'A Complete Joke': BART Riders Pan New 'Pop-Up' Fare Gates at Fruitvale Station

BART riders wait to use a limited number of newly modified fare gates at Fruitvale Station, as repairman fixes one of several malfunctioning machines.  (Matthew Green/KQED)

My survey was informal and unscientific, but the results were nevertheless definitive: None — not one — of the 20-some BART passengers I queried as they entered or exited Fruitvale Station on a recent weekday afternoon thought the new ticket-gate prototypes would do a thing to prevent fare evasion.

"I thought they were going to be higher," said Don Walker, an Oakland native. "If someone really wants to jump the fare gate, they will. I'm 62 years old and I could pole-vault over there right now."

As if on cue, a shirtless man approached the gate, took a step back, and vaulted cleanly over the roughly 4-inch metal plates protruding from the middle of the gates.

"This sh-- don't work," he said on landing, then walked briskly toward the stairs leading up to the platform.

"People are still going to find a way through," said Tre Holland, as he reached for his Clipper card. "People still gonna do what they want. It is what it is."

BART estimates that it loses as much as $25 million a year to fare evasion, and has taken measures since early last year to stem what it calls "an epidemic" that creates a perception of lawlessness among paying riders.

The agency has deployed a small team of fare inspectors who rove stations and trains and require passengers to show proof of payment, an effort backed up by intermittent fare enforcement sweeps at some stations.

Last winter BART also retrofitted existing fare gates at several stations, including Embarcadero and Antioch, increasing the air pressure used to cinch the barrier closed in an effort to thwart forced entry.

In June, it installed its first prototype of a more dramatically modified fare gate, at Richmond Station — a set of double-decker wedges that open and close at waist and chest level, and on Twitter were quickly dubbed "skull-crushers."

"They need to rebuild them like they do it in France," said Karen Marie Schroeder, referring to the full-length glass gates in the Paris Metro. She glanced at the new gates at Fruitvale and admitted she hadn't even initially noticed the difference. "This is just a ridiculous system."

The model being tested at Fruitvale, which social media critics have called, among other things, the "reverse guillotine," was installed in mid-July. When the original orange triangular-wedged fare gate arms snap closed, a slanted metal plate, resembling a shark's fin, pops out of the top, switchblade-style, slightly raising the clearance height. It drops down again when the arms open.

Yet, over the course of an hour, I counted at least 15 fare evaders. A few jumped over the gates, while the rest "piggybacked" behind paying customers or simply strolled through the emergency gate next to the agent's booth after reaching over the top and hitting the release bar to open it.

During that time, not one person was stopped or questioned, and no BART police officers were visible in the immediate vicinity.

"It's so frustrating," said a BART station agent who didn't want her name used because, she said, she was not technically allowed to speak to the press. "That gate doesn't stop anybody. This is just a complete joke. We look like we have egg on our face."

In the weeks since they were installed, she said, the metal plates have consistently malfunctioned, requiring ongoing visits from repair crews — including one that was busy trying to fix several damaged gates while I was there. Some gates appeared to function only intermittently, to the seeming bewilderment of some riders as they tried to legitimately enter the station.

A man reaches over the emergency gate to open it and walk through without paying his fare, directly in front of the station agent. (Matthew Green/KQED)

The agent said in the 25 years she's worked for BART, she's never seen fare evasion as bad as it has been in recent years.

"I mean, look, it's a free-for-all. You can do whatever you want," she said, scowling, as a man leisurely walked through the swinging door directly in front of her. "And we're not allowed to say anything. ... That's why they're doing it."

In an effort to prevent assaults on station agents, BART prohibits them from confronting fare evaders. Some agents page the police when they see a violation, but even that, said the Fruitvale agent, is now discouraged.

"It's grown so much, it's honestly the norm. I'm really surprised people are still paying at all," she said. And, she thinks, it will only get worse when BART raises fares in January. "[BART is] always crying poor, and here's a lot of their money."

She described seeing a well-dressed man in a suit and tie walk through the gate every day for months. When he finally got caught and slapped with a $75 ticket, he told the inspector he'd be glad to pay it, given all the money he'd saved from the free rides.

The prototypes at Richmond and Fruitvale stations have been lambasted on social media as examples of "hostile design" that alienates the poor and people with disabilities. Some critics have also questioned BART's decision to test them at two stations with high rates of minority ridership.

"Don’t like it," said a young man who had literally just walked through the door without paying. "Psychologically, it’s messed up. You don’t see these in Pleasanton. It’s gentrification."

BART emphasizes that both are pilots that were thoughtfully designed by in-house engineers and vetted for safety. And because they're built into the existing fare gates, they're significantly more affordable than a wholesale replacement of the 600 fare gates in the system, which the agency estimates could cost as much as $200 million. By contrast, the two prototypes were about $200,000 to build and install, said BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

"First, they are a pilot," Trost said. "The idea is, what can we do to prevent people from hopping over the gate or pushing through? And so we are monitoring it very closely and talking with station managers."

Trost said the new designs are in part a response to a recent survey of riders, who overwhelmingly expressed concern about fare evasion and the uptick in theft, vagrancy and drug use they believe is linked to it.

A BART repair crew fixing one of the new gate prototypes at Fruitvale Station. (Matthew Green/KQED)

BART chose to pilot the prototypes at Richmond and Fruitvale stations based on factors like passenger volume and the number of ticket-gate arrays, Trost said. (Fruitvale, for instance, has only one set of gates and Richmond is a relatively low-traffic station). Reports from station agents of high rates of fare evasion at those stations also factored into the decision, she said.

BART's board will ultimately vote on how to proceed with a larger overhaul of gates throughout the system, Trost said, although it's not clear when that decision will be made.

“One of the realities of BART is that we don’t get the same level of government subsidies as many other transit agencies," Trost said, noting that more than 75% of operating costs are paid by fares. "That's how much we rely on fares, and why we have to get a handle on it. Without fares, we can't pay for service."

And while it would be effective to have a police officer stationed at every set of fare gates, she added, that's simply not feasible. There just aren't enough of them.

"We just added 19 new [police officer] positions for this fiscal year," she said. "But we’ll never have enough officers to be at every station. Our officers remain very mobile."

Back at Fruitvale Station, I lingered to watch a handful more riders beat the fare.

"It's not going to work," said a young woman, assessing BART's latest strategy, as she stood in front of the gate, shuffling through her handbag. She waited for a paying passenger to come in and then quickly piggybacked through the gate behind him.

On the other side, she looked back at me with a sly grin.

"See," she said. And then she hustled to catch her train.

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