Next in Your BART Future: Fewer Seats, More Standing Room

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BART passengers pack themselves onto a San Francisco-bound train in January.  (Tom Parker via Twitter)

If you're a regular rush-hour rider on BART, you know all about "crush loading."

That's the daily reality on the transit system's commute-hour trains, with passengers jamming onto cars so tightly that people can barely move (and thanks, everyone, for taking off your backpacks). Rush-hour runs are sometimes so packed that passengers can't board and are left to wait for the next train, or the one after that.

That's a situation BART promises will ease as it introduces its Fleet of the Future train cars over the next five years or so.

That's cold comfort for today's commuters, though, and BART's on the verge of adopting what its staff calls "short-term capacity improvements."

Again, if you're a regular BART rider, you have likely seen what these "improvements" look like: The agency has experimented with three alternative configurations in which seats are removed to make more room for people to stand on and move through cars.

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In one configuration, seven single seats replace the double seats along one side of the car's central aisle. In another, four double seats in the center of the car -- eight in all -- are removed. In a third pattern, four double seats -- again, eight seats in all -- are removed just inside one of the cars' entry doors.

Three different seating configurations that BART tested as part of effort to add passenger capacity.
Three different seating configurations that BART tested as part of effort to add passenger capacity. (BART)

BART's board of directors is expected to vote next week on a staff proposal to adopt one of the new configurations -- and remove thousands of seats from the system's 669-car fleet.

Board President Rebecca Saltzman acknowledges the agency is walking a tricky line.

BART customer satisfaction is at an all-time low -- "all time" comprising surveys conducted every two years since 1996. Crowding is a big reason people are unhappy, though the most recent customer survey found that passengers who manage to get a seat are generally much more pleased with their BART experience.

Fewer seats wouldn't seem likely to make the masses any less crabby. And as BART itself has noted, passenger dissatisfaction is likely a factor in a ridership decline that, although small so far, could affect the agency's bottom line.

"It's a difficult situation right now," Saltzman said. "Ideally, we'd have a lot more space for people both to sit and to stand. But we're at the point of making a decision: Do we have more places for people to sit? Or are some people going to be passed up entirely and not be able to ride BART?"

In a BART survey, the most popular alternative seating configuration was replacing the double seats along one side of the train with seven single seats. BART says 54 percent of passengers surveyed after riding those cars said the trip was better than on the agency's regular cars; 32 percent said the ride was worse.

BART surveyed riders about three alternative seating configurations.
BART surveyed riders about three alternative seating configurations. (BART)

In addition to being somewhat more popular with riders, that configuration "is the one that really opens up the car so there's no choke point," Saltzman said. "There's not the narrow aisle down the car, people can spread out quite a bit and there's room for luggage, strollers, things like that."

In its meeting next week, the board is expected to act on a December staff proposal to modify 380 cars with the new layout. Removing seven seats from each of those cars would result in a loss of 2,660 seats. BART staff calculates, though, that about three people will be able to stand in each space where a seat has been removed. Our back of the envelope math suggests that would result in a theoretical net capacity gain of about 5,000 passengers.

The seat removal project would take most of the year to complete and cost $1.7 million. BART expects a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to cover the cost.