I have not tapped my Clipper Card in over a month. I have not taken a BART ride in other a month. COVID-19 has changed a lot of my reality and not riding transit for that long has been hard. Transit was usually what I used to decompress and process my life. I love the feeling of movement through my city, it brings me great comfort. Although COVID-19 has changed a lot of our realities it has also served as a time to reflect back on what we were doing before and how we will move forward in the future. The future I am pushing for is one with a consolidated transportation network in the Bay Area that provides world-class mobility to all of its residents.
There are currently 27 different transit agencies overseeing the 9-county San Francisco Bay Area. In just one county— Contra Costa— there are 4 different transit agencies providing bus service. It is important to address the issues of fragmentation within our current systems. At first, I believed that there was no space to speak on the issue of fragmentation during COVID-19; upon looking into it closer I now understand that all of the issues in how transit functions in the Bay Area are directly and indirectly caused by this fragmentation. COVID-19 has exposed the faults that our current systems have and has laid them out bare for everyone to see. This is precisely why there is room for this conversation right now.
All of the logos for the various transit agencies in the Bay Area
I know first-hand what transit can do for people that would not otherwise have a means to get around. I grew up in the poster child of the private automobile run American city: Los Angeles, California. Well, I grew up in one of the limits of the city north up in the San Fernando Valley, we are only part of the city of Los Angeles for water rights back in the day since the Los Angeles Aqueduct ends in my community. I started being influenced by transportation since I was a kid. My mom taught my sisters and I how to ride the Los Angeles Metro system since we could not afford more than one car. I learned all about transfers and fares and fell in love with the riding the system. The images of brightly painted poppy orange buses will always be one of my fondest childhood memories. As a teenager, I was reluctant to take the bus to school but with my parents having to work I had to sometimes. I felt like it was for poor people only, though now that I look back—that was me. However, my mother never once shamed anybody that took the bus in a city that prides itself on the private automobile. I did love the train though, that I could only access them via a bus from my house, but the train took me to places in Los Angeles I could only dream of getting to without it. It opened my eyes and mind and allowed me to experience things I would have never experienced if I had stayed in the part of the city I lived in.
LA Metro Poppy colored bus
Then came I went to college. Looking back, I do not think I was prepared for college in any sort of way. I decided to attend college in the Bay Area because I had never been to any part of the state north of Santa Barbara prior to moving to the Bay. I also chose it because it was in California but was far enough from LA that I could live my life unbothered but close enough to LA that I could get to it quickly in case of an emergency. Moving to the Bay Area introduced me to the biggest love of my life— BART. I don’t even know where to begin with just how much BART has shaped my life. My life in the Bay Area would not exist without BART. It completely shifted the way I experienced the world; I was able to ride from point A to point G to point U back to point A back again. BART liberated me in a way I did not think was possible. Through the rails and tunnels, I truly found myself and found my ultimate driving force in life: advocate for equitable transportation for everyone. Studies have shown that transportation costs are one of the biggest obstacles to escape poverty. Right now, public transportation is treated as an alternative to driving and not a replacement. I strongly believe that through improving public transit not only will we embrace sustainable mobility but equitable upward mobility as well.
BART arriving at Rockridge Station during a sunset
Transportation is much more valuable than its physical value of transporting someone from point A to point B. Transportation has proven its value during the COVID-19 pandemic because it has been providing transportation for all of the essential workers that cannot work from home including groceries store workers and doctors. Even without a pandemic, though, transportation provides economic ladders for people to get out of their current dead-end jobs. The same way it opened up my eyes, and to a degree opened my life up to more jobs around the Bay Area. The freedom to ride around in public transpiration is empowering.
How do we get to this utopian vision for Bay Area transit? First, I will provide some context. The Bay Area is an incredibly diverse place; not culturally diverse but geographically diverse as well. There are mountains and valleys and bodies of water separating different areas of the Bay. This has caused population centers to pop up in different areas that have strong self-identities. It doesn’t help that even within the Bay Area there are 9 different counties. The Bay Area has 7 million people spread out through 9 counties. For comparison LA county by itself has more than 9 million. Trying to unify a poly-centric area like the Bay is an incredibly challenging task because of all of these differences. Sure, we all share the same vague regional identity, at least when speaking to SoCal people, but our local identities are far greater than our overall regional one. It really doesn’t help that there is a giant body of water separating everyone. One interesting to note about the Bay Area is that the most famous city (San Francisco) is not the most populous city, that honor belongs to San Jose.
After the 1906 earthquake San Francisco actually attempted to annex Oakland as well as some parts of San Mateo, Marin, and Contra Costa counties. The Great San Francisco Association under the direction of the chamber of commerce believed that by doing this it would allow San Francisco to maintain an economic stronghold in California. Los Angeles was growing rapidly during that time and New York had just annexed Brooklyn so naturally San Francisco started to look for ways to grow the city. The Oakland Chamber of Commerce fiercely opposed this, and the rest is history. This just goes to show how much local identity in ingrained in the residents of the Bay Area.
Nine county San Francisco Bay Area
This drama continued to the 1960s into the creation of BART. BART was originally supposed to go to Marin, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties. However, once San Mateo pulled out of it— Santa Clara followed. Contrary to popular belief— Marin actually was voted off the BART district since it was very possible that Marin County residents would vote against the measure to create BART and if it failed it would have never come into existence. What we are left with is a system that could’ve been even better, but politics got in the way, as they have time and again with Bay Area transit.
BART's original proposed master plan. Note the extensions in Marin, Solano, Napa, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties. Source: BART
All of this fighting continues to this day and nothing shines a light on it as beautifully as the BART to Silicon Valley Extension. The Milpitas and Berryessa/North San Jose stations are already built and functional; yet they are still not open for service. This is because since BART is extending into a county that is not part of the BART District— Santa Clara. Because Santa Clara is not a member of the BART District BART cannot allot tax dollars from the counties it taxes (San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa) for projects in non-district counties. Because of this the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), Santa Clara County’s transportation planning agency is the one that is funding the construction of the extension and BART will be the one to operate the tracks. That was Silicon Valley Extension phase 1; phase 2 is even worse. Phase 2 of the extension into San Jose will include the stations of Alum Rock, Downtown San Jose, San Jose Diridon, and Santa Clara. The drama begins at the Downtown San Jose station and the tunneling that needs to be done through this area of San Jose. The city opposed using the tired and true cut-and-cover method of tunneling because the business district complained about loss of revenue because it can be very disruptive at the street level: I should note that San Francisco used this method to construct the Market Street Subway area of the BART and Muni systems successfully. VTA chose to go with a method of excavating with a deep tunnel boring machine, but it would not be the standard twin bore design like the rest of underground BART stations but a huge bore wide enough to fit two tracks stacked. Because this machine is gigantic; that means that it has to be done even lower in the ground. This is also why escalators would not be used in this design because they would take too long so some new high-speed elevators would be used. The project was originally supposed to be completed by 2026 and that was pushed back to 2030, the project is already overbudget and nothing has officially been constructed yet.
Berryessa/North San Jose station sits empty waiting for revenue service
Single-bore with elevators design Souce: VTA
This was all before COVID-19 happened. Right now, there has been pushback from the agencies because of them predicted shrinking tax-base due to COVID-19. It is back to the drawing board for a lot of this extension. Something else that is being pointed out by activists is that the route from San Jose Diridon to Santa Clara is paralleling service Caltrain already provides. BART’s reasoning for it is to add a rail yard in Santa Clara, however there is another rail yard by the Warm Springs/South Fremont station. If BART and Caltrain were run by a single planning agency they would not need to double efforts like this. A timed-transfer BART/Caltrain would essentially make the extension to Santa Clara pointless and save taxpayer money.
This missed connection is even more present at the Millbrae BART/Caltrain station. Not only are none of the transfers timed but if you miss a Caltrain train by a minute or two because of something on the BART system you might end up waiting up to an hour for another Caltrain. You also have to walk up the stairs and back down to transfer platforms. All of this fragmented planning has left very annoying and frankly stupid infrastructure like the San Francisco International (SFO) Station. Because the station is not a station a train can just go through like every other station in the system there is a spur of rail that goes to Millbrae and one that goes to San Bruno. Trains have to pull in and back up like if they were parked at SFO. Service to this spur has been a point of frustration for residents of Millbrae because depending on the time of day BART service either takes you directly to SFO or you have to go all the way to San Bruno station to catch and SFO-bound train.
Santa Clara to San Jose Diridon is already serviced by Caltrain and would just add expense to the project already over budget. Source: VTA
The way the SFO spur was designed is not rider-friendly. Source: BART
COVID-19 has caused all transportation agencies in the Bay Area to essentially hemorrhage money. Some agencies like AC Transit and VTA have stopped collecting fare while others like BART and Muni continue to collect payments. Even the response to this pandemic has been fragmented through all of the 27 different agencies. The sharp decline of ridership has forced VTA and Muni to use bus substitutions for their light rail lines as well as cut some service all together. BART’s operation schedule is currently the worst it has ever been, opening at 8am and closing at 9pm (compared to their previous one of 5am-12am). While all of these operational cuts are happening left and right a lot of capital projects continue on to be built in the Bay Area. The money for capital projects that taxpayers support in measures can only be used for those projects exclusively. This is why although BART and others have been cutting service, these projects move forward. This exposes the way our transit is funded, because for operations BART relies 42% on farebox revenue, or revenue from direct ticket sales. Our transit agencies in America are incredibly reliant on farebox revenue for operations which exposes how much we truly value transit and those who are dependent on it.
Muni standard service. Source: SFMTA
Muni reduced service. Source: SFMTA
Public transportation does not exist to create a profit, it exists to offer a service to the residents it serves. Public transportation is a utility. The way it is currently funded does not reflect this at all. It is constantly under attack from entities that do not want to see it succeed. Public transit in America is bad by design. Big oil continues to try to bring death to public transit through campaigns that smear it and call it a waste of time to astroturfing and protesting any projects that would make it better as a service. The car and oil industries are very much responsible for killing the network of transit we had before the automobile age. Our cities prior to the automobile had dense vibrant urban cores and now we have sprawling freeways. Los Angeles at one point had the world’s largest rail network before it was carved up to create freeways.
The automobile is constantly shown as the beacon of mobility and independence but there are so many lies behind that. Not only are gas cars incredibly destructive to the environment but they are also a way to gatekeep who has access to move around. Planning cities around the automobile was something urban designers planned through racist policies following the post-war era. A “white-flight” to the suburbs happened immediately after World War II because the city centers had minorities in them from all of the manufacturing that happened during the war. These suburbs became bubbles with good schools, good infrastructure, incredibly car-dependent, and just like that the dream of the white picket fence appears in America’s collective consciousness. Urban areas of cities were left with a lack of resources. Other times, whole minority neighborhoods were bulldozed through imminent domain for the US to build the Federal Interstate System along with other grand projects in the cities. A network of freeways was built all around a city to make it easy for white suburbanites to come into work downtown then leave right after. The government effectively created these ghettos that most people found themselves in. Redlining completely segregated cities not through official segregation but through housing policies defining where they were built and who they were sold to. This unofficial segregation impacted where transit was built and who it was built for.
Redlining maps of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Oakland
Segregated by Design
I strongly believe that access to mobility is a human right; the future of our transit needs to be equitable for everyone. I will keep pushing for that until it becomes our reality. Our issues do not exist in a vacuum and transportation is just one piece of a bigger puzzle. Consolidating governance for how Bay Area transit should be a priority especially during a pandemic like COVID-19. We should be looking at ways to save money and be smarter about how our transit is funded. The current Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) manages the Bay Area’s planning and funding of transit within the 9 county Bay Area. They work directly with all of the transportation agencies; however, they just function as the mediator to all of the agencies. Their role would not be needed if one transit agency took over the others. The MTC has done what it can, they worked on the Clipper Card system. Inherently these are just band-aid fixes to the deeper issues of fragmentation that can only be addressed when there is one agency doing all of these mega projects so that it becomes a seamless system. Agencies should not have to fight with one another for funding, we are all one metropolitan area and our actions impact our neighbors— even if they’re living across the Bay.
Vision Map image: Seamless Bay Area
Not all hope is lost. There is a group of current and ex-transit professionals that are calling on our lawmakers to address this issue. The non-profit is called Seamless Bay Area. On On February 4th, 2020— Assemblymember David Chiu announced that he is introducing bold new legislation — sponsored by Seamless Bay Area — to create a more integrated and rider-friendly transit network in the Bay Area. AB2057 dubbed the Bay Area Seamless Transit Act unfortunately ended up getting pushed until 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I strongly believe there will be more support for this legislation next year— we cannot go back to how things were running before this pandemic. This pandemic is highlighting the need for an integrated system, from funding to future construction projects, consolidation is the way to go. We are one Bay Area; we should be run as one as well. We have to keep pushing for a more equitable, integrated, seamless bay area; because at the end of the day we are better together.