Honolulu Advertiser 7/10/2000
Cliff Slater's Second Opinion
(1) Webber, Melvin M. The BART Experience-What Have We Learned? Monograph No. 26. Institute of Urban and Regional Development and Institute of Transportation Studies. University of California, Berkeley. October, 1976. p. 37.
(2) Martin Wohl, former Director of Harvard's Transport Research Program and then a National Science Foundation fellow at Berkeley said, "San Francisco has been sold a 19th century system with a few modern-day embellishments to make it appear futuristic...an unchanging, immobile and inflexible system that will be in stark contrast to the highly mobile society it will serve." Quoted in BART: The Bay Area Take a Billion-Dollar Ride. Architectural Forum 124. June 1966. p. 39.
UCLA's Professor George Hilton, a former chair of the president's task force on transportation policy, the Smithsonian's acting curator of rail transportation, and one of the nation's most respected transportation authorities, testified before Congress that if the supposed benefits for rail transit were true then New York would have not have the traffic problems it has. He added, "The experience of the Bay Area Rapid Transit ... will continue ... dispelling interest in rail transit. By 1980, at the latest, the present rapid transit movement will be looked upon as unsuccessful, misguided, and purely wasteful... " Hilton, George W. Testimony before the Transportation Subcommittee of the U.S. House Public Works Committee on March 23, 1973.
(4) Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Working Paper #7. Detailed Commute Characteristics in the San Francisco Bay Area. March 1994. Tables 2.2 & 2.6
(5) Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Working Paper #4. San Francisco Bay Area 1990 Regional Travel Characteristics MTC Travel Survey San Francisco Bay Area Interregional County-to-County Commute Patterns. 1990 Census. January, 1993. Downtown and the Mission Districts together had job increases of 85,149 from 1970 to 1990 and an increase in the automobiles carrying commuters of 31,007.
(6) Hall, Peter. Great Planning Disasters. University of California Press. 1980. pp. 109-37.
BART: Vision or illusion?
Over the years, as I have argued against rail transit for Honolulu, invariably someone will say, "Well, what about San Francisco's BART? That's a success."
It is a success, but only as a successful illusion. As Melvin Webber, Chair Emeritus of UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies, has said, "If BART has achieved any sort of unquestionable success, it is as a public relations enterprise."(1)
Prior to its opening, transportation authorities in our leading universities forecast that BART would not live up to any of the expectations for it, to wit, reduced traffic congestion and beneficial land development.(2) They were to be correct. However, they also predicted that BART's greatest advantage would be to demonstrate that rail transit was still an outmoded form of transportation and it would thus help prevent further waste of taxpayers' funds in other cities.
Little did they know how much waste there was to be.
After two full years of BART's operations a UC-Berkeley team published their findings showing that while BART's costs had exceeded expectations--it was the only thing that did. Ridership was one half of what had been anticipated and there had been no discernable reduction in traffic congestion.
Today, we have a better long-term view of BART's impacts; however we may wish to define success, BART is a failure. It was supposed to encourage the clustering of residents and workers around rail stations to curb urban "sprawl." However, as the authors of a recent study of BART's impact on 34 Bay Area districts concluded, "Contrary to expectations, we found that population has grown faster away from BART than near it." (3) The official Bay Area's Transportation Commission data show this unmistakably. (4)
BART was supposed to help traffic congestion. It didn't. Workers in downtown San Francisco have increased 20% since BART opened. A little less than half of the workers there commuted by public transportation before BART was built--and it is the same today. Since the rest come mainly by automobile (a 31,000 increase in autos, 1970-90) it has meant more traffic congestion.(4)
How significant is BART? The official 1990 survey of total Bay Area trips showed that 79% are by car, 10% by walking, 4.3% by bus, 1.5% by bicycle and 1.5% by BART. That about sums up the illusion; as many people get where they are going by bicycle as by BART.(5)
Has it helped those with lower incomes? Hardly. BART's principal subsidies come from an additional retail sales tax--always a regressive burden on the less affluent--while its riders are predominantly the more affluent suburban residents. The rich ride and the poor pay.
"But BART users love it," you say, "It is really inexpensive for them." That is because commuters are paying merely the price of the ticket, not its cost. If they were to pay just for the operating losses, fares would have to double. This would push the cost of commuting from Walnut Creek to downtown San Francisco from $150 to $300 monthly--and still would not account for capital costs.
The total spent on construction of BART has been billions in inflation-adjusted dollars and refurbishing continues to cost ten of millions annually. In addition, operating losses are running around $200 million each and every year.
The core of any discussion about BART is whether the difference BART made in the Bay Area's quality of life was worth the price paid for it or, for that matter, the subsidies that continue to be poured into it. In other words, "Could Bay Area taxpayers have spent their funds more wisely?"
Given the success of busways and tollways elsewhere, and since Sir Peter Hall, Professor of Planning at University College, London, lists BART as the only U.S. entry in his book, "Great Planning Disasters," we might be forgiven for believing so.(6)
But the illusion will live on. Hundreds of millions of dollars will continue to be poured into it each year and San Franciscans and others will console themselves with the thought that they just couldn't do without it. Oh, well.