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BART's Plan to Win Us Back

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People are seen through the open doorway of a train car.
Passengers aboard a San Francisco bound train wait for the doors to close at the 19th Street BART station in Oakland on Aug. 2, 2018. (Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

View the full episode transcript.

On Monday, BART rolled out a new schedule and changes to its system. They’re calling it a “reimagined” service plan. Combine that with increased police and non-uniformed personnel, and it’s clear that BART is trying to make changes that woo riders back onto its trains. Will it work?


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to The Bay. Local News to Keep You Rooted. Bad news about BART just doesn’t surprise me anymore. The system has been struggling to get people on its trains again since the pandemic and has been battling a public relations crisis around crime and safety. That plus the delays and all the other problems that regular riders are probably used to seeing.

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Montage of listener voicemails: They often go home for Sunday dinner with the family and it’s often really delayed and it just feels inconsistent. It’s also already way too expensive. I used to actually be a regular BART right here. I do agree with a lot of the sentiment regarding the public that it’s just a little unfair.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: But this week, BART made some big changes to its system and the agency is hoping that it’s enough to bring people back and riders are hoping so, too.

Montage of listener voicemails: I definitely have noticed the new schedule this week and it’s been a welcome change. Overall, I’d really continue to root for BART and hope that they can figure out their financing. I really hope to see BART fully recover because it is a great service, but I want it to be better and I love it because I know that it’s not the best we deserve, but I want it to be better and it’s the best we have right now. Ugh, I have mixed feelings, I love BART and I hate BART.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Today we’re talking with KQED, Dan Brakey, about all the changes BART just made to its system and the tall order. It’s got to win your heart back. Stay with us.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Dan Brekke is a transportation editor for KQED.

Dan Brekke: One of the changes would be that no one would ever have more than a 20 minute wait. That would happen by actually reducing some of the weekdays service on the lesser traveled lines like the line between Richmond and Barry s, for instance, there would be an increase in service on the busiest line, which is the line between Pittsburgh, Bay Point and SFO, San Francisco International Airport. Now the trade off on that line is those trains are running every 10 minutes and those other lines like from Richmond to Barry s, they’re only running every 20 minutes. And if they sort of evened everything out, you could have trains all day, every day, every 20 minutes. It’s a big change. And there are some things that people are not totally in love with yet, but it seems to be working pretty well so far.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: A part of that change, too, is that they’re actually way less of the old legacy BART trains and more of the sort of new ones, right?

Dan Brekke: Yes, that’s exactly right. BART made a sort of big production out of what it called the final trip by a legacy fleet train. These are cars that go back to the very beginning of BART. BART is 51 years old this month, and they’re looking a little beat right now. And so as part of this change service, BART is retiring. Those from regular service, you still may see them. What the service is supposed to feature each and every day for all service hours is it’s the brand new train. You know, these new cars represent a big advance in the customer experience in a lot of ways. But there are some things that people don’t like so much. The seating configuration is different. Some people find the seats too hard and stuff like that. But anyway, you have brand new cars, better ventilation and better signage and announcements and all of that.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And then the trains are also going to be shorter, like actually fewer cars, right? What’s that about?

Dan Brekke: At the beginning of the pandemic, BART began running almost exclusively ten car trains. And that was because there was this concern about social distancing. There were many fewer people riding, but to make them feel comfortable, the trains were made longer than they typically had been earlier so that people could space themselves out on the cars. But BART is looking at a number of things that make it feel like it needed to change how it was managing those train lengths. So what they’ve done starting this week is to just run shorter trains on most lines like the one from Richmond to Barry S in the East Bay or from Dublin, Pleasanton to Daly City, for instance. They’re cutting the train lengths from the typical ten cars before to six cars. And then on that busy Pittsburgh Bay point to SFO line they’re cutting the train lengths to eight cars. And BART says it’s trying to do several things there. One thing running fewer cars actually saves maintenance costs and makes the system a little cheaper to run. They have fewer cars to clean. They can process a lot more of them a lot more quickly. They also say it will be easier to police the trains with both uniformed police officers, fare inspectors, crisis intervention specialists and community ambassadors that it’s easier to manage the shorter trains. And then there’s the idea that having shorter trains means, of course, the crowding is going to be more of a factor. There’s a denser population and having more people on the cars will discourage people from doing things that other passengers might not like so much. And finally, having the shorter trains means that people, when they want to ride in the front car, for instance, to be near a train operator, This is an issue for women passengers especially. They don’t have to wait all the way at the end of a lonely platform to do that. So that’s what BART’s up to with the shorter trains.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I do feel like most of the talk about BART lately has been pretty negative. I mean, everyone kind of keeps talking about these fears of safety on BART, and I want to play this one voicemail that we actually got from Jimmy from San Francisco.

Jimmy from San Francisco One traumatic experience I remember actually was not too long ago, I was actually at the 16th Mission BART Station, and I recalled a couple of young juveniles had walked in the train. They sat right behind me, but I started smelling something. It turns out they were just lighting things on fire. I felt very uncomfortable. That ended up having to move to a different train. But, you know, I don’t think that’s the experience that most riders want to have. And I really think that BART to step down on its feet until they fix this issue. I don’t see myself coming back on BART.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I guess coming out of hearing what Jimmy just said. Like it sounds like these changes are an attempt to bring people like Jimmy back onto bar, it sounds like.

Dan Brekke: Absolutely. And the thinking, moving from the abstract that I was talking about to the specific now, I mean, the thinking is that if there were a lot of people on that train car, these two people who were doing something that was disturbing and dangerous wouldn’t do that. Now, there are some people who are very bold about what they’ll do, and maybe they wouldn’t be deterred by that. But anyway, that is the theory for sure. And that is a good example, that episode that he’s talking about of the kinds of things that people say they just don’t want to see.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Can you give us a sense of what is going on in the minds of the people running the agency? Like, what is their motivation behind these changes?

Dan Brekke: Bottom line, they really need to get writers to return in large numbers much, much larger than they’ve seen so far. The state legislature has also weighed in on this. They want to see real improvements in public transit performance. And BART often comes up in these conversations before the state commits more money to public transit. That is really the long term thinking there. And the reason it’s so particularly important for BART is because historically it has depended on passengers to help run the railroad on a day to day basis. I mean, BART was paying, you know, depending on how you count the dollars, 60 to 70% of its operating costs from passenger fares. And, of course, that has crashed longer term. Voters in the Bay Area in all, nine counties are going to be asked at some point to pass some kind of tax measure that will provide permanent or at least very long term operating support for BART. And BART has to make the case that it’s worth a yes vote when that finally comes to the ballot, probably in 2026.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, I know it’s early, Dan, but do we know anything about whether these changes are actually working?

Dan Brekke: Well, based on the first three days of ridership numbers, it seems to be working very, very well. On Monday, they had 158,000 riders, which was the best Monday they’ve had since March 2020. On Tuesday, they had 192,000 riders, which was their best day ever since the pandemic started. And then Wednesday, they were just a hair short of 193,000. So another record. So three days in a row they’ve had what amounts to record ridership. We know that there are things going on. We don’t know the impact of Dreamforce, for instance, this big convention that Salesforce holds in San Francisco, that’s adding to ridership to some extent. We don’t know exactly how much, though.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: We did hear from a listener, Michelle from Livermore, who definitely loves BART, but who is, I think, one of the people who’s starting to notice the impact of these changes.

Michelle from Livermore Just now tonight, I’m coming back from commuting and I know it’s Dreamforce, but with shorter, less amount of cars on the train. Oh my God. It was packed like New York City passed to where the operator had to tell people near the doors to give room so that people could leave as their stops to get out. So it’s going to take a little bit of choreography for people to understand, to move into the center as much as they can. Instead of hanging out by the doors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I love that little bit of choreography. I feel like that’s not something people have really had to think about on board anymore. But now, I mean, I’m like, remember when people would have to take off their backpacks to make room for other people in the bar, Jane’s den.

Dan Brekke: That is just what I was thinking of. But what she’s talking about is, is the BART experience people had from, say, 2014 to 20 1819, especially that people didn’t love. But, you know, as Michelle said, it was reminiscent of New York. Guess what? New York is the number one transit friendly, if not entirely transit efficient city on the continent. And, you know, that’s the way you move around masses of people in a dense city. And so we’ll see. I mean, I think this is something BART is going to have to negotiate with its riders somewhat. They have already said that they’re watching crowding statistics very closely and that they will add longer trains as needed as the situation evolves, and especially if riders start to return. And even larger numbers.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: People, I think, do want BART to work. And we actually got a voicemail from someone who acknowledges that like, yes, BART is a little rough around the edges, but we do just kind of want it to work. So here’s Gloria from Oakland.

Gloria from Oakland I have taken public transit as long as I have been getting around independently, kind of inspired by my late father, who always thought, if you want to experience the city, you’ve got to experience a public transit. So I guess I’m a bit of a BART loyalist. Sure, there are some frustrations with the system. I get super mad about delays, broken escalators, dirty cars. BART is not perfect, but I am a loyalist. I am mostly excited about the big changes, saying I hope it helps. BART gets groove back. I really can’t imagine living in the bay without BART.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I mean, it makes me feel like warm and fuzzy. Like, I don’t know. I feel like BART is such a part of Bay Area life. And I would like for it to be part of Bay Area life in the future as well.

Dan Brekke: And what’s really interesting to me about Gloria’s comment is that somebody who kind of is willing to take the world as it is, she’d like to like it to be a little bit better than she experiences it on BART sometimes. But she recognizes that the service is necessary beyond the simple convenience or maybe the delight that most people want to have in in their daily experiences. You know, this really isn’t just about BART. A lot of transit agencies are facing these big financial challenges, but it’s also about trying to persuade people to use transit instead of driving solo. You know, the Bay Area prides itself on being this transit rich, transit friendly area. But you know what? It really isn’t so much. Only one in 20 trips that people take in a bay area are by transit for commute trips. The most popular way of getting to work for forever has been to drive solo. And so the bigger question is how do you change that? And it’s a big deal. It’s a it’s part of the state’s climate goals. That’s a bigger challenge that is hanging over this entire discussion.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, what do you think, Dan? Do you think that in the long run, all these changes are going to help? Is it is it going to be enough to save BART?

Dan Brekke: I mean, I think BART in some form is here to stay. You know, it’ll be part of our lives to some extent, you know, ten or 20 or 30 years from now. What will it be like is the question, is it going to be a service that can handle that big commute or is it going to be something that, you know, frankly goes back to its early days where service was actually not very robust? The service was running on a shoestring, and it really isn’t part of people’s daily lives the way it has been in the more recent past. Here we are, three and a half years after that pandemic crash, and BART still isn’t at 50% of its weekday ridership. So BART’s trying to improve its public image, show that it’s responding to rider sentiment and providing the best service that people can reasonably expect.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Dan, thank you so much for chatting with me about BART. I really appreciate it.

Dan Brekke: I really appreciate being asked to chat about it. I love talking to you.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Dan Brekke, a transportation editor for KQED. This 40-minute conversation with Dan was cut down and edited by producer Maria Esquinca. Alan Montecillo is our senior editor. He scored this episode and added all the tape. Also, a special shout out to all the Bay listeners who left us voicemails. I really loved hearing from Dave in Orinda. Michelle in Livermore, Denise, Gloria, Paul and Shane in Oakland and Jimmy and Zach out in San Francisco. Thank you so much for making this episode so much fuller. Thanks to your voicemails. And shout out as well to the rest of our podcast squad here at KQED. That’s Jen Chien, our director of podcasts; Katie Sprenger, our podcast operations manager; César Saldaña, our podcast engagement producer. And Holly Kernan, our Chief Content Officer. The Bay is a production of member-supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks so much for listening. Peace.

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