Monday, March 07, 2011

Bay Area Rude Transit?

For as long as I can remember, there are two Bay Area institutions one dare not denigrate. One is Craigslist, and the other is Bay Area Rapid Transit. Both have now been discredited.

BART police came under intense media scrutiny when a passenger was shot and killed by an officer who claims to have mistaken his stun gun for his pistol. Now, a mind-boggling report has been released that links the cushioned seats on Bay Area Rapid Transit trains with a deadly strain of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics.

But, one thing this study neglects to mention is that it isn't just the cushioned seats that are compromised, but there is systemic arrogance, and indifference to consumer needs.

This Saturday evening, I took the legendary BART train from the San Francisco Airport heading to the East Bay. It wasn't the first time I've taken BART, but it was easily the worst time.

Apart from the fact that there wasn't one single employee to be found in a busy airport station, not even in an information booth, there was only a single track and a digital signpost overhead with confusing times listed. Aha, I see "4, 21" must mean that a train will come in another 4 minutes, followed by one in another 21 minutes, but where do those trains go?

Naturally, when one sees fellow passengers waiting for a train, one's first impulse is to ask them, but their staunch, and dedicated response is: "I don't know." Yes, that's right, even when asked which trains stop there, folks seated on the platform uniformly reply, "I don't know." Of course, I think, they must be resentful. It's not their job to answer train queries. They're not on BART's payroll. And, apart from no information booth, there are no transit police, nor any kind of security.

After deciding that I'd be damned before I'd get on the wrong train, scout out a conducter, to find that I was on the wrong train, only to get off and wait another 20 minutes for another one, I approach an attractive, well-groomed fellow who appears to know where he is going as he stares intently at the tunnel. "Excuse me, but do you know which direction this train goes in?" His response is surprisingly polite, "Sorry, I don't. I'm from the U.K."

Oh, that explains it. He's not from around here, that's why he's so polite. We strike up a conversation, and he tells me he's from London. In the space of three minutes, the word "safe" comes up about five times. "Is it safe here?" he asks anxiously. I tell him, "safe is a relative concept."

No sooner does he ask than a train arrives. I must have had a long day, I think, as the train can only head in one direction, and that's toward San Francisco and the outlying suburbs of the East Bay. My bad.

Poor fellow from London has just gotten off an international flight. He must be wiped out. I signal to him to come with me to look at a transit map, and show him that his stop, Civic Center, is about six stops from where we are. "How long will that take?" he asks. About 30 minutes, if there are no delays. He looks at me quizzically, and asks again "Is Civic Center safe?" I advise him to splurge, and spend the ten bucks on a taxi from the BART station the short distance to his hotel.

As I look around the train, I see passengers slurping coffee, putting their feet up on the seats, even a young woman who has stretched clear across a seat with her feet on the seat cushion itself. Over in the far right corner is a dissheveled older man hugging a big backpack he has brought on the train with him. He looks like he hasn't showered in weeks. Odds are, he is one of the many homeless who shell out ten bucks for a place to sleep at night.

As has been my habit for more years than I care to count, I look down at a seat before sitting in it. The cloth seat on this train looks like someone spilled coca cola all over it, and I wouldn't dare get close enough to smell it. I would stand, of course, but I would have to stand for about 90 minutes on a train that bolts unpredictably. One wonders where the ten buck fare goes.

People are coughing, and sneezing all around, and can't open a window. This is a hypochrondiac's worst nightmare, and this is the best part.

I remember four years ago when I rode BART for the first time in several years from the Pleasant Hill station. When I was unsure as to which train to take, I approached a woman in uniform who was walking from a coffee stand with a cup of coffee in her hand. It was maybe 8 or 9 a.m. I asked this woman, who was obviously a BART station employee, if she knew which platform I needed to be on. She responded in a surly tone, "Can't you see the coffee? I'm on break."

By a stroke of luck not unlike the one I experienced this weekend, I heard an announcement and noticed a flock of people racing up a staircase to San Francisco, so I followed them.

About six months after that, I had another question of a BART employee who was the only one working in the station booth. As I approached the glass station, I saw she was openly reading a dimestore novel. She looked up gruffly as if I was disturbing her reading, and answered me. Again, she was the only one working at the station at the time.

Then, maybe a few months after that, I had trouble with the automated machine which ate my money, so I went over to the one and only person working at the BART station, inside the glass booth, and she was clearly yakking away on the telephone. She looked at me like I had some nerve interrupting her phone call. She, by the way, ignored me.

Last week, a gentleman was sitting inside the BART station and right across from the automated machines where one buys a ticket. He was chain smoking, and making it impossible for anyone to buy a BART ticket without breathing his smoke. He was in violation of both BART rules, and a county ordinance making it illegal to smoke within 15 feet of a building.

When I approached the BART station worker in the glass booth, she was irascible, and said "This is a BART police matter. I will call BART police." I calmly explained that BART police would be there in 20-30 minutes at which point this gentleman would have been done with his cigarette. All she needed to do was what all her colleagues did before her, and make an announcement that "Smoking is prohibited in the BART station," but clearly she didn't think that was in her job description. I'd like to know what is?

According to, the average union worker for BART makes about $115,000 a year, so if this station worker in the little glass booth works part-time, she probably earns something like $70,000 a year, and has incredible benefits. And, from what I see, they try to do as little as possible for their money, and they get away with it.

BART restrooms in San Francisco are closed, and have been, for nearly a decade. This is supposedly a "national security" matter, but it represents a huge savings to BART as they no longer have to service those restrooms nor supply them with product.

Frankly, it was an article in today's New York Times that prompted me to come forward with these observations. As the Times reports, "fecal and skin-borne bacteria" that are drug-resistant have now been found in BART's cloth seats. What's worse, while tests are not conclusive, it looks like MRSA, a bacteria that has been linked to lethal infections is likely present in those cloth seats.

The Bay Area's primary mass transit system from San Francisco to the east, and one that transports over 300,000 commuters from the suburbs to the city every day, had better take a long hard look not only at changing from cloth to plastic seats, but in changing their attitude toward its customers for whom they have shown only dedicated disdain.

San Francisco has long been among the world's favorite cities, but in order to preserve its reputation the city must replace a heartless provincial resistance to criticism of its transportation infrastructure with a steadfast desire to recognize any flaws, and work to remedy them.