At 12:30 a.m. on a recent Friday night in Oakland, with the last BART train hurtling towards San Francisco, my friend Mara and I took in the scene at 14th and Broadway. We were waiting for the Owl, the Bay Area’s answer to all-night public transportation. Clusters of kids laughed and shouted near bus stops on both sides of the street as we stood, awkwardly. Where would the Owl be pulling up? According to the online schedule, we had a seven-minute window to catch the bus or we’d have to wait another hour in the chilly, empty city core.
Mara spotted an AC Transit van and ran over to ask while I tried to discretely count my money. I didn’t even know how much the bus would cost. Like I had many times before, I mentally cursed BART for ending service so early. Why must we all turn into pumpkins at midnight if we want to hang out in the East Bay? What’s the deal with BART hours?
To try to understand why BART refuses to cater to my late-night transport needs, I went back to BART’s roots. It turns out that people have been arguing about what and who, exactly, BART is supposed to serve since its beginning.
By the time BART broke ground in 1964, people had already been debating about it for almost two decades. After a joint Army-Navy panel recommended an underground railway linking the two sides of the Bay in 1947, years of studies and planning and committee meetings and task forces and environmental studies commenced. Out of all that came the notion that BART would be a revolutionary force in the Bay Area. It would re-sculpt the region, allowing suburban communities to partake in city jobs with a fast, efficient, comfortable (hence, the stained couches) commute.
When BART was built, it had been a half century since any city had attempted a rail service; in the intervening years, cars had happened, and that was supposed to be the American dream. And although the process was subject to long delays — BART ran into funding troubles, delaying the first rail service until 1971 — urban planners can point to San Francisco’s rail service as a success on its own, limited terms. BART, in its Californian utopian way, imagined a different way of dealing with the suburbanization of American cities. And yet, or perhaps because of its founding purpose, BART director Tom Radulovich characterizes BART as the “Betamax of public transit.” “It’s a really nice elegant, train that nobody uses. It’s a one-off,” he said, with no small amount of affection. BART is in a class of its own, as a hybrid city/suburban transit organ.
So, then, BART wasn’t ever intended to run much longer than peak commute times. In keeping with its 20th century spirit of man-made mechanical perfection, there are several practical reasons that BART can’t go at all hours (or even regularly extend them on weekends) even if it wanted to. BART runs on one track and BART runs on a timetable. Unlike, say, Washington D.C.’s Metro system, which was built post-BART and borrowed some features, it’s required that BART trains stick to schedule. Therefore, night maintenance is crucial; as any BART traveler knows, when one train gets stuck or delayed, very quickly, the whole system gets thrown off. And without other tracks, BART can’t do what New York City’s subway system does and switch tracks for late-night service, allowing for maintenance on others. There is no flex built into the system.
Two other big things conspire against BART smoothly chugging through the night. Due to union rules, it’s impossible to staff a station for, say, only part of a shift if BART wanted to stay open later on weekends. Keeping stations safe for late-night fares also means incurring all the daytime costs for station employees, lights, escalators, BART police, etc. Philosophically, practically and financially, BART officials are opposed to 24-hour or late night service, although they totally know that people would like more service — they explain all of this on the FAQ of their website.
As Radulovich pointed out, perhaps there are workarounds to these problems. What if, like other municipalities with subway systems, BART ran really excellent late-night bus service? The Owl in its current state is fairly limited; once an hour, to one destination in San Francisco.
In other words, who can I blame for the lack of creative solutions to this acknowledge issue? But then, another aspect of the Bay Area’s public transit reality rears its ugly, Medusa-like head: the turf wars. There are, by Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) spokesman Randy Rentschler’s count, 26 different transit agencies in the Bay Area, all of whom compete for funding. If BART wanted to get money to bring in more buses to San Francisco, MUNI might get pissy. In fact, Owl service itself is a rather new phenomenon, and not a BART initiative. Transform, an Oakland-based public transit advocacy group, worked hard to get bridge toll funding from 2004’s Regional Measure Two to finance the buses. Before that, swing shift workers, transbay bar-goers and anyone who missed their BART train was stuck on the wrong side of the Bay and shit out of luck.
What does this all boil down to? For Radulovich, BART is dealing an identity crisis. Is it a metro rail, designed to serve urban populations, or it is a commuter rail, designed to bring convenience to workers coming into the city? It’s an issue that is close to Radulovich, who told me that he used to live in Oakland but he moved to the Mission in part due to lack of late-night service.
Historically, of course, BART has been made for commuters but times have changed, and the cultural pendulum has swung back to the city. In 2008, BART adopted a plan that called for more metro-style priorities. The plan advocated more development around different BART stations that would encourage people to do things besides park their car there. “This counter-narrative bubbled up in strategic planning a few years ago,” Radulovich, who represents San Franciscans, “It would include beefed-up service in the urban core, adding more stations and concentrating on improving stations — with the idea that when you get to a station, you’re home.”
For a metro person like me, that is music to the ears. I vastly prefer taking BART to the MUNI experience, but have often bemoaned that there are a paltry eight San Francisco stations. But the economic reality is that with limited resources, public transit must pick and choose its priorities. MTC’s Rentschler pointed out that outlying, rich areas like Walnut Creek and Orinda contribute more money in taxes than, say, West Oakland, and have citizens and public officials who demand services in keeping with their economic contributions to BART and other agencies. Those kinds of arguments, made implicitly or explicitly, add layers of complexity to the mission of the already overburdened and under-funded various public transit organizations. At the end of all these talks, I was left more frustrated than ever, but with no one, exactly, to blame.
But all was not lost. After Mara and I paid our $4 and boarded Owl bus, we took stock of our surroundings. As everyone had told me, at some point during interviews, one of the sticking points of late-night service is the low number of riders. Indeed, on our Owl bus, there were only six people. But, man, did we fly across the traffic-less bridge. The harsh lighting only partially obscured the gorgeous cityscapes and sparkling lights as we quickly passed from East Bay to downtown S.F.
When the bus paused, about 20 minutes after we left Oakland, at Market and Octavia, Mara and I hopped off at the unofficial stop, pleasantly surprised by the speed and ease of our ride. Someday, hopefully, BART will be able to satisfy its city riders as well as it does its suburban commuters, and the tangle of public transit agencies can smartly consolidate. But until that happens, the Owl was a dream compared to the cold, lurching MUNI lines running at a similar hour. Mara and I stood on the pavement as it started to rain, looked at each other, and hailed a cab.
Miss the last BART train? Fear not, AC Transit has your back. Go to their web site, www.actransit.org, and check out the all-night, transbay bus service. (Dear AC Transit, please work on making the Owl schedule easier to find). If you want to get more involved in the metro-vs.-commuter BART culture struggle, contact your local BART director. There are nine of them, and they are elected, so your voice matters. http://www.bart.gov/about/bod/index.aspx