All posts by Nicholas Allen Freeman

BART and the Future of Mass Transit

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has been working overtime lately to construct your transit future. BART to Castro Valley and Pleasanton – $500 million. BART to the airport – $1 billion and counting. The direct and indirect costs of our car-congested commute severely eclipse these amounts, and therefore such a price is a bargain, and well-worth the governmental subsidies if the end result is less environmental destruction and more equitable and comprehensive transit overall.

However, a more careful analysis of what our mass transit dollars are buying us reveals that BART is little more than a suburban sprawl support machine. In fact, the future of our Bay Area public commute over the next decade panders to the needs of well-heeled voters and big business, at the expense of the people that need inexpensive and effective transit the most.

Safe, Reliable and Customer Oriented?

The expressed mission of BART is to be “safe, reliable and customer oriented.” With over 25 years of operation, over 100 miles of track, and a present operating budget quickly approaching $250 million, one would expect this mission easily met. In many senses it is: according to the BART 1996 Short Range Transit Plan, there were 73.7 million passenger trips during fiscal 1996, or approximately 248,000 passengers served each weekday.

BART focuses a great deal of time and energy on transbay commuters because that’s one of the rolls it was designed to play – a quick and cheap people mover to and from San Francisco, in addition to the preexisting infrastructure of bus systems like AC Transit and Muni. This goal is clearly met: during the 6-9 AM rush, a train passes through S.F. every 2.5 minutes (compared to one every 15 minutes on the Richmond to Fremont line) and most are filled to capacity.

The Bay Area freeway commute is already notorious, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see how much public transit alleviates congestion. It also serves to increase air quality and decrease commute times, both laudable.

The Science of Suburban Subsidy

The need for “safe, reliable and customer oriented” transportation, however, does not end when the commute does. Unfortunately, BART’s long-range plans seem inextricably tied to serving weekday commuters – especially those in relatively affluent San Francisco and Contra Costa Counties – and little else.

True, Contra Costa is in a present population and job boom: its 2.0% population growth rate is almost twice that of Alameda County, and its 2.5% annual employment increase is more than double that of San Francisco County. However, does that mean that billions of dollars need to be spent over the next 10 years so that those new residents and workers can have a smooth, subsidized commute scores of miles from their homes, while everyone else pays more?

Suburban subsidy is exactly what BART has in mind for the new millennium – the Castro Valley and Dublin/Pleasanton expansion which opened this May cost an estimated $517 million to construct (funded by localities, Measure B sales tax and bridge toll revenue), yet will increase ridership by only 10% (22,000 new daily riders are expected). And with a 25.5 cent rail cost per passenger mile, that means that every new rider will cost BART $3.57 cents to shuttle to Bay Fair, only two stations away.

A fairly typical 40 mile commute from eastern Contra Costa to San Francisco, has a real cost of close to $10 each way, not even counting the short term price of system extensions. BART’s ticket pricing does reflect distance traveled, but the cost for trips over 14 miles is less per mile than for shorter distances. Therefore, those who live in the suburbs are getting a far better deal than those in the urban centers. In effect, urban riders and subsidizing suburbanites. This is entirely unacceptable, yet BART has no present plans to make things more equitable – its eyes are focused on the lucrative commute dollar, which suburbia is all too eager to cough up.

Only 56% of costs are made back by revenue (mostly ticket sales), so to make BART viable as a real alternative to the car – a wasteful, overly-individualistic way of travel that already is lavished with support, from new pavement to artificially low prices at the pump – some subsidization is essential. But is the money that BART is receiving from our sales and property taxes, not to mention bridge tolls – which in 1996 totaled almost $140 million, $15 million more than net passenger revenue – being utilized effectively?

Yes and no. For example, labor makes up almost 70% of operating expenses. Massive layoffs would definitely save money, but service would be severely impacted, and the employees can’t be blamed for short-sighted planning. Instead, executive level salaries and bloated infrastructure should be severely cut. For example, almost $6 million will be spent over the next couple of years to replace the simple yet effective displays that announce trains, with high-tech yet commercially saturated TV screens. This will do absolutely nothing to increase service, yet will no doubt fill BART’s coffers with more advertising dollars.

Instead of questioning such expense, BART promotes it. In fact, over $54 million will be spent over the next 10 years just to keep the stations in “Mint” condition, suitable for photo-ops. Aesthetics are nice, but they don’t make up for the fact that the trains don’t run when many need them, and when they do, they’re headed towards the suburbs.

Since bridge tolls and gas prices are artificially low (according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Bridge toll was 65 cents in each direction in 1936 – $7.80 in today’s dollars compared to the $1 actually collected now), BART is forced to keep its fares as affordable as possible, lest people give up on the system altogether and hit the roads. Historically, BART has increased ticket prices at a moderate level, but from 1995 to 1997 fares rose dramatically enough (at least 10% a year) that many who travel longer distances are starting to feel the bite.

BART does try to assist those who need to drive to its stations by providing free parking spaces. 3600 will open with the two new stations and that’s 3600 less cars clogging the freeways, which is a start. Yet, of the 40,000 spaces system wide, the majority are in the suburbs – 13,000 on the Oakland to Pittsburg line alone. Once again urbanites are shafted.

Much more promising are those who don’t drive at all; BART stations are transportational hubs – 98% of AC Transit lines intersect with BART, for example. Buses are an essential part of Bay Area transit – they use the roads that already saturate most communities more effectively than cars, and therefore can potentially reach the majority of potential riders, especially those in urban areas where light rail or BART extensions would be prohibited by cost or existing infrastructure.

Unfortunately, bus lines – especially comprehensive ones – are notoriously expensive to run in comparison to the fares that can be collected. BART Express is a case in point; only 20% of costs are made back by fares, and service is far from extensive. This inefficiency pressures bus agencies to cut costs, which usually means higher fares and less non-commute hour service – the recent gutting of AC Transit routes is a sad case in point. And since buses are an essential part of our public transportation web, especially its urban center, the whole system suffers.

The Siren Song of Over-Extension

Even with our system’s inefficiencies, people still manage to get to BART. And so what if it costs a lot to transport people to work publicly – at least the environment isn’t paying the price. Such an argument is overly simplistic. Increased population growth often equals more suburban sprawl – homogenous, car-centric architecture, the consolidation of commerce into cookie-cutter shopping centers and super stores, and near universal pavement. In the relatively wide open spaces of Contra Costa and southern Alameda counties (home to the new Warm Springs BART extension past Fremont, now on hold but tentatively scheduled to open after 1999 for $500 million and counting) hundreds of square miles of undeveloped land will soon fall to the back hoe, subdevelopment and strip mall.

This is not because of BART, but BART is counting on such growth to justify its future existence. More residents equals more potential riders – 30 million more yearly trips are expected by 2006, and that’s with only about 1% population growth. These new commuters will come directly from future extensions, part of BART’s 10 year plan: Pittsburg/Baypoint towards Antioch, at a couple hundred million dollars per station; the SF airport connection at well over $1 billion, plus another few hundred million to Milbrae, not even to mention miles of track connecting Walnut Creek to the new Dublin/Pleasanton station, and the Livermore extension thereof.

More residents also equals more business, sales and property tax, which in turn funds BART and justifies its further expansion. The frequency of new stations clearly follows the people, and money, flowing into the area – there are also extensions planned past Richmond towards San Pablo, Pinole and Crockett, but funding doesn’t exist as of yet, and seems low priority in BART’s own planning statistics.

Which isn’t all that surprising, for while urbanites also require “safe, reliable and customer oriented” transit, BART doesn’t seem that committed to providing it. Almost $1 billion will be spent on system wide renovation over the next decade, but most of that is essential for the functioning of BART – earthquake and transbay tube retrofitting, escalator and elevator repair, and the like – and not particularly focused on the needs of less affluent, East Bay riders (mostly on the Richmond to Fremont line, geographically).

$90 million is being spent on a new train control system, which will do little more than bring BART up to technological speed, but there are no plans to increase train frequency during non-commute hours, something that would make a real difference for those who want to use BART at night. Right now, the stations close soon after midnight, leaving little choice but sporadic (and ever reduced) bus service or the car.

This is not to belittle the transportational achievement that BART embodies. By 2006 approximately 100 million riders will get to where they’re going each year without clogging up the freeways, and the rail cost per passenger mile is only expected to go up one cent in the next decade. That achievement should be not only applauded, but magnified by future improvements to the overall system.

Traveling Nowhere Faster Than Ever

However, there is an underlying problem that not even the best mass transit system in the world can solve – almost 7 million people will be living in the greater Bay Area by the year 2000, and most of them work at a great commute distance from their communities. This is not only a function of our car-centric urban and suburban planning, but the fact that housing costs are high in the urban employment centers, and people can better afford the image of the American dream in the suburbs away from city problems of pollution and crime. Commuting becomes a way of life from the picket fence to the corporate headquarters.

We can either keep heading in the same direction, increasing the suburban sprawl, building freeways and BART tracks while and at the same time reducing local bus service, or we can collectively reconsider what we now take for granted – the alienation of our labor from our community. Public or private, by car or train, mass transit is expensive because in the end it’s not an efficient way of organizing the workings of our society.

A True Transit Plan

A true transit plan would have both short and long term elements. Over the next decade, it would focus less on service extensions, paid for by us all, which serve only a small yet affluent part of the population, and instead strengthen existing service, More BART trains and bus service 24 hours a day, paid for by better money management, higher bridge tolls and funneling of car-oriented transit dollars towards public transit.

In the longer term it would get people off of the roads, period, and back on their own streets. It would have provisions for development on a human scale, from promoting cohousing communities to depaving clogged city streets and replacing them with pedestrian plazas, bike lanes, with light rail arterial connections and zero-emission busses where appropriate.

It would strive to reduce the inhuman speed of transport that we presently take for granted, by actively rezoning our cities, making sure that each community has all the necessary resources, from offices to grocery stores, instead of requiring mass exodus daily to retail magnets – the ever present malls and super stores. It would promote the local production of essential goods (community gardens verses acres of monoculture) while still allowing for large scale material trade between areas.

It would discourage the Sunday drive by bringing nature back into the city, and would reduce aimless yet expensive wandering by making individual travel an unsubsidized privilege – with the true cost of motive energy reflected at the pump or the socket. It would transform transit from an individual chore where the quickest person wins, back into a communal, social activity.

This is far from an easy task, requiring short-term sacrifice and collective struggle, both at grass roots and governmental levels. Sadly, most large scale planning at present is short sighted, and overly concerned with transportational and societal band aids (more freeway lanes, more BART track) instead of massive yet essential surgery. Without direct action, and soon, most of our energy will be put into traveling towards a congested future, instead of maintaining a comfortable present.

In the past 100 years the Bay Area has moved from horse drawn trolley cars, through the tremendously efficient and visionary Key Line system, towards a grand future of “safe, reliable and customer oriented” transit that gets everyone where they want to go, as long as it meets the needs of our employers, and doesn’t step on the toes of big oil or auto. As we all pay for BART’s shiny yet hollow future, it would be wise to question if this is progress.

(Note: All figures in this article are from BART 1996 Short Range Transit Plan and Capital Improvement Program reports, save for a few facts from the official BART and AC Transit web sites)