Will Bay Area Rapid Transit system survive another 50+ years?

Stephanie Sierra Image
Friday, September 9, 2022
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As our society embraces a remote work culture and new innovations like driverless cars, we're looking into the future of BART. Will it survive?

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As our society embraces a remote work culture and new innovations like driverless cars, we're looking into the future of BART. Will it survive?

BART 50 year anniversary: A look at the past, present and future of Bay Area Rapid Transit

The transit authority has long been the backbone of our regional economy. For 50 years people have relied on it to travel to and from work, the airport, recreation and shopping. But today, the trains sit pretty empty.

How empty?

This graph shows weekday ridership from 6 a.m. to midnight during July 2022. On an average weekday, 133,858 people rode BART. That's only 32 percent of ridership pre-COVID in 2019.

BART

With the shift in demand it begs the question: will BART survive another 50 years from now? Andrew Fremier, the Deputy Executive Director for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), weighed in.

Fremier: "I think we'll have BART."

Sierra: "What does BART look like 25 to 50 years from now?"

Fremier: "If I were to envision...I think it's a pretty safe bet that BART will be the same institution it is in 25 years that it is today."

Why? Fremier points to significant long-term investments. The transit system is about to get an entire new fleet of trains.

"We have about 700 vehicles already on their way or in service. Over the next 10 years, another several hundred to 1,000 will be here," Fremier said.

Each train replacement costs $1 million. So the incoming 1,000 trains will equal $1 billion investment over the next decade.

"We're not going to waste that investment," Fremier said. "We have to figure out a way to incorporate that into the future."

While BART is here to stay, its future will look different.

VIDEO: The birth of BART 50 years ago: How it came to be

There are plans for a more seamless experience that adapts to new innovations like driverless cars and autonomous vehicles, making it easier for riders to get to their destination.

"I think that involves one transport account," said Fremier. "Maybe under the Clipper envelope that allows you to take advantage of more efficient ride share technologies, automated vehicle technology that can get you to that trunk line."

But what will that experience look like? In 50 years, will rideshare companies and autonomous vehicles like robo taxis be the new normal?

"In 50 years, we're going to see robo taxis everywhere," said Mark Rosekind, the Chief Safety Innovation Officer for Zoox, Amazon's self-driving vehicle company based in Foster City.

Unlike Uber or Lyft, Zoox will soon offer a carriage-style car where passengers face each other. The vehicle will have no steering wheel, side mirrors, or traditional driving controls.

"It's basically your own little cocoon where you get to sit there and enjoy your ride with optimal air conditioning and whatever music you want," said Rosekind.

Zoox's robo taxi service will allow consumers to request a ride via an app. The service hasn't launched yet for public use.

"There are already discussions about times in San Francisco when you got a big bus in the middle of the night trying to help some shift workers, we've already had talks with SFMTA about how to get involved," said Rosekind. "It's a perfect circumstance to put a 4-seat robo taxi moving those people, it's more economical and all electric."

VIDEO: Here's VTA's plan to keep expanding BART in South Bay

These new innovations aimed at enhancing accessibility to other forms of mass transit planned for the future.

"We've got a big extension to San Jose that's under construction, the high speed rail train to get into downtown San Francisco with a multibillion dollar tunnel," said Fremier. "Work is underway to invest in longstanding train systems that are moving people from the valley."

Fremier says the long-term goal is to find ways for people to avoid using cars by incentivizing other transit options like trains and busses. This will reduce congestion on our roadways - a problem that's getting worse.

"By comparison, congestion on highways has already surpassed pre-pandemic levels," said Emily Loper, the Vice President of Public Policy at Bay Area Council.

Bay Area Council conducted a survey of roughly 200 employers over the past year to identify future commute trends.

"The most recent data shows employees tend to only be commuting to offices two to three days per week," said Loper. "Those tend to be Tuesday through Thursday."

According to the July survey, 19 percent of companies will have employees permanently work remotely. Plus, 36 percent of employers have already or plan to reduce office space in the Bay Area because of that.

"Most people associate traveling in their minds with commuting and getting stuck in traffic on their way to work, but actually less than 30 percent of trips are taken to and from work," said Nick Josefowitz, the Chief of Policy at SPUR. "And that's even lower now that so many people are working from home."

VIDEO: BART ridership an issue as fed funding set to run out in few years

It's a reality across the Bay Area -- transit systems are struggling to recover riders.

So where does that leave the demand for BART's future? Will the future compete with the past?

"I think that's one of the main challenges," said Fremier. "I think we have to be mindful that it will not be what it was before."

Could innovations like Zoox offering convenient alternatives take precedence over BART like rideshare companies did to taxis?

"It's our future to form," said Rosekind. "Within five to 10 years it can be common place where you take your app out to take a bus for one part of your trip and a Zoox for another part of the trip."

The only competition is the price. The average ticket fare on BART is $3.78. For Zoox, Rosekind says pricing will be in the ballpark of Uber and Lyft.

RELATED: BART GM talks priorities, funding with ABC7 insider Phil Matier

"Cost might be about the same for when we get started," said Rosekind.

For some consumers, the convenience may be well worth the price. The question is: will we all need BART in the same way?

"So if they're going to survive, they need to actually become transit agencies that cater much more to the majority of trips that people take, Josefowitz said. 'Which are to the supermarket, gym, and friends... rather than just solely focused on the commute."

Will the billion dollar BART investment made today be worth it 50 years from now?

"I think the pandemic and the change in environment probably makes us feel differently about the tail end of that investment," said Fremier. "But we'll take it one step at a time."

Take a look at all our coverage of BART's 50th anniversary, as well as the latest stories and videos on the transit system.

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