S.F. Transit Among the Best but It Plays to Uneven Reviews

Associated Press

Every morning, Maria Blanco of North Berkeley joins tens of thousands of others in descending underground to catch the Bay Area Rapid Transit train that will carry her beneath San Francisco Bay to her law office.

She thinks the trains should run more often, the fare is too high and seating in the cars is badly designed. But BART gets her to work in 15 minutes and lets her avoid congestion and parking problems among the high-rises in downtown San Francisco.

“The cost of parking is so high that it’s probably one of the reasons they are able to get away with (high fares),” Blanco, 33, said. “They have a captive group of people who know that it’s still cheaper than parking.”

Such mixed feelings about BART are common among the 200,000 or so passengers the system carries every day.

BART and San Francisco’s Municipal Railway (Muni) system, along with more than a dozen other bus and train operations in the nine counties surrounding the bay, make the area one of the best in the nation for public transportation.


“Despite all the problems it has, you’ll not find a city in this country that is better served by transit than San Francisco,” said Bill Hein, deputy executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “It’s a transit-oriented city, it’s a walking city. Its development, its patterns are all conducive to transit.”

San Francisco, 49 square miles surrounded by water on three sides, has a population of more than 700,000. About 250,000 people commute to jobs in the city every day.

During rush hours, the freeways that web the area are among the busiest in the nation. The bridges into the city act as bottlenecks for the traffic flow, however, and waits of 20 minutes or more at the toll booths are not uncommon.

The alternative is BART and the other transit systems. Thirty-eight percent of the people crossing the bay during peak periods go under it through the BART tube rather than over it across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

“There have been occasions in years past when BART was shut down for one reason or the other,” BART spokesman Mike Healy said. “Traffic was backed up for miles and miles and miles beyond the bridge.”

Inside the city, Muni performs the same sort of service, relieving the crowded streets of some private vehicles that otherwise would travel to and from downtown.

“We need to encourage more people to leave their cars at home and ride the bus,” said George Newkirk, director of labor relations and management development at Muni. “We get trapped at 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon with not only the people going home from work, but with all the people who come into downtown for other things with their cars. They’re all leaving about the same time.”

Some people use the transit systems at all hours of the day.

Doug Sovern, a newsman with KIOI radio in San Francisco, uses BART to commute from his Berkeley home, then uses one system or the other to travel to assignments around the city.

“Compared to the New York subway, it’s paradise,” said Sovern, a New York native. “I like it. It’s clean, it’s on time, it’s fast. They have a schedule, which is unheard of in New York.”

Sovern, 26, said he misses the worst of the crowds on BART because his commute is at slightly off-peak hours.

Tom Kenny, a 24-year-old comedian, travels the system mostly at night to perform at clubs. But he remembers what it was like when he worked 9 to 5.

“There’s nothing like having your face jammed under an accountant’s armpit for an hour,” he joked. “It’s not a pleasant place.”

Overall, Kenny says, Muni and BART are “both real good reasons to own a car.”

Transit officials admit the buses and trains often are overcrowded during peak commute periods, with some passengers forced to stand the entire ride.

“But you can only get so many coaches on a street,” Newkirk said. “If there’s three minutes between each bus . . . you can’t just throw out another bus. There’s no room for it.”

Muni, which is marking its 75th anniversary this year, is the oldest publicly owned transit system in the nation. Its 705 miles of routes include diesel buses, light-rail trains, trolleys powered by overhead electric lines and the city’s famed cable cars.

Ninety percent of the people in San Francisco live within two blocks of a transit stop.

The 15-year-old BART system, stretching 71 miles through three counties, does as much business on the east side of the bay, in cities like Oakland and Concord, as it does to and from San Francisco.

Expansion Planned

Expansion of the $1.8-billion system is planned for those areas. Last November, Alameda County voters approved a sales tax increase that will raise $170 million for a rail extension there, but the nature of the extension is under study.

Meantime, BART officials have worked on a never-ending string of improvements to that system, which has been plagued by technical problems since its inception.

BART recently completed a $40-million project to make its cars safer from fire. The project began after a 1979 fire in which a firefighter died. The transbay tube was closed for months by the disaster.

Under way is a $60-million project to expand the system’s parking lots, which are filled daily by commuters who drive to the suburban stations to catch the trains. Other projects are aimed at increasing the turnaround time of trains and at improving the control system that dispatches them.

Such projects in an era of stagnated state and federal transit funding have meant fare increases. In January, BART officials approved a 30% increase that raised the cost of a typical Concord-to-San Francisco commute to $2.65 each way.

Immediate Ridership Drop

The increase resulted in an immediate 7% decline in ridership, although some of that loss has been regained.

Muni rates remain 75 cents, but they make up only a part of the system’s $219-million annual budget. Muni officials fight a constant battle for funding, but theirs is more complicated because the system is not managed by an independent board like BART and therefore is subject to the vagaries of San Francisco politics.

Richard Olive, a 44-year-old union business agent, sums up the sentiments of many Muni riders, first complaining about scheduling, crowding and pressured drivers, then giving it a good overall grade.

“There are a lot of irritants, but that goes along with any big-city operation,” he said. “I don’t see how we could get along without it.”