A Perspective on BART
For many people, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, popularly known as BART, is, rightfully so, a source of confusion. They expect that for a city like San Francisco, the subway system should be bigger. They question why San Francisco only has four stops in the Central Business District. Many say that BART should have greater frequencies than once every fifteen minutes in each direction per line simply because it is a subway. The problem is that BART as an agency, as well as residents in the Bay Area in general, are not clear in the way that they describe the system. Fundamentally, BART is a heavy rail system that is really a system of regional and commuter rail that happens to have underground portions. Think of the S-Bahn in Germany but with worse infrastructure and slightly lower frequencies. BART trains often run up to 70 mph, generally higher than most subway systems, but run at a maximum every 15 minutes. Stop spacing on BART is quite far with the sole exception of the four Central Business District (CBD) stops in San Francisco — Civic Center, Powell Street, Montgomery Street, and Embarcadero. Even with the new Fleet of the Future Trains, it is evident that BART’s aging track infrastructure, station infrastructure, and most train cars diminish the quality of the system and are responsible for some of the confusion over BART’s role.
While I have been on BART sporadically since 2011, this past summer I used BART more frequently to get into San Francisco from where I live on the Peninsula, and also as part of my goal to ride every transit agency in the Bay Area and review it. I’ve now been on every section of BART track except for the short segment between Dublin/Pleasanton and West Dublin/Pleasanton, including having been on the relatively new eBART extension to Antioch. There is a clear disparity between BART’s impact in the East Bay and in the West Bay. I’d argue that BART is the most important transportation service in the East Bay and actually does a decent job at what it was designed to do. BART effectively brings commuters from the East Bay Hills along the Highway 24 Corridor (and Antioch) into Oakland, and also does a good job of connecting the linear corridor along Highway 880 between Berryessa and Richmond. The large stop spacing allows trains to run at high speeds and makes the system competitive with driving in peak traffic periods. That said, while it does a great job of functioning as a high frequency commuter rail service in the East Bay, it fails those who actually live in the Oakland City limits and southern suburbs. In the core of the urban Oakland and in neighboring districts, stretching from the Coliseum Area all the way to Richmond in Contra Costa County, trains make very few stops, making it difficult for the majority non-white and low-income residents living in these parts to access the system. AC Transit does provide high amounts of service in these parts of Oakland and kudos to them for opening the Tempo BRT route along International Boulevard between San Leandro and 12th Street in Downtown Oakland, but in terms of creating economic activity and faster commutes, quick access to BART is far better for those groups.
In contrast, BART’s network is overall more useful and accessible to the general public and local residents in the West Bay, or in the East Bay Hills where many people park and ride at BART stations like Orinda or Lafayette. Indeed, San Francisco benefits from being a smaller city by size overall, but due to BART only serving a limited part of San Francisco, its ridership still skews towards commuters traveling from Oakland or from communities south of Daly City. Muni does an excellent job of supplementing BART service and actually covering parts of the city that BART does not get close to.
As part of this piece, I also conducted a survey of people in my neighborhood on their thoughts on BART, and after looking at their responses, concluded that there is an overwhelming negative or neutral perspective on the system as a whole, with respondents highlighting BART dirtiness and lack of safety, among other qualities. For comparison, the same respondents had generally positive thoughts on Caltrain or Samtrans. BART has often been cited as dirty and unsafe like I mentioned, and I do believe that those qualities have contributed to people choosing deliberately not to use it, especially at night. Night time service is something that BART has lots of potential for, and improving safety generally would go a long way to increasing ridership overall across the system. And it is true that safety is a major problem for the system. Many Bay Area residents and BART riders are still traumatized by Nia Wilson’s stabbing at the MacArthur transfer station in Oakland in 2018. Incidents like those have caused a loss of confidence in the system that will rely heavily on it going forward. That said, BART’s crime rate has been dropping since 2019, and in 2020 the crime rate dropped by 21%. Continued efforts to improve safety are showing signs of success, and the new Fleet of the Future trains will certainly improve people’s perception of the system overall.
Ultimately what I’m trying to get across here is that BART does its job surprisingly well. In the late 1960s there was a small wave of similar systems — Washington DC’s MetroRail, Atlanta’s MARTA, and BART — that were built with very similar features, serving as heavy rail networks connecting suburbs to cities, and they all have become successful in their own ways. BART does a great job of connecting an expansive and populated region with relatively high frequencies. The new fleet of the future trains are much needed and are a welcome improvement over the old Rohr train cars. The original A and B series cars actually were some of the most comfortable train cars around, almost equivalent to airline business class, but the ride quality is much smoother and overall more comfortable with the new cars. The interior, too, is far cleaner and more refreshing, and I believe riders will come to appreciate them for those reasons.
If you hear people in the future explaining how BART isn’t a good system or that it isn’t a proper subway, tell them this: BART was never meant to be a subway. Nor was MARTA in Atlanta. Or to some degree the MetroRail in DC. Perhaps most importantly, the system, after all, has most of its trackage running above ground as compared to a typical subway whose namesake comes from the fact that it runs mostly underground. With trains running at max speeds upwards of 80 miles per hour in some parts, the trains are longer and faster than nearly every metro/subway system in the country. For reference the max speed of any non-yellow line train in the CTA “L” system is 55 mph.
This piece is part of a larger project studying and reviewing different Bay Area transit agencies. BART is often one of the most thought of transit agencies when one thinks of Bay Area transit; indeed, BART deserves that level of name recognition. As the only transit agency that connects all three major cities in the region — Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco — BART is certainly the most important transit agency for overall mobility across the Bay Area. For anyone living in the Peninsula, the East Bay, or in southwest San Francisco, BART is a major lifeline whose importance can not be understated. It is time we owe BART the recognition and classification it deserves: a regional rail service that is meant to maximize connectivity in the Bay Area.
In actuality, BART is merely a fraction of what it was once talked to be. Initial plans had the system extending through Marin and Sonoma counties, as well as running to San Jose via both the Peninsula and the East Bay. Though minimal compared to once grand plans for a true all-encompassing regional system, BART is still an excellent system that, though not a subway, meets the needs of thousands of riders around the Bay Area, and is undoubtedly the most important system of all Bay Area transit.