BART Opened 50 Years Ago This Week—And Boy Were People Excited

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President Richard Nixon marvels at the Lake Merritt sign as he leaves a BART train, two months after the East Bay system opened. (Larry Tiscornia/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

As we all know, the 1970s were a brutalist hellscape made of concrete, brown platform shoes, serial killers and—especially in California—LSD hangovers. It was not a cute time to be alive, even in our beloved Bay Area.

Making things infinitely worse in the early-’70s was the relentless construction of a new-fangled transportation system known as Bay Area Rapid Transit. Building started in 1964 and went full tilt in the run-up to BART’s opening day on Sept. 11, 1972. And that construction ran through some major thoroughfares. San Francisco’s Market Street, for example, was decimated for years.

Let’s look at the traffic misery as it escalated:

A series of wooden slats run the length of Market Street, surrounded by small orange cones as streetcars drive up the opposite side of the road.
These temporary streetcar tracks look totally safe! Market and Second, 1967. (OpenSFHistory / wnp32.2815)
Market Street, near First Street, in 1969. (OpenSFHistory / wnp32.2789)
A street car runs up Market St on top of a temporary wooden roadway. Construction is visible on one half of the street.
Market and Hyde, 1970. (OpenSFHistory / wnp25.6817)
A downtown intersection including five buses, two cranes and a van, all stationary as construction goes on on all sides.
Market and Battery, doing a chaos in 1970. (OpenSFHistory / wnp32.2785)
A major intersection is entirely closed as construction takes place.
Market and Fremont in February 1972. (OpenSFHistory / wnp32.2836)

In San Francisco, BART didn’t even start running until 1973, the Transbay Tube between downtown and West Oakland wasn’t ready until ’74, and Embarcadero Station only arrived in ’76. But after so much buildup and chaos, the Bay Area was psyched to see the first sections of BART open in ’72—even though that only included 12 East Bay stations between MacArthur and Fremont.

Despite the fact that they could hop on a train the next day, next week, or, who knows, 50 years down the line, approximately 15,000 people showed up to ride on BART’s first day. They waited for hours on crowded platforms, as trains struggled to keep up with the passenger loads—an issue exacerbated by revelers refusing to get off the trains for hours. The Examiner reported that the very patient humans stuck at stations handled it “with good grace and a sense of history.” Many were apparently wearing pins that read: “Day One. I was there. Sept. 11.” (If you happen to stumble across one of these while thrifting, remember it’s about BART and not, well, you know, the other thing.)

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On the trains, according to a Concord Transcript report the following day, “Passengers crowded aboard, and seats on many trains were full with people in the aisles, packed like sardines, three abreast in a 70 mile-per-hour aluminum can.” (So like every pre-pandemic rush-hour then...)

After one intrepid reporter tried out the trains, the Peninsular Times Tribune noted: “Compared to the subway systems in New York and Philadelphia, BART offers a very smooth quiet ride at high speeds.” (Tell that to the KQED listener who wrote to Bay Curious in 2016 to ask why the trains “scream like banshees.”)

The reason everyone was so excited about the smoothness and comfort levels of BART at the time was because it was more modern than literally every other transport system in the country. So much so that U.S. News & World Report magazine called it “a marvel of technology.” Everything about the heavily computerized BART system was indeed state of the art—as evidenced by this photo of a train controller in 1972.

A Black man in 1970s attire sits at a control desk with several keyboards, a phone receiver, a screen and a microphone.
Train Controller Carroll Shepard at the console of then-BART headquarters, Lake Merritt Station, two weeks before opening day. (MediaNews Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images)

I think we can all agree that that gorgeous console in front of Mr. Shepard would be perfectly at home in sci-fi classics like Battlestar Galactica (the original series), Westworld (the original movie) or THX 1138 (George Lucas’ first feature film). What’s that? You've never heard of THX 1138? Well, it stars Robert Duvall with a shaved head, it’s about humans being denied sex lives, and it actually did use the real-life, under-construction BART control room and tunnels as sets.

Let’s marvel now at how futuristic BART—and the Broadway Street tunnel!—looks once there’s a bunch of motorcycle-riding robots involved:

On Sept. 11 itself, the San Francisco Examiner interviewed several transportation enthusiasts who were in attendance for opening day. These included a 25-year-old San Franciscan named George Mitchell, who had set a record in 1966 for riding every train and stopping at every station in every borough of New York City. Which took him 24 hours and 44 minutes and sounds like a wretched ordeal no human should ever suffer. “I plan to do the same with BART when it’s completed,” he said, like a maniac.

Then there was a 63-year-old Albany resident named Bonida Cargile who, for some reason, had spent her life trying to be on the first and last modes of transport as they were introduced or canceled. “In the 1930s,” the Examiner noted, “she and her husband rode the last F Line Key System train ... The same day, she took the first Red Train from San Leandro.”

It’s possible that Mitchell and Cargile had a little too much time on their hands, but to each their own! There were plenty of regular, not train-obsessed people in attendance as well. Like Theresa Edwards and her daughter Mekela, seen below, who were the first paying customers at 12th Street Oakland.

A Black woman carrying a toddler makes her way through BART barriers, ticket in hand, as crowds watch on.
Sept. 11, 1972. BART opened. Solid fashion choices were made. (MediaNews Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images)

The Examiner also encountered a young couple on a train who were full of the early-1970s Bay Area spirit (i.e. drugs). The paper reported:

All segments of society were numbered among BART’s opening day riders, and one of these was a pretty little redhead, snuggled in the denimed crook of her boyfriend’s arm, who was especially admiring of the differing station decors. ‘If you get too stoned to read the station signs,’ said she, as the train whisked from the red-brick Oakland Civic Center station to the blue-brick 19th Street Oakland station, ‘all you have to do is remember what color to look for!’

That’s the spirit!

Here’s what Theresa and Mekela and the stoned couple’s train might have looked like on that very first day.

A train travels on elevated tracks, with the sparse Oakland skyline in the distance.
BART on September 11,1972. Hi, Tribune building!

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The Examiner later claimed that 92% of travelers on BART’s opening day thought it was “wonderful.” The paper also noted: “Another 5 percent put it this way: ‘It’s swell!’ While the remaining 3 percent said, ‘It’s tops!’” It’s an approval rating BART has spent the last half century trying its damnedest to match.