A proposed ban on all panhandling and busking on BART trains appears to be moving forward as a new report from the transit agency's legal staff finds that a ban should pass muster if it's only for paid areas like platforms and trains.
Back in August we learned that BART director Debora Allen (Contra Costa County) was pushing to get panhandling — and consequently busking, or performing for donations — deemed illegal on all BART trains. This is part of her effort to address her constituents' concerns about safety and cleanliness on trains, and she says that without the hassle of being asked for dollars and loose change, maybe ridership on BART would start to tick up again after several years of decline.
Now, as the Chronicle reports, agency staff have prepared a report that backs up the legality of instituting such a ban, which critics like the ACLU have said would be unconstitutional. According to the reports, various cities have bans on panhandling on trains, while they do permit busking in certain areas of the transit system.
The idea would be to continue to permit buskers to perform in station entries, plazas, and all unpaid areas, but make that activity illegal in paid areas and on trains.
"Five of the ten largest transit systems in America all prohibit panhandling and/or solicitation inside of their paid areas,” Allen said in a Monday statement. "New York, LA, DC, Atlanta, and Chicago all have ordinances. There is no reason why BART shouldn’t make it six... People come to San Francisco from all over the world and they are shocked by what they see on our transit system... It’s time to bring order, respect and a greater sense of safety to our transit environment at BART."
People aren't likely "shocked" by seeing talented performers doing two-minute shows during the Transbay Tube commute so much as they are bothered by invasive or aggressive panhandling, which BART already has an ordinance against. Panhandling is considered "aggressive" if it involves threats, touching, or the invasion of personal space.
When BART started heading down this road in August, the ACLU penned a letter to the board saying, in part, "Panhandling, as well as busking and other types of communication where individuals may solicit and receive donations, are forms of speech protected under the First Amendment. Singling out and prohibiting these forms of communication would restrict speech based on its content."
And for some buskers, performing on BART is an important income source. SFist covered the Turf Dancers in 2014 not long after they made their way from stations — which shooed them away due to the volume of their amplified music — onto trains. (TURF stands for "taking up room on the floor," and is a form of dance combining contortions, break-dancing and hip-hop that originated in Oakland.) Oakland North recently spoke with some of the turfers who say they regularly bring in $150 apiece after a day on the trains.
But not everyone is a fan. As one SFist commenter put it five years ago, in response to that video, "Subjecting unsuspecting people in an enclosed space to your performance is literally the worst think you can do as a musician/performer."
Similarly, Allen cited comments from customer surveys like this one: "Grown adults put on 'shows' with boom boxes to intimidate and shakedown for money."
BART's directors won't be taking a final vote just yet on Allen's proposal, but the staff report about other transit agencies' busking bans will be presented to the board at this week's meeting, on Thursday.
Janice Li, one of two directors on the nine-person board who represents San Francisco, tells the Examiner, "I can’t see a world where I would support a straight-up ban. I feel like it continues the trajectory of sanitizing the culture of San Francisco and the Bay. We’ve already displaced the arts, and now we’ll regulate it to death? No thanks."
Photo: YR Media