In this November election, it’s unfortunate that there’s only one seat up on the BART board (for non-Bay Area readers, BART is the region’s electric train line), because if I had one command as Queen for a day – a question Tim Anaya likes to ask our podcast guests — I would shout from the top of Russian Hill, “Drain the BART swamp!”
I’m not a BART commuter, but I’ve ridden it enough to have witnessed plenty of horrors:
- Seniors and disabled people struggling up the stairs to avoid elevators that are awash in urine
- Drunks and drug abusers lying comatose on the seats
- Trains jam packed with commuters nearly to the point of suffocation
- Rampant gate jumping (BART loses approximately $25 million each year from fare cheaters)
- Chronically broken elevators and escalators forcing commuters, travelers with luggage, and families with strollers to take to the stairs
- Baked in grime that one has to fear for patients and hospital workers who take BART to UCSF Medical Center, a major stop on the BART line.
And I haven’t even mentioned the serious crimes. This past July, three people died in attacks in the course of five days. For the first six months of 2018, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that violent crime on BART was up 2 percent over last year, and, if it remains on the same pace for the rest of the year, it will show a 66 percent rise over the past five years.
So, are the BART board candidates focused on any of this? At a forum hosted by the San Francisco Transit Riders group in mid-September, most of the candidates preferred to put the spotlight on a second underwater Transbay tube. That’s all well and good, but when the system is broken at its core – the priority ought to be getting the basics right. That means a safe, clean, functioning train system that gets passengers where they want to go, on time, and in one piece.
Bay Area riders, however, aren’t waiting for BART’s leadership, bureaucracy, and police force to get it together. As has happened in hundreds of communities in thousands of ways, when government is dysfunctional, private citizens have taken matters into their own hands. A group of men in Oakland have volunteered to provide escort services to riders for no pay. And when BART police became less than forthcoming about crime on BART, a local techie and BART rider took it upon himself to create bartcrimes.com to alert the public. As PRI California fellow Kerry Jackson noted in his study Good Intentions, private charity often does a lot better job than public programs.
Unfortunately, these small but heartening efforts may be too late for many Bay Area residents. In a recent survey by the Bay Area Council, 46 percent of residents plan to leave over the next few years. Unaffordable housing was at the top of the list of reasons, but traffic was a close second. It’s no wonder, since BART, which was originally built to alleviate traffic in the Bay Area’s once thriving population, has proven to be a revolting alternative.
Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of PRI and a former resident of San Francisco.