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A Single Ride on BART Restored My Faith in the Transit System

If you enter the term “BART” into Google these days, you’re met with a flood of dystopian headlines.

People are apparently punching BART workers in the face, climbing around on the tracks, and even dispatching each other over “scooter disputes.”

From these headlines, you get the sense that riding BART post-pandemic is some kind of horrifying urban nightmare that only the brave embark upon, and from which few return alive.

I admit that as a 10-year Bay Area resident, even I started to feel a little unsure about whether it was still okay to ride BART. I hadn’t ridden BART much since 2019 due to COVID concerns, so I was mostly going from what I heard on the news.

BART Lafayette station
BART Lafayette station

But for a recent overnight at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, I decided to brave the apparently depraved fellow riders and crumbling facilities of the Bay Area’s main transit line and ride BART downtown. 

Here’s the good news: I wasn’t murdered. Not even once.

Returning to BART

In fact, everything about my trips were pleasant, efficient, and cheap. I boarded the train in Lafayette to find it almost empty. Since the pandemic, BART has been running bigger trains to provide more space for social distancing. I had my pick of seats.

BART has also been rolling out new trains. The one I sat in was colorful and clean. It still made the signature BART whooshing noise, but the AC actually worked and the windows were crystal clear.

BART station
BART station

The train arrived right on time. My car had about 10 other people in it, and picked up several more along the way into SF. Everyone was pleasant, civil and quiet.

When I arrived at the Embarcadero station, I expected to finally find the decaying urban environment that we all read about in the papers. What I found instead was a station that, although dated, was perfectly functional and felt safe.

In short, every aspect of my trip was totally boring and uneventful. In an era where every headline is about some atrocity committed aboard the transit system, that in and of itself felt like news.

A Reality Check

The stories told about BART remind me of the old joke about a weatherman covering a hurricane. At one point in the broadcast, he gets so worked up talking about the power and danger of the storm that he has to step outside to get some air.

BART feels like that. We’re all so focused on any crazy event that happens aboard the transit system that we never pause to consider the fact that up to 160,000 people ride the system each day, mostly without incident.

BART at the Embarcadero
BART at the Embarcadero

That’s not to say that BART is perfect, or in good financial shape. Reduced ridership means that the system is struggling fiscally. Although rider numbers are recovering, they’re still down substantially vs before the pandemic.

Much of that is likely due to structural and economic changes, like the Bay Area’s embrace of remote work.

Fearing Fear Iteself

But some of it is doubtlessly also due to public perceptions of the BART system. A recent study claims that only 17% of people feel safe on BART, and that fear of the system’s safety is a major reason people aren’t riding.

That’s a shame. Over 450 people die on the Bay Area’s roads every year. Only 4 people died in homicides on BART property in 2022. Statistically speaking, the system remains quite safe.

Of course, I only took two rides. I’m sure people have unpleasant experiences on BART. But the vast majority of riders likely have normal, boring ones.

By focusing only on the stories that end badly, we’re creating the perception of a system that’s much worse off than the actual system appears to be.

If you’re avoiding BART because you’re scared, I encourage you to give the system a try. Maybe you’ll see something unpleasant, or your car will smell bad. Maybe you’ll be forced to endure 8 minutes of low-quality busking while traversing the Transbay Tunnel.

Or maybe like me, you’ll simply arrive downtown in record time, save yourself a cool $45 on SF’s exorbitant parking charges, and emerge with your faith in the system at least partially restored.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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