Tuesday, December 02, 2008

BART Musings Special Feature-- Interview #1-- David Vartanoff, Transit Enthusiast/Historian

As promised, I am doing a few interviews with those with a different perspective on transit who can offer their point of view on BART. The first Q&A was with David Vartanoff. David has been intrigued by trains since he was very young and long followed and studied trains from different locales. Below is my conversation with David. Special thanks to David for offering his time and opinion. I know I certainly learned something and I hope all the readers will too!

BART Musings Q&A with David Vartanoff

Q: You are a multi-decade transit enthusiast/historian. That is extremely interesting. Can you tell us a bit more about what that entails? Which transit systems have you traced, experienced, or researched.

A: I have loved trains, subways, streetcars from infancy. Railfan is the polite term. That said, I spent many hours during summers in Chicago riding, watching the L and mainline RRs there. After Granddad gave me a camera at age 11, I began documenting trains on film. Since then I rode the last day of streetcar service in DC, the last day of the 'North Shore Line' between Chicago and Milwaukee, sampled the Cleveland/Shaker Heights Transit Lines, the last 4 Baltimore streetcar lines and living in Philly as both "transit" and main line commuter. When I lived in NYC, I rode nearly every route end to end and both the last run of the Myrtle Ave El, and the first service on 6th Ave to 57th (since extended through new runnels to Queens). In the post BART new systems era I have sampled DC, Boston, LA, Baltimore's new lines, Portland, Sacto, and San Jose. Not having got off this continent, my knowledge of foreign systems is indirect.

Q: What do you think are BART's strengths? Have they changed throughout years?
BART's 'strengths' are decent time reliability and convenient train arrival signage. I should say both of aspects were unreliable in the beginning.

Q: Which transit systems would you rate as amongst the best in the US? In what ways can BART learn from them?

A: Chicago and New York, despite mistakes and need for more routes, both cover at least a great deal of the neighborhoods. Both systems have cleanliness issues but as a rider a dirty train @ 3 AM beats walking home. BART needs to offer high usage discount passes with better fare integration with bus systems.

Q: You were at BART's opening day, and the opening days for many of the new routes. Do you feel that BART has met passenger expectations? As you've read from the comment sections on Bartmusings.com, many passengers have complaints about BART. Complaints from no parking, to frequent delays, to unclean stations, to not enough safety handle bars on trains. Do you think most passenger complaints are legitimate? Are these complaints common in other transit systems?

A: Depends on which of the promises anyone believed. BART said in pre-revenue propaganda, seats for everyone trains every 90 seconds. The cars had NO hand-grabs for standees when delivered. Never did they achieve the 90 second headways. BART was sold to the voters as Buck Rogers space age public transit, and NOT a subway system. As such, the carpeting and comfortable seats were supposed to connote upscale commuter rail ala LA Metrolink. Ridership, however, is greatest in the very urban core BART tried to discourage. Note that urban riders pay a higher % of the net cost of their trips.

As to service quality, ALL systems tend to generate complaints. That said, BART's on-time stats are good; most times I ride, I am not delayed much. The cleanliness issues are really class issues. Suburbanite who come with high cleanliness expectations are unrealistic. Without frequent cleaning, which is not economically feasible, such expectations will never be met. Some years ago there was a website called The Weekly Breakdown for Chicago riders to vent. Their complaints were more serious--broken down trains, broken faregates etc. Similar complaints come from New Yorkers. Bay Area suburbanites' cleanliness expectations of BART will never be met.

Q: What are some of BART's weaknesses? In what ways would you like to see BART improve?

A: BART has an extremely poor routes, station design and locations. The cars are overly cushy instead of practical. There is NO 24/7 service, yet it has an overcharging fare system, and no express service.

Q: Now, let's focus on commuters. How do Bay Area commuters differ from others you've witnessed?

A: As I've mentioned, Bay Area commuters have unrealistic expectations of comfort. They also do what I consider "silly" lining up at platforms and exhibit "amateur commuter" behaviors like staying seated until the train has arrived at their station.

Q: Do you ride BART? What's your personal opinion of it, as a passenger?

A: Yes although as I do not have a regular same location job, my usage is random as to both time and route. While I believe I have a valid view of BART, ultimately this interview is my opinion, others will see things differently.

Q: How and where can we find some of your writings on transit systems if we want to read more of your work?
A: As a long term Rescue Muni member, Google will find many of my comments in the RM yahoo group.


SongMonk said...

I would not mind an expansion of some of David's answers.

1) What is better station design?

2) What is "silly" lining up?

I am not a frequent BART user, so maybe this is obvious to others.

Anonymous said...

I don't think expecting seats free of food (once I had a window seat for an entire ride because the aisle seat had nacho cheese spilled all over it) is unreasonable.

I think the design of the BART trains is currently not feasible for people to remain seated when their train pulls into the station. It's hard enough to get out if there's no one standing when everyone else is in various exit stages.

I'd rather line up than be a mob that BART sometimes devolves into.

I also like the seats. My ride is nearly an hour, and I can't imagine being on a hard plastic chair for THAT long.

Pedestrianist said...

"Bay Area suburbanites' cleanliness expectations of BART will never be met."

Hallelujah! Run later trains with the money you save! Build infill stations in the core!

Anonymous said...

reply to responses
1better station design. let's start with 12th, 19th,Berkeley dntn and north, 16th, 24th. All of these are a full level too deep. Mass transit works better w/ shorter time spent from street to platform.
Glen Park is an extreme example, exacerbated by a monumenbtalist stion building wasting spave that could have been a retail and residential building. Balboa Park features the escalator facing away from fare control.
Coliseum which has the most radical crowd issues is a narrow island platform where it should be two platforms and a center third track to lay up extra trains ready for the gamr/concert etc.
When mega millions were spent on the Dublin Branch, Bayfair remained an island platform instead of gaining an extra track and platform to facilitate running shuttles.

Anonymous said...

" They also do what I consider "silly" lining up at platforms"

What is so silly about it? Being 28, fit, 6'3", and 225lbs I could easily push my way through a mob to get a seat, but that is not a world I, nor anyone else, would want to live in. The lining up ensures that people get on the trains in a first-come, first-serve manner, similar to all other crowded resources in America.

Also: Your claim that we "exhibit "amateur commuter" behaviors like staying seated until the train has arrived at their station" is nonsense.

Why would I stand up early unless I had to? If there is a crowd blocking my exit, then yes, I would consider it. If there is not, then why not remain seated and avoid being jerked around by the often stilted braking action of the train? I'll just wait for the train to stop, get up and exit.

If you want a list of ACTUAL amateur transit activities, here it is:

1) Standing on the left side of escalators, blocking those who are trying to walk (and potentially preventing them from catching their train).

2) Putting ticket into the machine backwards. It has arrows on it for Christ's sake! When the exits are crowded, this causes a backup and confusion.

3) Bunching up near the doors on a crowded train instead of spreading out to the middle hallway. Never have I seen a train that could not fit 20%-30% more people, if only people would be willing to fill the entire standing space. I will not wait an extra 15 mins for another train because people can't get over their personal space issues.

So in short, this "lifelong transit enthusiast" you interviewed knows less about BART than your average rider. He complains about the orderly boarding and exiting habits of the riders but ignores the real faux pauxs that happen daily.

Marc said...

BART needs better station exit signage and maps. A system of exit numbering -- like you'd see in Tokyo and Singapore, among other places -- would be very helpful. It works great: you look at a map of the station and its surroundings, find where you want to go, find the exit number, then follow signs to that exit.

Why doesn't BART have line colors or abstract names? This isn't a complaint, but more of an inquiry. It's a curious thing about BART that there is no "red line" or "A train" or other abstract naming convention. Many other cities give their lines colors. Why didn't BART do this? Too lowbrow? Not futuristic enough?