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Tales from the San Francisco BART

Last week I flew into San Francisco Airport on business, and of course I had to try the BART.

Directional signs inside the airport to the BART were generally good. And the ticket machines were easy to use. And note to the CTA: They accept credit and debit cards! You can select exactly how much to put on your ticket. But a ticket downtown is kinda pricey at $5.15 to Montgomery station. So we're spoiled in that respect.

But there might be another note to CTA brass: Set fares by zones the way Metra does. You insert the ticket to both enter and exit the turnstiles.

The BART system is barely 35 years having opened on Sept. 11, 1972. The stations are large, bright and clean.

In the continuation are my observations and report on things seen and heard on the BART. It might as well have been a CTA train in that respect.

Left the airport at 11:12 am. Quite a few people boarded at the airport. Very little to no signage on the train about the system. I noticed just one system map on the train car that is larger than a CTA car.

And I felt at home right away as I noticed two women groping and kissing each other.

Then an Asian woman boards, carrying a chihuahua dog on the train inside a jacket.

A student graduating from a Bay area college herds her mom, dad and brother on the train. She proceeds to call her employer and lie about her parents arriving late to the airport so she could call off work. It was 11 am and she said their incoming flight was arriving at 1 pm. Not sure I've ever lied to someone with my parents sitting next to me. Then she brought out a notebook and announced she had to finish writing a paper.

The train has a real human -- the motorman -- making announcements.

No slow zones here. We travel at about 35 mph between most stations.

There are no bad human or canned announcements about proscribed or prohibited behaviors.

There are two clutch bars on the ceiling running the entire length of the car. But you have to be at least 5 foot-10 inches to reach the bars.

There are ceiling cameras on each car -- two at each door. Although they may not all be operable because a sign warns: "Your picture MAY be recorded on this train.

I mentioned there are very few canned announcements. That's nice, but there are not enough announcements of upcoming stops for us out-of-towners.

We arrive downtown at 11:41. Nice, smooth half-hour trip.


you know, when I 1st started to ride public transit & lived in Lake County, Pace used to have fare zones. Not exactly like Metra's, tho--it was 1 fare within a zone, but once you crossed the line, it was a higher one, but that was all for the rest of the ride, so it was the same fare for me to go to Great America as it was to go to Hawthorn Mall on the 572.

I agree with the zoned fares. I recently went to London, and that's how their train system is there.

They also linked up ther city trains and suburb trains much better than we do.

I also visit SF regularly, and continue to be amazed by BART. All is not well by the bay, though, and in many ways BART is more like Metra than CTA.

As far as their problems go, the airport extension you rode opened in the early 2000s - right after the .com bubble burst. Ridership has been consistently below predictions, and it's costing SamTrans (who has to pay for operations, since San Mateo County isn't part of the BART district) a lot of money every year for a line that was supposed to have over a 100% farebox recovery ratio(!). Add to that the fact that BART runs on wide-gauge track, making it compatible with only itself and requiring huge investments for extensions, and you can see why some of the other proposed extensions aren't necessarily being met with open arms.

As far as the zoned fare collection system, I also agree that it tends to be an appropriate way of scaling the costs of the service to those who use it more. BART's fare structure steps it up a level with both distance & time based fares - meaning there's no real way to predict how much it will cost you to get to any given station from another without any experience. Both of these kinds of systems would be extremely difficult for CTA to implement, though, given that it requires significant physical space in stations - something CTA doesn't always have. With just two turnstiles in some stations and something like 4 or 5 in many downtown stations, imagine people during rush hour trying to get in and out at the same levels they do now while they ALL have to go through the faregate.

BART is meant to be a regional system, though, with MUNI fulfilling the role that CTA does in Chicago (that’s a whole other long winded comparison, though). And if your train only went 35mph, that would be what I call a slow zone. Those trains usually operate at 55-60+, hitting as high as 79 in the transbay tube.

All that said, I'd ride BART any day over the Blue Line today. I'd just never see anything like it functioning the way it does in SF in Chicago. Oh well.

There are two clutch bars on the ceiling running the entire length of the car. But you have to be at least 5 foot-10 inches to reach the bars.

People here in CA are just taller.


I found BART to be clean, reliable, and comfortable, and an excellent example of what a well-funded transit system can be. The stations are generally clean and nicely laid out and very spacious with nice accents to the construction. The zone fares seem steep if you're used to the CTA's flat fee, but what's nice is that once you have a transfer for the MUNI system, you have unlimited rides for up to several hours depending on how the bus driver doles out the paper transfers. Some give you two or three hours from the moment of purchase, others pre-tear the paper transfer (length determines how long it's valid). I think it's like the old supertransfers that the CTA had many moons ago.
The BART trains definitely travel more smoothly- less herky-jerky motion or stops and starts. There's better noise insulation and the seats are well-padded. Train cars are much bigger and trains are generally longer. The other cool thing is that the train stops in a specific location at each station. A different colored segment of the material at the edge of the train platform shows where the door is going to be, so commuters can line up at these places during peak hours. Also, customer information is much better- led signs and automated announcements tell you how many minutes until your train arrives, especially helpful when multiple trains are available at given stations.

The two non-Chicago transit systems I've used within recent memory are D.C.'s Metro and the San Francisco's MUNI/BART. While both have their problems, they compare favorably -- and by large margins -- to the CTA.

I've always loved the BART and MUNI in SF as a vacationer who is public-transit savvy (and who avoids renting a car if at all possible). The thing that's always suprised me about BART is that the trains are carpeted. CARPETED, I tell you! I'm sure that part of the reason they can get away with that is a lack of the nasty snow/mud/slush we have for much of the year, but still...CARPETED TRAIN CARS!!! :-)

The MTA in NYC also takes debit/credit card, what a great idea CTA!! And it costs 2 bucks. That and making your cars easier to get in and out of like the MTA. Don't like door jammers, well do away with the entrance way that enables people to stand at them!

Some perspective from a Bay Area native -

BART's definitely faster and cleaner than the CTA (at least in part because it's a much younger system), and does a much better job of actually following its own schedules, but it has a number of problems, too. It's quite expensive, especially if you're a regular traveller and go more than 2-3 stops. Also, while trains do usually run on schedule, service can be pretty sparse outside of rush hour (depending on the line, it can be as much as 20 minutes between trains) and there's no overnight service at all.

The airport extension went way over budget, and although a lot of people use the airport station, the other new stops they've opened have gotten much less traffic than anticipated. And generally, BART is way too focused on building little-used extensions than in improving existing service or keeping costs down.

The carpeted trains are actually a big problem - the carpeting and seat upholstery don't last very long and cost a lot of money to replace. If you end up in a relatively old car, they can stink to high heaven. According to a family friend who works in BART administration, they've wanted to do away with the carpeting for years and have even run some test cars with hard floors, but riders love the carpeting for some reason, and in focus groups have consistently said they'd rather BART raise fares than eliminate carpeting (which I find bizarre, I must say).

Oh, and FYI, nobody calls it "The BART." It's just BART.

Thanks for the perspective, Josh.
I have used public transportation in DC, Paris, NYC, and Toronto. While they may have their problems, all of my experiences were better than the CTA. The only public transportation I have been on that the CTA seems to beat is Quito, Ecuador. But then again, the buses in Quito seemed to run more frequently than the buses here.

The last time I was in the Bay Area was in 2002. I had no problems getting to where I was going on any of what seemed to be six million different systems, but I ended up spending a heck of a lot more moolah on mass transit than I had expected. Again, though, the rides were smooth, the cars looked clean, and the announcements were made by actual people. That was nice.

Since then, I've had the pleasure of using the mass transit systems in Toronto and DC. They were heaven on earth compared to the CTA. I was visiting a friend in Los Angeles last year, and although it wasn't much fun, the rides on at least three of the lines I travelled on far were less bumpy than say, our Blue Line. Which, if you think about LA's reputation for terrible mass transit, is really sad.

It's not really fair to compare the CTA to BART. The CTA is to Muni as Metra is to BART. Would anyone here think it's an accurate assessment if someone talks about the fantastic transit service they received in Chicago, when all they did was ride the Metra from Arlington Heights and take a trolley to Navy Pier?

So, in a more accurate comparison, CTA offers much more extensive service and longer hours than the Muni, plus goes to the airport. Metra provides smooth, clean, on-time service to a large, suburban area. Muni/BART are a very usable system, but I fail to see where the CTA/Metra falls short..

Just a few thoughts to add to the discussion...
Zone fares do not work that well for system which is meant to be a public service vs a money making venture. That is, if someone needs to travel from the far south side of the city to the O'Hare/Rosemont area to a minimum wage job because it is the only job they can find, is it fair to charge them more (significantly more) than someone who is riding a bus for half a mile for convenience?

As for credit/debit, look at all the costs/problems that retailers have with dealing with credit cards, privacy and fraud issues. Now apply that to a public transit agency and think about the difficulties involved. I prefer credit too, but if it cost $1 (fees, security features, communications...) to process a $5 transaction is it worth the cost? Not impossible, just an issue of if the benefits outweigh the costs.

As for comparing systems, it's always an apples to oranges comparison, even the Chicagoland systems are not the same (Metra-zone based heavy rail vs CTA-time based mixed system). There are always issues to consider, 24 hour service? Rush hour surcharge? Free transfers? Neighborhood impacts? Pay on entry or pay on exit? I've ridden plenty of public transit systems as well, they always seem better because they're different than what you're used to.

I am from Chicago but have been living in Auckland New Zealand for the past three months now and let me tell you Chicago public transit system is far better then anything they have in Auckland. Their heavy rail is always breaking down and their buses are always extremely late. Plus though I am an avid public transport user at home, I find that the zones here really turn me off from using public transport because it is so expensive to ride to any place in the city. The whole purpose of public transport is to make it cheap for any citizen to get to any point in the city, thus it should be spread evenly among everyone. Punishing someone because the have to travel one "zone" farther defeats the economic equalizing purpose of a public transport system.

You can buy CTA farecards at O'Hare and Midway with a credit card -- as well as union station, I think.

BART is a regional rail system that has a role more like METRA than the CTA, but with equipment that is more like CTA's. (Think of CTA as a budget, coach-only system, and BART as first-class.) And the fares reflect that.

But you can't really compare MUNI to CTA, either. The MUNI trains are light rail, and in some places share the street with the cars.

In addition to light rail and buses, MUNI also operates electric buses, cable cars, and historic street cars. They essentially provide all the local transit in the City of San Francisco, as well as servicing a significant tourist trade.

BART, on the other hand, covers the whole region, operating trains that typically have a significant distance between stations. It covers a huge region, similar in size to METRA's reach. But because of the relatively limited number of lines, service is more like what you'd get if METRA combined services going in the same general directions.

There's also the ferry system, and numerous bus systems providing service in the region. You think there's a lack of coordination between CTA, PACE and METRA? The Chicago RTA agencies are team players compared to what goes on in the Bay Area.

San Francisco is highly dependent on mass transit because of it's density. But I would not say they do any better than Chicago. It's really not very hard to find very vocal rider advocacy groups that are full of frustrated people trapped in a poorly coordinated combination of systems, many parts not operating anything close to efficiently or effectively.

If you really want to see how good public transportation can be in the US, look at what Portland, OR has done, and is doing, not San Francisco.

And if you want to see how bad things can be, look to the north. Read all about how Milwaukee, WI can't get it's act together, and how their transit system isn't just near colapsing. It is in the midst of a colapse.

CTA ain't perfect. Far from it. But it isn't the worst, either.

I lived in the Bay Area for 8 years. Echoing the other statements here, BART=Metra, CTA=Muni or other local transit systems (AC Transit for Berkeley/Oakland/Albany/Alameda/ towns in Alameda County--aka--East Bay).

BART is about the same as Metra--on time for the most part, comfortable, relatively clean, with mostly "adult" riders, i.e. commuters with real jobs.

Muni/AC Transit=buses, and in SF, trolleys, etc. So it's like CTA, but with a lot more buses; there are only a few light rail lines and they are all in SF. That said, SF is a MUCH smaller city, and as long as you're not trying to get on the Bay Bridge at 5 pm, transit times seem a lot shorter--because it's just physically about 1/4 the size of Chicago. Oakland/East bay buses are fine, because their traffic is not really that bad either. (oakland only has ~400,000 people, Berkeley only 100,000, and heck, SF only has 700,000). However taking a bus in Oakland could put your life at risk, much like hanging out on the South Side could.

Ha! So glad to see this. Yesterday I moved to San Francisco from Chicago, and aside from the weather, the sorry state of the CTA was the big reason I left. Yes, it's a smaller system here in the Bay Area, but it's so much cleaner and reliable than the CTA. I hope Springfield increases RTA funding, because the CTA definitely needs the cash.

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