BART has been lamenting a loss of around 10 million riders on weeknights and weekends over the last five years, but the blame does not all belong to rideshare apps.
BART can't just wave a magic wand and get riders back as its aging trains and tracks make for some truly unpleasant — if not dangerous — experiences during late-night and off hours. For some, BART is a necessity to get across the Bay between home and work during hours that aren't primary commute hours. For others, it is one option among several when it comes to navigating the Bay, and the option of last resort for some who want to get where they want to go quickly and without issue.
At its annual two-day workshop for BART Directors this week, the agency revealed the data on this consistent drop in ridership that's been reported often in the last several years. As ABC 7 reports, a survey of BART riders found that the number one reason people aren't riding trains on weekends is that they aren't going out as much — it's this much established fact that as Gen Xers and older Millennials are aging out of nightlife, the younger part of the Millennial generation isn't replacing them because they're all lame homebodies who aren't drinking as much or doing drugs.
But the number two, three, four, and five reasons given were that trains don't run often enough, the insides of trains are filthy and gross, and people are worried about being robbed or accosted while they ride them.
As the workshop concluded Thursday, a favored proposal among a suite of them was to hand out 1 million free weekend ride passes, as the Examiner reports. But this is after the survey did not indicate that the cost of BART was any issue — the cost of a transbay trip is still way cheaper than a Lyft Line or Uber Pool.
Now I'll share a very recent personal experience that made me ask why I hadn't just called for an Uber to get back from Berkeley. After a very long theater experience at Berkeley Rep on Thursday, I was happy to catch a train in Downtown Berkeley just as it was leaving the station. I took a seat just as an erratic seeming homeless man got up from a seat at the rear of the train that was surrounded with spilled rice, food wrappers, and discarded food containers. The man lurched suddenly in my direction before stumbling off the train before it left the station, and then stood looking directionless on the platform.
Still, I was on my way quickly back to SF. But soon I was reminded of the last time I had to do this at night, and how the train sat for an inexplicable 20 minutes at West Oakland station because of single-tracking related to ongoing track maintenance. Something similar happened on this trip, after transferring to a San Francisco-bound train at MacArthur, we sat stuck for about 10 minutes at 12th Street-City Center. We then sat for another 7 to 10 minutes at West Oakland waiting for the tunnel to clear. Then, after 11 o'clock became 11:30, and after we were moving again a door somewhere on the train wasn't shutting properly, so we sat at Montgomery Station for another 10 minutes while that problem was dealt with. What should have been a barely 30-minute trip back to Civic Center instead took an hour, and it was bedtime, and it would have been worth it to me to spend $20 more to get home in half the time.
A recent report on schedule changes indicated ongoing plans for even less weekend service, with 24-minute gaps between trains on Sundays, and single-tracking that will cause lines from the East Bay to terminate at Montgomery Station on Sundays.
The fact that BART shuts down in the East Bay-bound direction at 12:15 a.m. on Saturday nights (from the Mission) means that Bay Area residents trying to party in San Francisco have long had to figure out other means of transportation if they don't want to leave the party early. And proposals for trying to extend service even by an hour date back well over a decade, with BART always pushing back that it needs all the early-morning hours it can get to do track work — largely because the system was built with only two tracks.
BART can't control the fact that the homeless population has exploded around the Bay Area cities it serves. Nor can it control the fact that too many people with severe mental illness and addiction problems are going untreated while they live on the street, and sometimes they use BART as shelter if not a means of transportation. Less crowded trains means more room for the homeless to spread out, and thus the cycle continues.
As for petty crime, that seems to be more prevalent during rush hours when thieves can snatch cellphones on crowded trains, dart out of doors and disappear onto crowded platforms. But news reports of violent crimes like one that happened Tuesday night when a man was the victim of an unprovoked attack with a chain, or the fatal stabbing that occurred in the middle of the day last November, are enough to scare anyone from wanting to be trapped on a nighttime or weekend train, especially in Transbay Tube, when someone is having a mental health crisis or is otherwise being threatening.
BART has made a small step toward improving "quality of life" on its trains with its Ambassador program, which just began its pilot phase this week. But that program seems far too limited in scope to have any real impact — especially when it comes to nighttime and weekend ridership. The 10 unarmed Ambassadors, in teams of two, will be reportedly roaming trains on weekdays, concentrating their efforts on the system's busiest segment, between 12th Street in Oakland and Civic Center in San Francisco, between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. But, as BART explains, during the evening commute they will also spread out "to other sections of the system such as Coliseum to Union City and Walnut Creek to Pittsburg/Bay Point."
It remains to be seen whether the presence of these Ambassadors will discourage bad behavior, or lead to more cleanup being done on trains when it comes to the discarded needles, human waste, and other "biohazards" that are part of their purview — and which have been widely cited by riders as reasons not to ride trains when they don't have to.
BART has to improve its utility in terms of getting people where they want to go quickly on nights and weekends if it wants more riders on nights and weekends — not by curtailing service and making it painful to get home at night. And BART has to realize that because of its hours and maintenance issues — as well as perceptions of crime and vagrancy — its brand hasn't exactly been stellar in recent years. A few free tickets isn't going to change the fact that this is a commuter rail that people use of necessity these days, and as a public transit system it is less and less one that people use for pleasure.