Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bicycle/Train Compatibility: the good, the bad, and BART

Update 20111031: Rockridge BART Getting New Fare Gates: BART to  start work to provide an extra wide turnstile that accommodates wheelchairs and bicycles.

Update: BART's Bicycle Survey
Since this post, BART has disseminated a link to this bicycle survey. Please offer your feedback to BART through this tool. It is good to see BART taking an interest in cyclists. I applaud those involved with this at BART and encourage them to do all they can to support some of BART's most loyal patrons.

Beautiful Partnership When Allowed
Bikes and trains are such a powerful combination. Trains cover the longer parts of a trip and bikes polish off the last mile(s). Yet, this incredibly elegant partnership proves elusive on many train systems because of poor train policies relating to bicycles.

BART Not Onboard For Bikes
One system in the San Francisco Bay Area is particularly unfriendly to bicycles. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) bike rules spell out the bicycle hostility in clear detail. No bikes allowed to San Francisco during commute hours and/or crowded trains. In other words, bikes are banned at the precise time when all modes of alternative transport should be working together to minimize car use.

Other Offenders
BART is certainly not the only offender. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver's brand new metro system was equally hostile to bikes.  No bikes were allowed on the system between February 8 and March 3, 2010. In other words, no bikes were allowed during the Olympics when the city needed all the help it could get to deal with added traffic congestion.

Separate, Don't Eliminate
Keeping bikes and regular train passengers separate during crowded conditions is understandable enough. No regular passenger should risk cutting their shin on a bicycle when they ride the train. Likewise, bicyclists deserve facilities that ensure they and their bicycles safely board the trains without damage. Banning bikes altogether during congested time periods is NOT a solution.

Beat The Flexibility Benchmark
One obvious reason cars are so popular around the world is the flexibility they provide to their passengers as to when and where they can travel. Of course, their popularity has largely negated that flexibility by way of traffic jams. Given that, alternative transport is essential.

However, no form of transport is a true alternative to cars unless it can match the flexibility that the car provides. Since no single  mode of alternative transportation can do this alone, it is essential that all modes support one another. In other words, trains, buses, bikes, etc., MUST work together to create a collective web of passenger support.

Neighbor Metros Refute BART Excuses 
BART is clearly not on board with this idea. Whereas Caltrain, a separate commuter train system in the bay area, just added a second dedicated bike car to each train it runs, BART has yet to add one.

BART always cites cost and space (for longer trains) as reasons why they have not provided similar bike support but those reasons are clearly false.

Caltrain has achieved its superb bicycle support despite desperate budgetary concerns this year.

Good Enough for LA and NY Metro But Not For BART?
Both the Los Angeles Metro and New York Subway systems welcome bicycles "on Metro rail trains at all times."  Why are bicycles good enough for them but not BART? BART claims that adding a bicycle car (or just more cars in general) would cause trains to be too long for some of its stations.

This claim supposes that longer trains are even necessary.  Look inside a Caltrain bike car at rush hour and you see how efficiently bicycles can be stored. If bicycles were not scattered throughout the BART train, they wouldn't use as much space.

Fewer Excuses, More Efficiency
Even with the current infrastructure and budget there are a variety of simple ways to deliver better service if not more capacity.

Shorter Intervals
BART could try to find a way to run current train lengths at shorter intervals the way LA Metro does. Their platforms are no longer than BART's.

BART's current 15+ minute train interval is too long as it is. LA Metro targets a 12-minute interval. Recently, it renamed its "12-minute map" to "15-minute (or less) map". Nevertheless, LA Metro ensures that a rider will not wait more than 15 minutes for a ride within a large portion of central LA. That's impressive for the former car mecca. If Los Angeles can do this, can BART really do no better? Please...

Longer Trains That Reposition For Bike Car
Some commenters point out that BART's routes across the bay and through downtown are at max capacity and, therefore, cannot support shorter intervals. The experience of others during those times make this debatable. Regardless, that doesn't preclude BART from finding innovative ways to support long trains. Trains often reposition 2 or 3 times at a station as it is. One of those repositionings could be for a bike car.

Boosting Capacity Is Inevitable, Start Now
Even if more tunnel capacity is needed to support tighter intervals, this is something any transit system should constantly be planning to address. It is done perpetually to freeways. As of this writing, crews are boring new tunnels on both sides of the bay (i.e. the Caldecott and Muni upgrades). Why not for BART?

Stop digging this hole
Not surprisingly, BART has experienced major ridership declines in recent years. BART chooses to address this with cheesy ticket giveaways during holiday periods and failing to re-upholster absolutely filthy seats.

Stop giving the service away and use the money to make the service more useful. Specifically, stop turning away some of the most impassioned transit riders at times and places when all commuters most need them to travel.

Low Hanging Fruit
Until the train car/capacity issue is resolved, BART can focus on "low hanging fruit" to provide proper bicycle support. Namely, it can improve basic sanitation and improve the ways that riders of all types can get in and out of the stations.

Fix The Stairs
Currently, BART bicyclists must carry (yes carry) their bicycles up 2 and 3 flights of stairs. The staircase at the Embarcadero station is a steep decent more than 25 yards long. I am tall and my bicycle is light so I have no problem with this. However, for many others this is a show stopper for bike/train commuting.

Given the weight of many commuter bicycles, climbing stairs with one is something many cyclists physically cannot do. My friend Christine is in pretty good shape but, given her petite frame and the weight of her commuter bicycle, she struggles to make it down these stairs without falling.

Elevators are available for those with disabilities and they are also available to bicycles but elevators cannot move bicyclists in the volume necessary to successfully get people to and from their trains during congested times. Again, the solution is not to ban certain riders at those times. The solution is to properly design stairways to be more bicycle-compatible.

In fact, BART already does this at some, but definitely not all, of its stations. At the Mission street station, troughs exist along the sides of the staircase where cyclists can wheel their bicycles up and down. This is an effective, dirt-cheap, solution so BART should use it.

Fix The Ticket Gates
The final component of proper bicycle support is proper ticket gate configuration. Never mind that many metro systems around the world function just fine without ticket gates, any system using them should provide a simple way for cyclists, luggage carriers, wheelchair users, etc., to get through them.

As of June 12, 2011, Rockridge BART station (a very busy station) has no extra wide ticket gate. Passing through the narrow ticket gate is a needlessly cumbersome experience for cyclists, those with disabilities, or just those with luggage.
Because of the lack of wide ticket gates, BART requires cyclists to:

  1. park their bike
  2. pass through a regular ticket gate
  3. move back through an emergency gate
  4. retrieve their bike (assuming it hasn't been stolen), 
  5. bring the bike back through the emergency gate. 
Aside from being unpleasant and time-consuming, this process produces the excessive congestion that BART claims it is trying to avoid.

The solution is simple, have at least one extra wide ticket gate at all stations. The fact that they are at most, but not all, stations doesn't do anyone needing one much good if they reach a station without one.

Learn From The Bad Lessons
Let BART be a lesson to other transit systems for how not to do things. Frequent train intervals and heavy coordination with all other alternative transportation modes, not gift cards, are the keys to ridership revenues. Some of BART's own transit partners, like Caltrain, and neighbors, like LA Metro, show it can be done under the same geographic, political and budgetary conditions.