Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Beginner's Guide to Biking on BART

Friends Annemarie and Scott are recent converts to cycling as serious transport. They've been meeting me at Lanesplitter's Pizza and such on their new bikes for a while now. Nevertheless, Annemarie still had some anxiety about taking her bike on the subway (e.g. BART) to get to work. Among her questions:
  1. when can you use the bike
  2. where can you put the bike on the train
  3. how do you get it to the platform
Given that the goal for this site is to encourage non-cyclists and cyclists alike to cycle more, I thought it would be good to post a primer for those who are considering biking to work but have some of anxiety about showing up at the BART station uninitiated.

BART Bike Curfews
First thing is obviously to work out when bikes are allowed on BART. The answer is most of the time for any line. The exception is basically any line that passes through downtown San Francisco during rush hour.

This exception is, of course, a sad irony because it disallows bikes during the exact time of day that cycling could be most beneficial to car traffic. Nevertheless, that's the reality until BART's forthcoming makeover supports unlimited bike access.

Here's the BART schedule. It includes shaded times where bikes are disallowed. Check that out before you ride.

BART Ticket Or Clipper Card
Assuming you are traveling in a direction or at a time at which bikes are permissible, the next task is to obtain a ticket. There are two options.

BART Ticket
One is to simply buy a ticket at a station kiosk like my friend Scott here. Cash, debit, or credit are accepted. Although not all kiosks accept credit. Sometimes you have to cross a station to use credit card. I've encountered this most often in San Francisco stations around downtown.

Clipper Card
The other payment option is to use Clipper Card. This system provides access to a number of transit systems around the bay and BART is now included. The word is that this will be the only kind of BART ticket in the near future. Annemarie demonstrates using her Clipper Card at the turnstile.

Three Different Ways Through The Gates
There are three different ways to get through the gates in a BART station. I'm listing them in order of ease for cyclists:
  1. Wide Ticket Gate
    Wider one is for wheelchair access and bikes. Although all BART stations have these, not all BART station entrances do.
  2. Emergency Door
    If you find yourself at the wrong end of a station from a wide ticket gate, you can walk your bike through an emergency door and then double back without your bike through a normal gate.
  3. Narrow Ticket Gate (Advanced)
    This is not recommended for beginners but it is an option, nevertheless. If you are quick and nimble with your bike, you can pop a wheely holding your bike vertical on the back wheel and pass through a narrow gate quickly enough not to have the gate close on you. I do it successfully all the time but you do have to be quick.

Learn To Lean
Quick side note (those with kickstands can skip this): While you're buying your ticket, it is tempting to lean your bike against a wall like so (see the photo with the white bike seat). This looks beautiful but is prone to bumping and falling.

The trick to leaning your bike against a wall is to have both the handlebars and the seat or rear tire touching the wall. In the photos, the white seat is wrong and the black seat is correct.

During the morning commute, this matters more than you might think. It is nerve wracking for you and everyone else to be buying your ticket and hear the crash of your bike behind you and assorted mayhem.

No Bikes On Escalators
BART does not allow bikes on the escalators. It is unclear why since many subway systems around the world do allow bikes on escalators. Nevertheless, on BART it is a $200 fine if you are cited. That said, BART staff was very kind when I first offended and didn't cite me.

Escalator Alternatives
So if your bike can't get to the BART platform on escalators the way everyone else does, how can it? The alternatives are:
  • carrying your bike up the stairs
  • riding the elevator
  • using the new bike gutters on stairs (very rare)
The stairs have obvious drawbacks:
  • requires a healthy back
  • requires a lot of upper body strength to suspend a 14kg bike at chest level
  • if a person is short, they have to lift the bike even higher

Over The Shoulder and Front Wheel High
Regardless of the drawbacks, with the right technique it is possible for many of every size and strength to climb the stairs with their bike. The most popular technique is over the shoulder. This is where you:
  1. grab your top bar under hand
  2. lift it above your shoulder
  3. slide the top bar onto your shoulder like you would a back pack strap
One issue with the over the shoulder technique is that your front tire can sometimes bump the stairs in front of you on the way up and knock you off balance. This is particularly common with shorter folks.

One trick for dealing with this is to use your free hand to tilt the bike back a bit. The goal here is to have the bike on your shoulder with the front wheel higher than the back wheel so the bike looks like it is going uphill. This will match the angle of the stairs and keep the front wheel from bumping.

While Scott and Annemarie demonstrated the over the shoulder technique, Annemarie definitely felt uncomfortable so at the next stop she took the elevator.

Although elevators are great for those who don't feel they have the strength, health, or coordination for stairs, they have some issues as well:
  • slow
  • crowded
  • may require two stops
If you hear that train pulling in, it can be quite frustrating to wait for moms with strollers, or travelers with suitcases, finish loading into or unloading from the elevator while you miss your train.

Elevators at some multi-level stations also require you to exit and enter the elevator twice: once at the level of the turnstiles so you can register your ticket or pass, and then once to get to the platform. Rockridge is an example.

Even so, Annemarie was a much happier camper as she exited the elevator.

Bike Gutters: Best But Scarcest Option
Last but not least are the bike gutters on some, but not all, BART stairs. In fact, the only bike gutters I've seen are at the Mission Street station. That's unfortunate, because they are, by far, the best option. They:
  • do work like a charm in crowds unlike the elevator
  • don't require you to be a body builder to get your bike up the stairs. 
My friend Chris demonstrated the bike gutters. You simply walk up or down the stairs while your bike rolls in a special gutter on the side of the stairs. They work so well and are so economical to install. Hopefully, more of these are on the way soon.

No Bikes In First BART Car: Seriously
Once you've made it to the platform the next thing to establish is the car you should enter. You can get into any car except the first one. This, unlike the escalator rule, is RIGIDLY enforced. Not sure why but BART train drivers are super adamant about this. They will not move the train until the first car is void of bicycles.

The only other rule about what part of the BART train bicycles may enjoy is that bicycles must avoid crowds. The BART website elaborates on this rule.

Some cars have a seat with a formal bike space near the door much like the wheelchair spaces. I try to use either of these so people don't have to walk around my bike much. Obviously, you need to move immediately if a wheelchair needs the space.

Leaving The Station
Once you've arrived at your destination, you've obviously got to get  your bike back onto the street. Elevators and bike gutters work identically to the way they do when you enter a station. However, stairs can be approached differently on exit of the station than they are on entry to the station.

A lot of folks hoist the bike over their shoulder again to go down as well as up but this is really not necessary.

You can simply grab your bike around the seat post and let it roll down the stairs. Doing this is easier and less prone to bumping others on the stairs than the over the shoulder technique so it is my favorite.

After their maiden voyage on BART, Scott and Annemarie turn their focus to more important things.

That about covers it. Thanks to all of my beautiful models for patiently posing for these shots.