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Why Doesn't BART Go More Places?

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A BART train pulls out of an above ground station. Cars whiz by alongside and the city of San Francisco looms in the background.
A Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train pulls away from Oakland's Rockridge station on Aug. 2, 2013. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Read a transcript of this episode here.

UC Berkeley doctoral candidate Ziad Shafi has lived in several parts of the U.S. and in Europe. In Washington, D.C., he was impressed with the metro system, which took him most places he wanted to go. Same thing in many European cities. So, when he moved to the Bay Area and started riding BART, he was a little confused. Look at any BART map and you’ll see lines converging from Contra Costa and Alameda counties on a single corridor through the Transbay Tube across San Francisco and down the Peninsula to San Francisco International Airport and Millbrae.

“Metros and subways in European cities tend to be spread out, hitting every city corner,” Ziad said. “Why do four of the five BART lines (red, yellow, green, blue) go all the way from West Oakland to Daly City? It seems like a mistake.”

Ziad submitted his question to Bay Curious and it won a voting round, so a lot of people have been wondering why BART was designed this way.

Of course, what one person sees as a mistake can be another’s very deliberate strategy. And in this case, BART’s route is the product of what public officials, business interests and planners in the 1950s thought a rapid transit system should be. They planned BART as a system with a single main line on its route down to the Peninsula. (Yes, BART was originally envisioned as a system that would also run west through northern and parts of western San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond, but that plan died in 1962 when Marin County officials opted out of the system.)

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The growing dominance of the automobile — and the massive highway construction that went along with it — lay behind the choice of a main line system whose central mission was to get commuters and shoppers from outlying areas to and from downtown San Francisco and Oakland.

A 1955 status report (PDF) prepared for the commission overseeing BART planning argued that the only way a regional rapid transit system would persuade drivers to get out of their cars was if service was fast, frequent and comfortable. Patronage would depend on having widely spaced stations, each with a huge parking lot or easy bus access.

Planners contrasted that with what they termed a “neighborhood system,” one that would be within walking distance of most Bay Area homes, and which would require lots of train lines and lots of stops. While that kind of service might be accessible, the frequency of stops and longer waits between trains would mean it was slower — and thus unlikely to woo drivers who were believed to value speed and personal convenience above all.

“The foregoing considerations compel in our minds a recommendation for a main line, trunk system, even without taking into account its much lower capital and operating costs as compared to a neighborhood system,” the 1955 memo said.

A 1970 aerial view of freeway and rapid transit construction in Oakland, California.
Aerial view of the Grove-Shafter Freeway and Bay Area Rapid Transit MacArthur Station construction on Aug. 29, 1970, in Oakland. (Russ Reed, from plane flown by Warren Boggess/MediaNews Group-Oakland Tribune via Getty Images)

Now, one shouldn’t forget that there was — and is — transit that ties into BART on both sides of the bay. In San Francisco, we’re talking about Muni, mostly. And in the East Bay, we’re talking about AC Transit. If you add those network maps to the rather skeletal BART system, transit looks much more robust — though yes, you’re required to jump from one operator to another to get to your destination.

There are a couple of important historical notes to touch upon regarding Muni and the possibility of more rapid transit in San Francisco.

San Francisco rejects new subway lines

City officials had started touting the possibility of citywide subway service as far back as the first decade of the 20th century. Those initiatives were moved to the back burner several times — by “no” votes from the electorate, World War II and, later, by the belief that with BART on the way, such a system might be redundant. The last serious attempt to turn that idea into reality came in 1966.

Proposition B on the city’s November ballot that year included a $96.5 million bond issue that would help pay for construction of three new rapid transit subways across the city. The new routes — one to the Richmond District, one to the Sunset, one to the San Francisco State neighborhood by way of Twin Peaks — would take advantage of BART’s two-level subway tunnel under Market Street and make it possible to reach downtown in 20 minutes from anywhere along the line.

The measure, which would require tax increases, needed a two-thirds vote to pass. It garnered only a 57% “yes” vote. The plan was never revived.

A 1966 newspaper map showing proposed routes for San Francisco rapid transit.
A map the San Francisco Examiner printed just before the November 1966 vote on a bond issue to fund a Muni rapid transit network in San Francisco. The caption read: “Here’s a look at the overall transit plan showing the six major high-speed subways and bus lines. Routes 1, 4 and 6 would be financed by Proposition B. Passage of Proposition B at the Nov. 8 elections qualify the Muni for federal aid to build No. 2 and No. 2. BART is building No. 5.” (San Francisco Examiner via Newspapers.com)

Jason Henderson, a San Francisco State University professor of geography who has written extensively on the city’s transportation politics, said in his 2013 book “Street Fight” that the measure failed for a variety of reasons: a distaste for higher taxes and fear that the new subways would spur unwanted dense development. Voters were unconvinced the new transit plan, which would scrap the existing J, K, L, M and N streetcar lines, would be an improvement on Muni’s existing network. Henderson wrote:

“Some neighborhood groups were opposed to the proposal because the plan included restructuring of the bus routes so that the buses fed into the rapid transit trunk lines. … Passengers’ actual travel times would be higher with the transfer and restructuring of routes. The transit plan of 1966 discontinued almost all electric trolley bus service, replacing it with a diesel bus fleet. Some neighborhood groups opposed the proposal on these grounds because in San Francisco, with its many hills, diesel buses performed especially poorly and were extremely noisy compared to electric buses.”

But that’s the past. Is a denser, more efficient transit system — the kind our question-asker Ziad talked about — in our future?

In an interview with Bay Curious, Henderson said that in order to “decarbonize” rapidly enough to head off the worst effects of climate change, staggering levels of new investment will be necessary to build a regional rail system and interim systems like busways where it might be too expensive or time-consuming to build train lines.

“In Northern California, we’re a region that should be tied together by a train system that rivals or exceeds the freeway system we have,” Henderson said. “I think we could spend the next generation building that. And yes, it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, but that’s what we’ve got to spend to address the climate issue.”

Making current system more efficient

A regional rail system is coming — eventually. BART and other agencies are working on Link21, an effort to refine a plan for a second transbay rail crossing, and building out improved train service for the “megaregion” stretching to Sacramento and the northern San Joaquin Valley.

A passenger train reflected in a trackside puddle at sunset.
Amtrak California’s Capitol Corridor — seen here at Alviso on the south end of San Francisco Bay — is among the partners in the Link21 program to create improved regional rail service. (Max Camden/Link21-BART)

But like other big transportation projects in our region — San Francisco’s Central Subway, BART’s planned extension through downtown San José to Santa Clara, the planned extension of Caltrain to the Salesforce Transit Center, among others — a second transbay crossing promises to be not only expensive, but very slow in moving from plan to reality. Link21’s estimated date for completion is 2039.

Given the urgency of climate change and the role that clean transportation can play in providing a solution, Henderson is one of many people impatient to see progress.

“We gotta move fast,” he said. “We’ve got to be scaling up and rolling this stuff out this decade and in the early part of the ’30s if we’re gonna really seriously take on this climate issue. And we need to be inspiring the rest of the country.”

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