BART turns 35By Denis Cuff
BART's sleek electric trains with plush carpets hummed into service Sept. 11, 1972, with a bold mission.
Bay Area Rapid Transit was going to save the Bay Area from gridlock, smog and urban sprawl. Along the way, BART also would juice up the seedy image of public transit.
The electric train system missed some of its original goals, such as running trains every 90 seconds, and debate is ongoing about whether it has reduced traffic congestion.
What many agree on is that BART helped fuel rapid housing growth in communities east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, and it helped reinforce San Francisco's role as a big job center.
"BART opened up the East Bay as a place to live because they could commute to jobs in San Francisco," said Dan Richard, a former BART board member from Walnut Creek. "People may see that as good or bad, but there is no doubt that many bedroom communities, including Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill, wouldn't be what they are today without BART."
BART celebrates its 35th year of service Tuesday as a more reliable and efficient system that people rely on more often to get around in Contra Costa, Alameda, San Francisco and San Mateo counties.
"BART had many problems in its early days. One author called it a planning disaster," said Tom Radulovich, a BART board member from San Francisco "But BART works a lot better now. At 35, it looks much smarter. It's had a net positive effect on the region and its mobility."
Doug Floyd, an Orinda resident, said riding BART for 35 years made his life easier and less stressful. It spared him from driving over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco from 1972 until his retirement in 1999.
"If they say the train will be there at 8:35, it would be there," Floyd said. "I relied on BART so much, my car battery at home would be dead because I hadn't started it in a long time."
BART wasn't always as reliable. In its early days, trains broke down more often, doors on cars opened unpredictably, escalators broke and ticket machines often jammed.
Those problems were addressed as they popped up, said BART spokesman Linton Johnson, some through a $1.5 billion renovation program that ended in 2004 and was funded by federal grants and fare increases.
As improvements were made to basic services, ridership rose from 32,000 average riders on a weekday in the 1972-73 fiscal year to about 350,000 this year. On Aug. 31, the first day of this year's Labor Day weekend closure of the Bay Bridge, the system set a weekday record of 389,400 riders.
Rider surveys showed customer satisfaction grew to its highest level in 2004. It dipped slightly in 2006 because of unhappiness about dirty cars -- something BART says it will fix by expanding cleaning crews cut in the hard times of the dot-com bust.
BART has extended rail service to Dublin, Pittsburg-Bay Point and the San Francisco International Airport. But it has not completed extensions to Livermore and Antioch, much to the irritation of local taxpayers there. Also, Santa Clara County, which voted to stay out of BART in 1962, is trying to get a rail extension to San Jose.
BART was touted as a sprawl-buster when voters in Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco counties were asked in 1962 to pay property taxes to build the system.
As the predictions went, homes and businesses would cluster around train stations in transit-oriented villages. By leaving cars at home, BART riders would cut pollution and traffic.
Today, transit villages built around BART stations have been developed at Fruitvale in Oakland and one is in development at the Pleasant Hill station.
For the most part, though, residential housing boomed in eastern Contra Costa and Alameda counties far from the original BART stations, according to a series of studies by the federal government and UC Berkeley in the 1980s and 1990s.
Cities and counties often did not zone land around BART stations for high-density developments, said Stuart Cohen, chief of the Oakland-based Transportation and Land Use Coalition.
"I think BART, overall, has been a good thing," Cohen said. "But it did not meet its potential to curb urban sprawl. With 35 years of service, I think we're really at the cusp of having land around stations converted to transit villages."
John Landis, a land-use expert and former UC Berkeley professor, said cheap land prices in the East Bay -- not the convenience of train service -- spurred home building in communities east of the Caldecott.
"You can't know for sure what would have happened without BART, but I think these suburban communities would have grown anyway," said Landis, who just left UC to work at the University of Pennsylvania.
Landis said he also doubts BART has played a significant role in reducing auto congestion, which has worsened in the Bay Area.
If voters had not narrowly approved the creation of the train system, the region would have come up with other anti-congestion measures -- including possibly building more freeways or adding more ferries, he said.
BART managers and some other transit experts contend the train system plays an invaluable role in reducing auto congestion -- particularly on the Bay Bridge.
As many passengers ride the BART through the Transbay Tube under the bridge as people drive over it in cars -- about 170,000 a day, said Johnson, the BART spokesman.
According to a 2004 study by UC Berkeley engineers, a sudden BART shutdown would mean morning commute traffic heading west toward the Bay Bridge would back up 26 miles and limp along at 9 mph. A trip from Pittsburg along Highway 4 to Interstate 80 would take 165 minutes instead of the usual 30 minutes, the engineers estimated.
Vukan Vichic, a transportation professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said San Francisco without BART would be overrun with more freeways, parking garages, air pollution and traffic congestion.
"If you rely on cars too much, it corrodes a city," Vichic said.
In one of her biggest challenges, BART's newly appointed general manager, Dorothy Dugger is helping map out a 50-year plan for BART, including deciding whether to build a second Transbay Tube.
BART can't carry everyone, she said, but its mission is to give the public a convenient alternative to the auto.
Matt Ginsburg, a longtime BART rider, said he decided to live in Contra Costa County in part because he can ride BART from Orinda to his banking job in San Francisco.
Even though his BART commute probably takes as long as it would if he drove, Ginsburg said, "It gives me the chance to read. I like being able to choose to do something that is good for the environment."
News researcher Beverly Hunt contributed to this story.
Copyright ©2007 Contra Costa Times. Published 09/09/2007.