Andy Nash for BART - 1992It takes an Engineer to Run a Railroad!
I moved to San Francisco in January 1984 and immediately got involved in local politics. The city was changing rapidly and urban planning was a burning issue (as it is now!). I joined San Francisco Tomorrow, was co-chair of the transport committee, and served as president from 1988 to 1992.
We accomplished a great deal of progressive city planning while I was president including passing an initiative limiting office growth, fighting for a better downtown baseball stadium (eventually built), supporting a transport tax targeted to public transport, drafting and passing an initiative for improved waterfront planning, all the while supporting political candidates. I learned that good city planning depends on politics – something I think many activists don’t fully understand.
In 1992 I ran for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) regional rail system board of directors. The big issue was whether to extend BART “directly” into San Francisco Airport (SFO) or to a multi-modal station shared with Caltrain just across the freeway.
I supported the multi-modal station because it was a better transport solution and much less expensive than the alternative. The incumbent, as a protégé of State Senator Quentin Kopp, favoured the “into” solution. He received many endorsements due to the Senator’s influence – even from the “progressive” weekly newspaper! The incumbent won, but I received over 30,000 votes (not bad!) and learned a lot about the practice of local politics.
BART was eventually built directly into the airport which sounds logical but has never worked very well operationally and almost made the San Mateo County Transit District bankrupt. It works fine for people travelling to the airport but is awful for transfers to Caltrain and Caltrain passengers who want to go to the airport – two very important markets, especially since Caltrain service has been vastly improved recently.
BART’s strong influence has had a corrosive impact on Bay Area transport thinking and policy. First, BART’s dedicated funding provides plenty of money for public relations and lobbying. Second, Bay Area residents have the impression that BART is the ONLY possible solution to transport problems. Finally, the BART Board of Directors is directly elected, and have little to do beyond extending their “empire”.
BART’s main operational problem stems from it being a completely unique rail system – designed by rocket scientists in the 1960s to be a brand-new type of rail transport. Everything about BART is custom. This makes it very, very expensive and nearly impossible to implement standard best practices from quality regional railway systems that we see in many European cities such as Zurich’s S-Bahn.
The ongoing BART extension to San Jose will likely cost over 10 billion dollars. It’s sad to see how politics forced the Bay Area to extend BART when it could have built a truly effective regional railway system – with electrification, an extension to San Francisco, and express service on both sides of the Bay and beyond – like Zurich, Munich, or many other cities, with a fraction of that money. An argument I’ve been making since the 1990s!
Some references to the ideas discussed on this page.
Peter Hall, Great Planning Disasters (1982) has a chapter on BART explaining the problems caused by the customized design.
San Francisco Bay Area Regional Rail Plan: A Vision – Nash, Andrew; 2006; A vision of San Francisco Bay Area transport in 2030.
Berlin S-Bahn train entering Hackescher Markt station (photo by Andrew Nash).