Beyond the BART Blackout

Categories: bikes

In full disclosure, let me be absolutely clear: I write this purely out of self-interest.

Because sometime in the next few months, I'll be moving to Oakland. And by crossing the bay, I will begrudgingly break from the ranks of the bike-to-work set and join the resourcefully bimodal commuters who bike to BART to bike to work.

And blessed though we are to have you, Bay Area Rapid Transit, you do not make it easy for us well-traveled few. Well, not so few, actually. Of the some 15,000 BART commuters who make their way to their nearest station each morning on two wheels, over half take their bikes on board -- whether they're supposed to or not.

So everyone knows, for the sake of convenience (everyone else's, that is), bikers are not permitted to rapidly rransit during rush hour.

It was in trying to address this undeniable pain in the ass for bikers that BART introduced its "Bike Friday" pilot program in August. Risking subterranean pandemonium, BART decided to open the floodgates for five Fridays and let the cyclists ride whenever they pleased.

The survey that followed the pilot, published the next month, was described at the time as "mixed." From my perspective, the pilot actually went rather swimmingly.

For one, 90 percent of those who were even aware that a pilot was in process (implying that some were not aware, and therefore were most likely not trampled to death by hoards of surly hipsters on fixies) reported no problems as a result of the extra bodies and bikes on board. The upshot: Over 60 percent of respondents said they favored either reducing or getting rid of the daily bike blackouts.

Those figures compare to the 37 percent who favored the status quo. On a related note, 17 percent of respondents claimed that the pilot program made their trip worse and 10 percent (again, of those who knew a pilot program was underway) reported being actually inconvenienced in some way.

(As an aside, can anyone explain why significantly more people allegedly experienced a worse trip amongst the rush-hour bikers than those who reported suffering some inconvenience that would actually make their trip worse? Perhaps some felt that the additional clutter of bikes detracted from BART's typical aesthetic appeal?)

In any event, not much has come of the pilot. Not yet anyway. Early this month, the BART Bicycle Advisory Task Force met with the Board of Directors for further discussion and consideration.

Personally, I wish they would consider faster -- and I wish they would consider options beyond the blackout.

The discussion framed by the pilot program was a simple "Yes" or "No": should we continue to kick bikers off BART during rush-hour, or should we loosen things up? That is a choice, I think, between two suboptimal (see: shitty) options.

Especially now that we're in the middle of December and San Francisco is putting on its best imitation of real winter, I don't relish the idea of having to wait in the cold dark until 6:30 every evening after work to catch my ride to my ride home. So to those 37 percent who wanted to stick with the blackout -- surprise -- but I totally get it.

Bikes are large and unwieldy. When snuggling up against one on a crowded car, their handlebars jab you in the hips and their greasy chains stain your work pants. When a biker has get off the train, every single person in its way has to get off before it.

Trying to shunt a few dozen extra bikers into the packed sardine can that is the 5:30 p.m. Richmond and just hoping that everything works out is not anyone's idea of a great policy alternative.

So while I'm in favor of ending (or at least reducing) the blackouts, I hope someone out there is taking a serious look at the other options available.

Take the Caltrans MacArthur bike shuttle, which picks up riders in Temescal and drops them off in SOMA during rush hour. Expanding that service to a few other stations across the East Bay (which would be outside the purview of BART, but I'm just throwing out ideas here) seems like it could be a cost-effective, less commuter-on-commuter violence-provoking, method of getting bikers from one side of the bay to the other. And unlike AC Transit buses, these shuttles can pack more than a handful of bikes at a time.

Or if the plan is to get more bikers on BART, in the best of all possible worlds, the train cars themselves would see a few alterations. Because such is the hard truth for bikers on BART: the system was not designed with us in mind. Rowed seating and narrow aisles is a good way to convey lots and lots of walking pedestrians from one place to the other -- not so much for those who pedal.

Just like you have to tweak the design of roads and highways to make them bike-friendly, making BART work for bikes and bikes work for BART will take more than simply relaxing the rules. Some extra space has to be made.

It's not such a radical idea. In fact, according to BART, "[r]econfiguring car interiors to create more space for items with wheels" is one of many new post-pilot ideas "under consideration."

I don't know what either "reconfiguring" or "consideration" mean in this case. But it doesn't seem so unreasonable to imagine a world in which BART rips out all the chairs in one car per train and designates them for bikers and standing pedestrians. Or half a car per train. Or half a car on every third train.

A biker can dream.

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Reconfigured BART cars with wider aisles and better bike access are well beyond the "ideas under consideration" stage, and the first, pilot cars are scheduled to be completed by 2015: These cars will have three doors instead of two, the middle door being the "bike" door with more space and fewer seats. There will also be at least three bike parking wheel slots for bikes to be stowed securely and out of the way.

Better bike access on board every car is much more doable than a dedicated bike car, which would have the effect of slowing down a train at each station as all the cyclists get on and off, slowing the whole system considerably over time.

Plans for increased bike parking at most stations and the possibility of bike share in SF and elsewhere means that there will be more opportunities for folks who cycle to a station but don't need to take their bike on board.

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