Hot weather prompts power alertsBy Rachel Gordon
Hot weather has prompted another Spare the Air alert for Thursday, giving Bay Area residents another opportunity to take advantage of free transit rides.
Today was the first such smog alert of the year. Yet the lure of free travel didn't seem to create a huge surge of extra riders on the Bay Area's trains, buses and ferries.
Some agencies are offering the free rides all day, but others - such as BART, Caltrain, the ferries and the Altamont Commuter Express trains - are only offering free morning rides.
The same fare procedures will be in effect Thursday.
The free-transit program kicks in on days when air quality officials predict particularly poor air quality that can lead to health problems. The goal is to lure people out of their cars to reduce smog. Vehicles are the top source of smog pollution, which worsens on hot days.
Bay Area officials have paid for up to four such days of free transit this year. The smog season runs through Oct. 12.
Potentially record-breaking temperatures are expected today across the state. Heat advisories are in effect for Los Angeles and much of the Central Valley and power officials issued new calls today asking people to conserve. The California Independent System Operator, the agency in charge of the state's power grid, issued a Stage One alert and predicted that supplies will be short on Thursday as well. Last year there were three State One alerts, which are issued when the state's reserve power supplies falls below 7 percent.
Some transit systems saw modest ridership increases during the Spare the Air day.
The Golden Gate ferries running from Larkspur to San Francisco carried 3,213 passengers this morning, almost 500 more than last Wednesday's morning commute, said spokeswoman Mary Currie.
San Francisco Muni officials said that anecdotal evidence showed buses and streetcars were more crowded this morning. Drivers, station agents and passengers on BART, Caltrain, SamTrans and AC Transit said that if there were more passengers, the bump didn't seem to be significant.
BART's decision to add extra cars to the trains could have deflated the sense of crowding if there were a lot more people taking advantage of the free rides. Agency spokeswoman Linton Johnson said the ridership numbers won't be available until Thursday.
For Stuart Lee, 48, of Piedmont, it was just another day on an AC Transit bus, which he rides to work at the Oakland Police Department.
"It was great because it was free," Lee said. The bus, however, was no more crowded than usual, he said. "It should have been."
One person who did take advantage of this morning's free rides was Rebecca Eisenhart, who took BART from Oakland to her job in San Francisco's Financial District. Eisenhart said she usually drives to work because her employer pays for half her parking.
Today's trip was "hassle-free," said Eisenhart, adding she wanted to do her part to keep her car off the road. She acknowledged, however, that she expects to get behind the wheel again Thursday.
"Honestly, when I'm in my car, it's one of the few times all day that I have all by myself, even if there are thousands of other cars around me," Eisenhart said.
Miles Mulcare, 26, of Berkeley, also took BART to the Embarcadero Station. "I can't really see any difference," he said. "People still got seats."
Martinez City Councilman Mark Ross, chairman of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, arrived at the Concord BART station this morning after taking two buses from his home.
"I wanted to do what we're asking other people to do," said Ross, a real estate agent who planned to take public transit to Walnut Creek and Oakland. "I might fudge later today - my wife might pick me up, but that's car-sharing."
People can board buses, light-rail and shuttles at no cost all day on Muni, AC Transit, SamTrans and more than two dozen other systems.
Officials decided to limit the hours on the trains and ferries after the systems' regular riders complained that their commutes were ruined by rowdy teens and others in search of a no-cost adventure.
The incidence of petty crimes spiked on BART, for example, and crowds squeezed onto the ferries and Caltrain trains, making it uncomfortable for the regulars.
Officials acknowledge that Spare the Air days present a challenge to find the right balance between attracting new riders to public transit and turning off those who use it day in and day out.
Last year there were six free-transit days. This year, there's enough funding for four. Even though passengers can ride for free, the operators get reimbursed. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is providing $7.5 million and the air quality agency is giving $1 million to fund the program this year.
Copyright ©2007 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 08/30/2007.