With current trains reaching the end of their shelf life and rider approval ratings at an all time low, BART is beginning to usher in a new generation of trains to improve rider experience and accommodate the growing population.
On January 23 of this year, BART released its customer satisfaction report. The report surveyed 5,292 customers, and the results showed that the approval rating has dropped from 69 percent in 2016 to just 56 percent this year. A graph in the report noted that as BART’s ridership has increased, customer satisfaction has decreased.
With a large concentration of jobs, tourist destinations and shopping malls centered in San Francisco and the surrounding area, BART is the non-negotiable network that gets hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors from point A to point B. An estimated 423,400 people use BART to get to the office each work day. Meanwhile, weekend ridership numbers hover around 200,000 as of 2017. To accommodate riders, BART trains are running from the break of dawn to well past midnight.
According to Ed Pangilinan, a former assistant controller at BART for 19 years, “The economic life of a BART car is 30 years.” While, there is no arguing over the need for BART, the cars that were state-of-the-art in 1972, when BART first opened, are no longer adequate; riders complain about cleanliness and crowdedness in addition to issues of homelessness and rider safety.
The sheer amount of people using BART on a daily basis puts wear and tear on the trains and causes concern over sanitation. Each San Francisco-bound train in the morning is packed with commuters. The foot traffic that BART experiences requires large maintenance and sanitation teams to keep the trains clean and operational. Day in and day out, trains that are not in service are routinely cleaned and checked for maintenance.
“We care that the public rides on a clean train,” said Eric Martin, a member of BART’s cleaning crew. “If my children or my family were riding on a train, I’d want them on a nice clean train. So, when I do my job, I’m thinking about my family, also.”
BART employs about 3,500 people that take care of everything from administration to sanitation. While administration does not face much criticism, sanitation crews that spend all night cleaning trains almost always receive negative feedback.
“Compared to the subway in New York or the Tube in London, BART is very clean,” said Myra Moore, who has used BART to get to work for 20 years now. Though true, there are just too many trains for the cleaning crews to get through every night, even with the additional 21 cleaners recently hired.
BART has always faced the issue of cleanliness. In the past, they replaced the carpet with vinyl flooring and the fabric seats with vinyl ones that are much easier to clean. But these changes don’t stop riders from littering, drinking and eating on trains. Occasionally, BART police receive complaints of riders (a majority of whom are homeless) that have smoked, urinated and defecated in trains or stations.
On days of inclement weather, commutes are prolonged and the delays create issues for riders. At the same time, cold and rainy weather causes even bigger issues for the homeless, some of whom hop on BART just to find a warm and dry place to sleep.
To address the issue of homelessness, BART has partnered with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and the San Francisco Department of Homeless and Supportive Housing to create the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team. This group works alongside BART to engage with the homeless and mentally ill that find refuge in trains and stations and get them the help they need.
As BART works to address issues of sanitation, homelessness and crowded trains, they hope the new generation of BART cars will improve rider experience and the overall quality of life on BART. New trains will be quieter, more accessible and easier to maintain and keep clean.
New train layouts provide more standing room to accommodate more riders and maximize space in the train. An additional door in the middle of each car has been added to allow riders to get in and out more efficiently. The new cars will also have better ventilation systems to keep riders cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
The improved functionality in conjunction with a greater aesthetic appeal, in theory, will enhance rider experience and encourage more people to take BART, but the improved design can do more than just that. It presents “an opportunity to create spaces cordoned off from the crowd [in stations] and create moments of intimacy between people who otherwise would be strangers passing in the dark,” said Dr. Mike DeLand, professor of sociology & criminology at Gonzaga University. The next step for BART is to improve station design such that the aesthetic appeal lends itself to serendipitous encounters and creates a comfortable environment.
The current trains that have been serving the Bay Area since 1972 are well past their expiration date. The new trains, in terms of technology, are light-years ahead of their ancient predecessors and upkeep of them will be much easier. By integrating new technologies and more efficient systems into the new trains, and by providing support to the most vulnerable riders, BART hopes to not only accommodate but attentively serve the Bay Area’s growing population.