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Help Save BART

For the past two and a half years, aside from a hiatus amid distance learning, I’ve spent the first hour and a half of each weekday the exact same way: waking up early and taking a BART train from my neighborhood in southern San Francisco to Rockridge. BART is especially important to me -- it is the only reason I’m able to attend school in Oakland. But I’m not the only one who should be grateful: public transit delivers a significant public good for everyone, even those who don’t ride it. Robust public transit leads to cleaner air, less road traffic, and better economic opportunities. However, due to the pandemic, all the benefits our public transportation system delivers are in very serious jeopardy. BART is especially vulnerable, and it is up to us to prevent its demise.

Because BART relies on its riders for funding more than any other transit agency in the country and has experienced some of the steepest declines in ridership during the pandemic, the agency’s ability to fund itself is in serious jeopardy. Should ridership not recover, BART is liable to fall into a self-perpetuating cycle of budget cuts, deteriorating service, and further declining ridership. To save BART and preserve the enormous benefits it brings to our Bay Area community, we need to use it. As we return to the College Prep campus this month, I will return to BART, and I urge you to join me in supporting the long term health of our public transit.

Even if you drive to get places, good public transit makes your life better; research shows that just a 5% reduction in freeway traffic reduces vehicle travel times by 20%. The outsized effect of a small increase in road traffic on travel times means that even a small migration of public transit riders to freeways can wreak havoc. For example, 44% of all trips taken between Alameda County and San Francisco are made by public transit, so just a 6.4% reduction in transit ridership would lead to the dramatic worsening of congestion on the Bay Bridge. We haven’t yet seen increased congestion because road traffic has declined alongside public transit ridership: people simply aren't going to the office at all. But once commuting reaches pre-pandemic volumes, we will begin to see congestion if people shift away from BART and toward the roads.

For those who take public transit, the benefits are even greater. When it is cheap and convenient for someone to commute, more opportunities are available to them. If not for BART, I, for example, would not be able to attend College Prep. Across the board, effective public transit brings people, especially those in disadvantaged communities, closer to jobs and education. In car-reliant metropolises without quality public transit, it is expensive to commute, preventing those who can’t afford to maintain a car and pay for gas from seeking opportunities beyond the immediate vicinity of their homes. However, the availability of good public transit grants everybody the ability to commute, increasing economic and social mobility. Transit is an equity issue, plain and simple. It is also a salve for the economy amidst the current recession; GDP increases by four dollars for every dollar invested in public transit.

During the pandemic, public transit ridership has decreased precipitously, and there is a real risk that it might not fully recover. Since the spring, nearly every public transit system in the country has seen a decline in ridership, but BART’s 97% reduction was among the most dramatic.

Should ridership fail to recover, the economic outlook for transit agencies will be universally dire, but BART is perhaps the most vulnerable system in the country. Unlike other public transit systems in the United States, which often rely heavily on governmental funding, BART collects an unusually high percentage of its revenue from riders’ fares. The average public transit system in the United States covers 35% of its costs with fare revenue, while BART recently reported a “farebox recovery ratio” of nearly 74%. Because BART is funded mostly by fare revenue, rather than government subsidies, it has the most to lose should there be a long term decline in ridership. If BART lacks the revenue from riders’ fares, it will be forced to institute stinging budget cuts, deteriorating the quality of service, and further discouraging people from using the system. This phenomenon is known as the “transit death spiral.”

It is up to us, the people who ride BART, to help it weather this crisis. As we return to in-person classes, those of us who have historically relied on BART will have to make a decision as to whether we will continue to take the train to school. There is no right and wrong choice, and each of us will have to make the decision that is right for us. While it would be ideal if we all stuck with BART, some students live with family members who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. If that is the case for you, then your decision not to take the train to school is understandable. But for the rest of us, there is a compelling case to be made for returning to BART.

Should you choose to continue commuting on BART, please do so safely. The CDC recommends that you avoid busy times, wear a mask (or two), and maintain physical distancing, along with using hand sanitizer when exiting the station and washing your hands when you get to your destination. From my experience riding BART during the pandemic, it has mostly felt very safe. The trains are almost empty, mask compliance is mostly good, and the homeless people are largely gone -- thanks to California’s program to accommodate them in hotels during the pandemic. Ventilation on trains is surprisingly good, and BART publishes very handy crowding charts to help commuters find the least busy times.

Public transportation does so much good, getting cars off the streets and creating economic opportunity. However, maintaining healthy ridership levels is critical for the survival of good quality public transit, especially in the case of BART. It is our responsibility to continue riding BART if we’re able, lest it fall into a vicious cycle of low revenue and lousy service. For the sake of our public transit infrastructure and all the good it does for our community, I hope to see you on the train.

Photo Credit: ABC7 News


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