San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
BART readies to roll as economy reopens
The state of California is seeking to reopen its economy on June 15, releasing us from the tier system of pandemic protocols that have restricted movement. What will BART, the Bay Area’s largest rail system, look like after the economy fully reopens? Here’s what we know, as of now.
Will BART restore hours and run more trains?
The transit system is planning on implementing longterm service returns, but not by June 15.
At an April 8 meeting, a majority of BART’s Board of Directors supported plans to restore operating trains at 15minute frequencies and extend service hours to midnight (they currently end at 9 p.m.), though the board has yet to take
a formal vote.
In between midJune and Sept. 13, when these service returns would take place, the system has the ability to activate up to 26 additional trains on weekdays to increase frequencies during traffic peaks or special events, according to a BART spokesperson.
“BART is ready,” General Manager Bob Powers said in an interview. “We are ready for the 15th.”
The system will keep its current operations when the economy reopens, at least for the first few months. For most of the pandemic, BART has operated its weekday service on a reduced frequency, running trains every 30 minutes. That has resulted in longer wait times for those still riding the system during the pandemic.
But in planning to ramp up services starting Sept. 13, the transit system is betting that increased services in the fall as the region further reopens will lure back a greater share of lapsed passengers.
I haven’t taken BART in more than a year. What’s different?
For one, expect to see much thinner crowds.
It’s rare to see a train car nowadays filled with more than 30 passengers, according to BART data on average passenger loads. Many train cars now average less than a dozen passengers, a markedly different sight from prepandemic train cars jampacked with commuters during the weekday traffic rush.
The trains are also reaching new areas. Last June, BART extended its line to northeast San Jose, crossing passengers into Santa Clara County for the first time.
Another notable difference is reflected in the system’s progressive policing efforts that have continued during the pandemic. How the system approaches policing was a key wedge issue in November’s board elections. Powers said BART plans to hire civilian crisis intervention specialists meant to serve as primary responders to homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness on the system’s trains and stations later this year. The system plans on “doubling the ambassadors who are out there,” Powers said. BART began using ambassadors in early 2020. These 10 unarmed community service officers do not have the power to detain or arrest people and are meant to monitor trains in teams of two and help defuse conflicts.
Customer satisfaction surveys from 2020 and 2018 showed that rider satisfaction increased 16 percentage points during the pandemic. Still, customers gave BART its lowest ratings when it came to cleanliness, personal security and how the system addresses homelessness and enforces fare evasions.
“Every problem that was at BART’s doorstep has not miraculously disappeared over the past year,” Board Director Bevan Dufty said. “But I think that improvements have been made and I think there are some notable things that people will experience.”
How safe is it to ride BART nowadays?
BART crime rates for 2020 declined 62% overall compared with 2019, according to police department data. The decline reflects the steep drop in ridership and is similar to the crime drops seen in San Francisco during the pandemic.
Some forms of crime on BART saw greater decreases than others in 2020.
For example, there were 3,177 larceny and auto burglaries in 2019 compared with 1,038 incidents in 2020, a 67% decline. Robberies on BART dropped 33% in 2020 to 252 incidents compared with 378 in 2019, according to BART police crime data. There were 95 aggravated assaults at BART in 2020, a 15% drop from 2019’s 112 incidents.
Violent crime in the system had more than doubled in the years prior to the pandemic. It is unclear how these figures will change once more people begin riding the system’s trains. But Powers said passengers should expect to see a more visible presence of police officers and unarmed ambassadors monitoring train cars.
The system is also taking steps to combat sexual harassment on BART. As part of a new initiative, Not One More Girl, BART has begun tracking data and plans to give staff and police additional training on sexual harassment prevention.
According to an inaugural survey conducted between October and December, 10% of riders who responded said they experienced some form of sexual harassment on BART in the last six months.
Will BART be “cleaner” than ever?
That’s what BART seems to be promising.
BART is hiring 17 fulltime employees and more than 70 parttime staff to clean train cars, seats, restrooms and stations more often in response to frequent complaints from riders about cleanliness.
By June the system expects to redirect pandemicrelated deepcleaning efforts, such as fogging cars and disinfecting surfaces, that research now shows ineffectively reduces risk of transmitting the virus toward more frequent and thorough traditional cleaning.
All trains will be equipped with MERV 14 air filters to improve circulation this summer. The system is repainting and repairing 75 restrooms throughout the system’s stations.
Powers said BART is renewing focus on cleanliness because it will prove critical in getting people to return to public transportation.
Will I still be required to wear a mask?
Yes. In his announcement to reopen California’s economy by June, Gov. Gavin Newsom also said the state’s mask mandate would remain indefinitely. Though there isn’t full mask compliance on the trains, survey data collected by BART shows an overwhelming majority of passengers wear face masks.
How much has ridership recovered?
More than 400,000 riders used BART on an average prepandemic weekday. BART saw its highest daily ridership during the pandemic April 15, when 59,285 people rode its trains.
That figure was 85% below BART’s expected ridership.
Public transit agencies across the Bay Area and county are each grappling with low ridership. The struggle, though, is felt more acutely in rail transit systems like BART, Caltrain and Amtrak where a greater share of riders are more likely to also have access to cars as well, said Giovanni Circella, director of the 3 Revolutions Future Mobility Program at UC Davis.
BART anticipates it will recover 49% of its prepandemic ridership by the end of fiscal 2022, according to base projections. But those projections also illustrate a range of uncertainty that could mean as little as 35% of BART’s ridership and as much as 70% could come back by next summer, BART estimates.
Will we see the return of rushhour crowds?
In the before times, 9to5 commutes made up an outsize share of BART’s weekday ridership. About twothirds of trips on the system either began or were headed to one of the four downtown San Francisco stations. Now, with remote work expected to stay in some form, it is unlikely that highvolume rushhour traffic will return to the system, at least in the nearterm. Many key downtown employers have not yet made plans to bring their workers back to offices.
What is BART’s financial picture, and how will it affect riders?
BART and other Bay Area transit operators got a $1.7 billion financial lifeline from the American Rescue Plan, the third federal coronavirus stimulus bill.
The federal aid is helping to plug the system’s budget holes for the nearterm, but steep declines in the fare revenue that BART heavily relies have cost the system more than $1 billion in losses through fiscal 2022. BART was expected to raise fare prices by 3.4% to account for inflation in January, but the Board of Directors is considering delaying the scheduled fare hike until July 2022.
Who is riding BART nowadays?
As BART’s ridership trends have changed, so have their demographics. People of color made up threequarters of ridership during the pandemic, according to BART’s customer satisfaction survey. More than half of the survey’s respondents said they didn’t have a car compared with 31% in 2018.
Here’s a more detailed breakdown: 25% of BART’s riders were white in 2020, compared with 35% in 2018. 25% of BART’s 2020 ridership was Hispanic, an eight percentagepoint increase from 2018. 21% of 2020 riders were Black, compared with 10% in 2018. 21% of riders during the pandemic were Asian or Pacific Islander, compared with 32% in 2018.
The changing demographics on BART and other public transit systems are a reflection of the pandemic’s stark impacts on whitecollar and bluecollar workforces. The changes in demographics “is not because members of minorities have suddenly started to use public transit more, it’s the opposite,” Circella, the UC Davis professor, said. “A lot of white users have disappeared because they are more likely to be in jobs they can do remotely.”