Friday, September 2, 2011

Tunnel Visions: Bay Area Rapid Transit

Every once in a while, Acts of Minor Treason hops out of New Westminster, lands in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and looks at different ways of getting around on two rails, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

Generally speaking, public transit systems operate in the background of life. Aside from a few freaks and weirdos like me, people tend not to take much note of them beyond knowing how to use them to get from point to point. In much the same way as the electrical infrastructure or the water supply system, they tend to be an invisible but necessary component of the modern city, remarked upon at length only when there's a perceived problem. It can be argued that a well-run transit system is one that stays out of the headlines.

There's that, and then there's BART (pronounced "bart"). That's Bay Area Rapid Transit, the regional rapid transit system serving the San Francisco Bay Area. Unlike other transit systems, which make big news when trains get derailed or budgets get cut, in the recent past BART has had the dubious privilege of wide-ranging media coverage as a result of shootings by its police force and attacks against its website and the shutdown of cell phone coverage to frustrate protests. It stands apart from the crowd.

My experience with the system wasn't enough for me to really understand how well the system's run, since it's not nearly as friendly to hop-on, hop-off travel as most city transit systems - I had to plan out my BART journeys to a degree that I've never experienced before while riding rapid transit. Still, it was enough to demonstrate the degree to which BART stands apart from the other systems you'll find across North America. Created to replace the privately-run Key System, an interurban streetcar system that served the cities of the East Bay into the 1940s and rattled across the Bay Bridge into the 1950s, today's BART almost seems like a product of a 1970s view of the future.


A ten-car train departs Rockridge Station, running in the center median of California State Route 24.

While BART calls itself a rapid transit network, it's really a combination of urban rapid transit and suburban commuter rail. This sort of setup is fairly common in central Europe, known in German as an S-Bahn but relatively rare outside that area. It can be argued to not even be anchored on San Francisco itself; its headquarters are in Oakland, and one of its lines serves the East Bay exclusively. It also provides the only rapid transit access to and from San Francisco International Airport, through a station connected directly to the International Terminal.

Five lines presently make up the BART system. Rather than named after a specific color or route, they're identified by their respective termini in a manner slightly reminiscent of GO Transit's convention. The Pittsburg/Bay Point-SFO/Millbrae line, for example, runs between Pittsburg/Bay Point in the north west and San Francisco International Airport and Millbrae in the south, and while it's colored yellow on maps you won't hear an official source refer to it as the "Yellow Line." With the notable exception of Marin County, on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge - which was included in initial network plans, only to arouse popular opposition and fear that service would spur sprawl development - BART service extends across most of the Bay Area, and plans are in place for the lines that currently terminate at Fremont to be extended south to San Jose and Silicon Valley... but this isn't planned to happen until 2025, so don't hold your breath.

Most of the BART system seems to consist of at-grade trackage, either in its own right-of-way or in highway medians, though I did observe some elevated portions around Colma and in western Oakland. The main exception is in San Francisco itself, where it runs almost entirely underground; there are additional underground segment such as the Berkeley Hills Tunnel on the Pittsburg/Bay Point-SFO/Millbrae line, which I did not travel through as it is known to penetrate the Hayward Fault and I was unwilling to tempt fate, considering there's apparently slight-but-nonzero chance that a train inside the tunnel during a sufficiently powerful earthquake could be torn apart. Besides, I was busy in San Francisco anyway.

The network's key underground segment, though, isn't under that much ground at all. The Transbay Tube, which is nearly six kilometers long and takes trains four and a half minutes to travel through1, is an immersed tube on the floor of San Francisco Bay that connects downtown San Francisco to Oakland. As it carries four out of five BART lines, the Transbay Tube is the system's biggest bottleneck - my departure from San Francisco coincided with weekend track maintenance in the Tube, which shut down one set of tracks entirely and resulted in significant delays and complicated train redirections. It's sufficiently different from the remainder of BART's subway network that there's a section devoted just to it on the emergency evacuation instruction posters inside the trains.

BART is also unique in that it's almost exclusively a rail operator - the only exception is AirBART, a shuttlebus service that connects to Oakland International Airport. Aside from that, depending on where your destination is you may end up transferring from BART onto San Francico's Muni, AC Transit in the East Bay, Golden Gate Transit for journeys into Marin, and so on. Transfers to the Muni Metro are easy within downtown San Francisco, as the two agencies share the four northernmost stations of the Market Street Subway.

Two partially-used BART tickets... there's $0.70 US I'll never see again.

Where BART gets difficult, and presents ample opportunities to trip up the unwary, is in its fares. Unlike every other transit system I've ever used, there are no time-based passes available; you can't get an unlimited-use weekly, monthly, or even day pass. The closest it comes for the general public is the BART Blue High Value Ticket, which gives a 6.25% discount on the ticket price - as they're only available in $45 and $60 denominations, though, they're clearly geared toward the regular commuter riders.

BART fare media is available in two forms - the new Clipper smartcard, similar to the Los Angeles TAP card or the Presto card in the Greater Toronto Area, which is accepted by multiple Bay Area transit agencies - and physical tickets, and for visitors to the Bay Area the latter is what you're going to be dealing with. Though some stations have collectors on staff, generally you're going to be getting your ticket from a ticket vending machine. They're fairly straightforward, once you get the hang of them - you just specify the value of ticket you want, insert your payment, and it will print you a fresh ticket with a magnetic strip and the stored value printed on. As you travel through the system, you feed your ticket into the faregate readers at the departure and arrival stations and its stored value is adjusted accordingly. Once it hits zero, the faregate will open but the machine won't return your ticket, and you'll just have to get another one. The TVMs all have fare calculation tables attached so you can tell exactly how much it'll cost go anywhere from where you are. Planning out routes in advance with the fare calculator means you don't have any partially-loaded tickets left over, but it likewise restricts your freedom to tool around the system.

All BART ticket vending machines accept cash, and specialized machines take debit or credit and debit cards as well - there'll usually be at least a couple at every station, but unless a sign has been affixed (which isn't guaranteed) there's no way to tell which is which from a distance, like if you're lined up waiting to use it. What the machines don't tell you is that there are hard-coded restrictions for using credit cards. Any given credit card can only be used to purchase BART tickets twice in a twenty-four hour period; if you attempt to run it a third time, the machine will flash the message "BART Limits Exceeded," spit out a receipt for the cancelled transaction, and return to the main menu with no further explanation. This happened to me at Colma Station, which fortunately was one of the stations that had a collector on duty who was able to explain just what the hell the deal was. According to her, the restriction was put in place because BART has, in the past, experienced issues with people using stolen credit cards to buy tickets. So I can understand the policy; I just wish there had been some warning about it.2

This is another good reason to either plan out your journey ahead of time or pay cash.


The main surface structure at Downtown Berkeley Station in Berkeley, California.

BART service began in 1972, and so its station conveniently sidestepped the whole "twentieth-century prison bathroom" aesthetic you'll find so easily from Toronto to San Francisco and New York to Chicago. Architectural styles vary from the concrete brutalism of Glen Park to the windows-and-waterfalls of San Francisco International Airport to 24th St. Mission, which reminded me of Vermont/Beverly on the Red Line subway in Los Angeles. There aren't many of them, either, which is indicative of its nature as a regional rapid transit system - as of this writing there are only forty-four stations for one hundred and sixty-seven kilometers of track.

Depending on where you are, BART stations vary substantially in terms of their function. While the San Francisco stations are indistinguishable from urban subways, the suburban stations strongly cater to the commuter population - one such example is Colma Station, where the actual "station" is dwarfed by the attached parking garage. In the four shared Market Street Subway stations, the BART platforms are installed below the Muni Metro platforms, giving BART commuters temporary glimpses of the San Francisco trains rumbling in and out.

While public art isn't ubiquitous in the system, it does have a presence, such as a mural at MacArthur of what resembled a "bubbly peacock."3 Aside from the shared Market Street Subway stations, BART stations don't tend to follow the same design aside from a preference toward center platforms. They may look like they're poorly lit when you're looking out of a train's windows, but this isn't actually the case - the windows just tend to be foggy. On the whole, from the crennelated concrete walls at Balboa Park to high-ceilinged, almost hangar-like ambience at Ashby, the varying station designs lend some welcome aesthetics to the system.

They're not necessarily designed well, though. At Balboa Park, where the Muni Metro's J Church and K Ingleside lines loop for journeys back to downtown San Francisco, it seems as if BART specifically designed the station to ignore the Muni presence. Unlike in the shared Market Street Subway stations there's no signage indicating where to transfer to Muni trains, even though the loop is immediately adjacent to the station building.

As BART tends to run exceedingly long trains, with ten-car consists fairly common even in off-peak hours, the stations are accordingly large. This can become a problem for people who aren't familiar with the BART system, as while there are platform-level system maps, schedules, and information, there are only a few on any given platform; thus, you might find it only to realize the train that just left was the one you should have boarded, and it'll be fifteen minutes until the next one shows up. Plus, that assumes the map will be accurate when you find it - I found one at Embarcadero Station that, rather having been replaced with an updated version, just had stickers affixed noting that the 820 night bus line had been eliminated as of December 28, 2008.

There are also a surprising number of payphones on the platforms. I suppose they represent a vulnerable underbelly in the event that BART again suspends cell phone service within its stations.


An aerodynamic A2 car brings up the rear of a train at Colma Station.

If I had to describe BART cars in one word? Angle-y. If they weren't so spacious, they'd put me in the mind of London Underground 1973 Stock trains. As it is, they seem like they're wider than they are high due to their angled walls - I suppose it may be to make the trains feel more open and less like a traditional subway, which would be particularly important when you've got two thousand people crammed into a crush-loaded ten-car train. There's plenty of room for standing passengers, and most of the seats are arranged in pairs of two, with armrests - no benches like on the Mark I SkyTrains, but no single seats either. The windows enhance the feeling of openness in the trains - since there's no roof-line advertising strip, the windows are able to fill all the wall space from the centerline to the roof. Advertisements in general aren't too common on BART trains, limited to the front and back ends of the individual cars - the remainder of the wall space is taken up by windows, route maps, and emergency evacuation instruction posters.

The most striking aspect of BART's rolling stock is by no means universal, but in the world of rapid transit it stands apart - some of its cars have carpeted floors. While I understand this was fairly common back in the day, most rapid transit operators have switched to using floor surfaces that are easier to clean. It's not every day you'll encounter a BART car with carpeted floors; my only encounter came at the very beginning, on the train I boarded to head into San Francisco from the airport. Still, it set a tone that was a bit "higher-class" - like this isn't just some subway.

It certainly stands apart from Muni. Graffiti is specifically prohibited on BART, and while there was some in evidence here and there was far less than on Muni, where every last LRV seemed to have its windows vandalized. The seats were comfortable as well, but whenever I sat down I couldn't help but thinking about the studies that had been conducted a couple of months previously that had discovered a vast array of antiseptic-resistant bacteria and molds clinging to the fabric. Not that it kept me from sitting down, though - subway surfing is a difficult art to master, particularly when you're unfamiliar with the idiosyncracies of a new system with unfamiliar rolling stock. Considering that BART trains aren't automated - even though they could be, apparently - rides won't necessarily always be smooth.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

These fare gates control access to the BART platforms at Montgomery Station.

So there I was in 24th St. Mission Station, waiting for a train that would take me to Ashby Station in Berkeley so I could check out a bookstore I heard about in the area. A Dublin/Pleasanton train arrives and I let it go, because that definitely doesn't go where I need to. A Pittsburg/Bay Point train shows up and I get on because that takes me where I need to go, right? It's not until the train departs MacArthur and I'm seeing surroundings I didn't see on my original trip into Berkeley that I realize I'm on the wrong train! That's no good. For me, it underscored the importance of knowing exactly where the various lines split off from each other. Either of the lines going to Richmond would have worked for me. Considering that I was carefully planning out my route so as to not leave any money left over, though, I don't know what would have happened if a BART Police officer had inspected my fare while I was waiting for a train to get me out of Rockridge.

Even when you're aware, though, it can be difficult to make sure you're on the right train. The best way is to look at the screens on the station platforms and listen to the highly mechanical synthesized voices that announce the destination of the next incoming train. Some drivers will announce what line you're riding during station stops, but then again some won't. Rollsigns are right out; BART trains have only a single rollsign, a small digital screen on the front car, and even if the train is going slow enough to read it's hard enough to read that there's really no point at all in it being there. Why they don't have window rollsigns on each individual car, as on the Chicago 'L' or the Los Angeles Metro Rail, I have no idea.

There are no automatic station announcements on BART trains. That job is left up to the operator, who might call out the next station but then again they might not. Whether it's because the speakers in your individual car are busted or because they just don't feel like it is up for debate. Still, it feels unnecessarily unfriendly, and just because they were able to get away with it in the 1980s doesn't mean that it should continue to be that way today. That's the sort of thing I expect from penny-ante operations like Barrie Transit; BART is one of the largest rapid transit providers in the United States.

Not everything is as obvious as it could be. Take the stations outside San Francisco: at Downtown Berkeley, I came across a couple of machines that said "Take Only One When Leaving Station" but were otherwise unmarked. What it gave me was a BART to Bus transfer, a timestamped slip that can be redeemed for a round-trip single zone ride on AC Transit or Santa Clara VTA buses. It was another of the small but constant reminders that BART was tightly focused toward the use of locals, rather than people who had no experience with the system. At least that's what it seemed like to me.

As a regional transit system, and one that's substantially geared toward commuters, headways on BART are rather larger than on other systems; while this doesn't matter much in San Francisco or Oakland, it can be something to reckon with when you're going to somewhere more outlying like San Francisco International Airport - SFO/Millbrae trains arrive only once every fifteen minutes outside of the height of weekday rush hours. Though the platform information screens do give updates on how long it'll be until the next trains arrive, sometimes the information seems more like a suggestion or a guess; I can't think of any other way that the arrival times for Daly City-bound trains could be updated from 20/40 minutes to 15/19 minutes over the course of five minutes.


A southbound train blurs its way out of Balboa Park Station.

Despite its hybrid urban-suburban nature, or perhaps because of it, BART is one of the most well-used rapid transit systems in the United States; in the first quarter of 2011 it boasted an average weekday ridership of 357,800, behind powerhouses like the Chicago 'L' and New York Subway but well ahead of the Los Angeles network and even the Muni Metro. If considered against commuter rail networks, BART beats them all - with 354,300 weekday riders, the Long Island Rail Road comes close but not close enough. Nevertheless, it underscores the degree to which public transit is still an underdog in the States; in that same quarter the SkyTrain claimed a ridership of 349,300, with Metro Vancouver's population of 2.1 million next to the more than three million people who live in San Francisco, Alameda County, and Contra Costa County.

At its heart, I feel like BART is a system that doesn't encourage exploration. I know that the reason cities and regions build public transit networks is for people to get to point A to point B, but that shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of their existence. I would have liked to be able to hop on and off BART from one side of the Bay to the other, getting a view that wasn't confined to just San Francisco, but a fare structure geared toward long-distance commuting suburbanites made that difficult at best.

I get the impression that there are plenty of difficulties on BART. One of the first things I saw on entering San Francisco International Airport Station were information sheets in English, Chinese, and Spanish detailing "Your Rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," which "requires that no person in the United States, on the grounds of race, color or national origin be excluded from, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." It was even more jarring than those announcements about how gambling is prohibited on the Chicago 'L' - I saw them and could only think "what the hell has gone on that they feel it necessary to have to state this front and center?"

Problems, no doubt.

1 This is an approximate figure, timed off my wristwatch, that does not include full approaches; timing began when the train descended into the tunnel surrounded by shipping containers in the Port of Oakland, and ended on the train's arrival at Embarcadero Station.

2 It is extremely possible that there were such warnings and I never noticed them, but if that's the case, I did not notice them for the entirety of my time in the Bay Area.

3 Quoting exactly from my notebook here.

Previous Tunnel Visions


  1. I'm surprised you didn't mention BART being broad gauge. I'm not sure being wider than tall is an illusion.

    That airport station sign sounds like a general FYI, maybe aimed at immigrants, than something relevant to BART.

    Lack of announcements seems odd, but I have no memory either way.

    Of course, there's Boston's T, where the maps are highly variable in layout and information and the automated announcements are frequently *wrong*, as in announcing the station you're just leaving as the next stop. But if you ever explore Boston, look me up!

    I think the original plan was to go all the way around the Bay; rumor is that the Peninsula used not wanting to pay for the Transbay Tube as an excuse for not wanting to make it easier for poor urban[1] people to visit.

    Yeah, the price structure is annoying (though IIRC, London has passes but really expensive ones, annoying me there too) but I guess standard for commuter rail, while the frequencies are a lot higher than any commuter rail system I've seen. It's either infrequent and expensive RT or really awesome (frequent) if smelly commuter rail. I take it you didn't take Caltrain at all, the more usual every-hour (maybe) railroad-style commuter rail down the Peninsula.

    You didn't mention the smells, you're either kind or lucky. The cars tend to smell dank to me. I assume it's that plush carpeted seating.

  2. Travellers can buy tickets to ride in a train to reach their destination and they can also enjoy a great travel experience.
    long stay parking gatwick