%, 4%, and 4%. Is that really the future of BART?

BART’s problems – including the heavyhanded policing, ill-conceived projects and priorities, and lack of 24-hour accessibility – are part of BART’s larger identity crisis. It caters to yesterday’s ridership rather than tomorrow’s. It is locked into an identity as a commuter train for working professionals, and not the vital backbone of Bay Area-wide public transit for each and every citizen. That’s what it is, and that’s what it should be: let’s clear up any doubt. Even assuming BART’s riders are predominantly affluent white professionals from outer Bay Area counties–though I doubt this is the case–BART fares cover only about half of BART’s expenses. The rest comes from all of us, the citizens, the taxpayers. When I lived in San Francisco, for years I rode the BART for short daily trips, going two or three stops away. Now I live in Oakland (a city, not a suburb), and I ride it to and from SF but also on short trips across Oakland, from Oakland to Berkeley, and still on short trips within San Francisco. I observe my fellow riders doing the same thing.

BART has the capacity to go long distances, and to their engineers and planners, it may be a case of ‘every problem looking like a nail to the guy with a hammer.’ It may make sense to them to have BART act like a ‘public transit freeway’ and leave local transit to local agencies. But there is no right or wrong use of BART, just what people need and use it for. If that’s mainly for short trips inside a city or medium-range hops across the denser, core Bay cities, then that’s what BART needs to adapt to. There’s no reason BART can’t do both, and do both well. But with increasing urban density and population in the urban center, it seems likely that BART’s reality over the next 50 years is going to have to include not only going farther, but going deeper into the existing urban area. Serving all communities, and doing better to serve communities of color and working people. Running more often, and later. Making genuine efforts to listen to the needs of BART riders, and making sure that all passengers, even rowdy late-nighters and fare-evaders, are safe from violence.

That would be a BART that could really serve us all.

Justin Allen

SOURCES:

The $100,000+ a year average union salary for Bart workers is from Bart’s website, 7/2/09. Visit source.

Bart’s loss of $70 million in federal stimulus money: Daily Californian 6/13/10. Visit source.

The next 50 years of Bart, SF Chronicle 6/27/07. Visit source.

Pirone’s salary, KTVU, 3/35/10. Visit source.

Pirone’s knee, The Militant 7/19/10. Visit source.

Out of town rioters, KTVU 7/9/10. Visit source.

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