Sunday, January 04, 2009

BART Musings Special Feature-- Interview #3 -- A former DC Metro commuter's take on BART

The third Q&A features Mike Disharoon, a former Washington DC Metro rider and current BART commuter. Sharing his experiences with the DC metro, Disharoon offers an interesting take on BART's strengths and weaknesses. His overall satisfaction with BART is between a 8 and 9, which most of us would consider as quite high. Perhaps those of us who've mostly lived in the Bay Area and have not tried out other transit systems on a long term basis don't realize how efficient BART really is. That said, there are still improvements (some very basic ones) that need to be made. Thank you, Mike, for your time and perspective.

BART Musings Special Feature-- Interview #3 -- A former DC Metro commuter's take on BART

1) You used the Washington DC Metro for quite some time before moving back to the Bay Area, how would you compare the Metro to BART, in terms of efficiency, ease of use, service, reliability, and finally, cleanliness?

It’s an interesting comparison because the systems share many striking similarities since they were built in the same era (along with Atlanta’s MARTA system): hexagon-shaped cars with upholstered seats, a mix of urban underground and suburban above-ground stations, and fares that vary by distance.

I think the biggest difference is that the Metro is much more heavily traveled than BART – about 800K daily riders compared to about 375K for BART – and as a result the commuters are much savvier: people stand on the right and walk on the left on escalators, crowds naturally part outside of car doors to let people off before trying to get on (a personal pet peeve of mine on BART), and on crowded trains people actually move down the aisles so that more people can get on.

Of course, the downside is that the trains are MUCH more crowded, and chances are you’ll never get a seat during commute times unless you get on well outside the city core. And they really pack those trains – I wouldn’t recommend anyone claustrophobic try to ride the Metro during commute hours. One thing that helps is that while Metro trains are very similar in design to BART, each car has three sets of doors (instead of the two found on BART) making loading a bit more efficient.

BART really shines in terms of reliability. The Metro trains don’t really run on a set schedule, so unless you can check their real-time arrivals info on your computer or phone you need to get down into the station to be able to tell when the next train is coming (which can be particularly frustrating on nights or weekends when trains run 20 minutes apart). Metro also has much more frequent delays (particularly on their overloaded Red Line), and the lack of set schedules means you often have numerous trains backed up in the city core; it’s not uncommon to stop and wait several times in the tunnels between stations as you wait for the train ahead to clear out.

I generally find the systems to be similar in terms of overall cleanliness (trash on the ground and the condition of seats and carpeting), but the stations on the Metro system are magnificent compared to their BART cousins – particularly the underground stations ( Throw in the fact that the directional signage and maps on the Metro were coherently designed ( in a way that is both effective and attractive, and the Metro offers a much more pleasant overall aesthetic experience compared to BART.

2) What are three characteristics of the Metro that you wish BART would adopt?


Use color-coding for different lines. BART will always be a difficult system to navigate due to its unique trunk-line issues (“wait, which of these four lines do I need to take to get to Walnut Creek?”), but taking advantage of the existing color-coding on the system maps would at least help new and infrequent riders make better sense of how to get from point A to point B. Using the color-coding would also help people navigate the abbreviated lines that run during commute hours (like yellow-line trains that stop at Concord rather than Pittsburg/Bay Point).

Extend serviced on weekend nights. Like BART, the Metro runs until midnight during the week, but on Friday and Saturday nights it stays open until 3am or so. For public safety reasons alone I think BART should offer similar service until the bars close on weekend nights to help get drunk drivers off the roads. Perhaps using the limited stations model that BART ran last year on New Years Eve would be a way to extend service hours past midnight while containing costs somewhat (though I assume that noise complaints are also a major factor in shutting service down at midnight).

Increase building density around BART stations. It amazes me that we have this extensive public transportation option in the Bay Area, yet few large apartment buildings or condos are built near the stations (outside of downtown SF and Oakland). If we’re serious about getting more cars off the road completely (for both environmental and traffic related reasons), one of the best things we could do is provide more ways for people to be completely car-free – like building more apartments and condos that are walking distance to BART. High-density residential building is something that can be seen along most of the Metro’s more suburban routes, like the Orange Line corridor in Arlington, VA, where each Metro stop is surrounded by several ~10-story apartment buildings. Having density like this also supports enough walking distance retail that people can live completely car-free aside from the occasional Zip Car rental for picking up larger items.

3) What do you like least about BART? Why?

Personally, my biggest problem with BART is the lack of timed transfers for reverse-commuters like myself (i.e. when I get to MacArthur on an SF-bound train I have to run downstairs then up to the opposite platform to get to the Richmond-bound train that always seems to leave right as I’m getting to the top of the stairs), but I can’t make a good-faith argument that this is a truly monumental problem for the system (main-flow commuters should clearly be the priority there). So I’d say my biggest problem that doesn’t just affect people with commutes like mine is the midnight service shutoff on weekends.

4) What do you like most about BART? Why?

After getting used to the “hope a train is arriving relatively soon” randomness of the DC Metro, the scheduled trains on BART are a treat. Combined with the recent real-time arrivals feature that I can bring up on my phone, I can be fairly confident that I’m not going to rush out of the office or dinner with friends only to find that the next train won’t be arriving for another 15 minutes.

5) You have a fairly short commute in terms of distance between work and home, why do you choose to take BART? How has it worked out for you?

I take BART every weekday from Rockridge to Downtown Berkeley, a three stop trip that only takes me about 25 minutes door to door if I time things right. While this isn’t enough time to really get comfortable and make any serious progress on a book or anything, in my opinion it’s still light-years better than driving in terms of stress, annoyance, and cost, and has allowed my wife and I to go down to just one car (which she drives to her non-BART friendly job in Pleasanton). I also get regular exercise walking to and from the stations, which is a great side benefit.

6) You've recently had the opportunity to experience transit systems in South America. What are some characteristics that stood out? How are they different from BART? Anything that BART can model after?

The two systems I recently had the chance to ride were Buenos Aires’ Subte and Santiago’s Metro. Both are purely underground systems with small cars that would have trouble on long, outdoor lines like those found on BART, though they are effective for the big crowds that ride each system. The technology is a bit lacking as there are no signs that notify riders of the time to upcoming trains, and with no air-conditioning they leave the windows wide open in a way you’d never see on BART. One other interesting difference is that the Santiago trains run on rubber tires (I assume inflated though I couldn’t quite tell), making for an incredibly smooth ride in comparison to other systems.

The upside is that both systems are incredibly cheap: $.25 a ride in Buenos Aires, and about $.30-.60 in Santiago depending on if you ride during commute times or not.

Given that these systems are vastly different than BART in numerous ways, there isn’t much that I think we can model. One aspect the Buenos Aires system handles well is identifying the line that a given station serves by coloring all the signage to match ( and in some cases the wall tiles as well (, which is a big help when transferring. Unfortunately, that’s not something that would be very useful on BART since so many stations serve multiple lines.

7) How would you rate your overall satisfaction with BART and why? 10 being most satisfied.

I would rate BART as an 8, maybe even a 9, because it consistently achieves it’s fundamental purpose: it gets me where I want to go in a relatively straightforward fashion, and I rarely have delays of 5 minutes or more along my (albeit relatively short) commute. I’d love to see upgrades in the directional signage that would add a bit more order to the chaos and generally upgrade the look and feel of the overall transit experience, but those are extras that are hardly the top priority for the system.

8) Rockridge Station as your point of origin each morning, how do you deal with the tight parking situation there? How well do you think BART handles parking in general?

Thankfully, my apartment is only a 10-minute walk from the station so I don’t have to worry about parking. I generally think that we should be encouraging people to park at BART to keep their cars off the major highway choke points (the Bay Bridge in particular), but clearly we need to price the parking in a way that will help demand to better match the existing supply and prevent shortages (not to mention generate revenue for the system).

Parking is a valuable resource, and while I don’t have much of a problem with subsidizing it for BART given that it ultimately gets cars out of the more gridlocked areas of our transit network, charging a nominal fee prevents shortages and should still represent a significant cost savings for commuters whose only other option is driving to their location and paying for parking there.

I’m not that familiar with the history of how BART has handled parking, but I think it’s unrealistic and unreasonable to expect free parking given modern realities. And of course my preferred solution is to build more housing walking distance to BART!

9) Do you use BART on non-work days? How well does BART suffice those needs?

My wife and I will often take BART into San Francisco on weekends for dinner or general entertainment, as the combination of speed (20 minutes from Rockridge to the Embarcadero, faster than we could ever drive and park) and cost (fare vs. bridge tolls, parking, and general car wear and tear) just can’t be beat. I only wish BART had a more extensive network for intra-San Francisco transit, though the Muni Metro isn’t a bad option. I also use BART for traveling to sporting events (primarily Warriors and Giants games), where even with the usual post-game rush I generally get out quicker and easier than if I drove and parked at the game.

10) What is the one improvement you'd like to see BART make immediately?

Extend service hours on the weekend for at least two additional hours. Maybe we can pay for it with some federal bailout money…


Anonymous said...

I definitely agree that BART needs longer hours on weekends. Also, BART is not very visitor friendly, so says my friends from European and Asian countries.

Anonymous said...

Interesting take from a DC Metro rider. I like hearing regional comparisons of public transportation. Thanks for posting the interview!