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Why don’t people want to ride BART at night?

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Workday commutes are business as usual for agency, but night and weekend riders have deserted

A cement stairwell with light spilling from upstairs and shadows pooled at the bottom. Via Shutterstock

Without BART, the Bay Area as we know it would barely function. And yet fewer and fewer people seem to be relying on the region-wide transit network, even as its spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand in recent years.

On the first day of the agency’s annual two-day workshop on Thursday, BART Board of Directors members faced another year of fairly grim math, as rider numbers and rider surveys both showed ridership on the skids in 2019, after public approval cratered the year before.

While a lot of attention was paid to crime and safety worries last year, the feedback now the agency got from riders now suggests the problem is more complex:

  • BART ridership has declined every year since 2016; however, ridership during peak hours is more or less steady in recent years. Most of the loss comes during nights and weekends, when use has plummeted from just over 62 million boardings in 2015 to less than 53 million in 2019.
  • In a poll of more than 660 riders, 29 percent of people say that they’re less likely to ride BART on weekends than they were just one year ago. Between 2018 an 2019, night rides were down 4.9 percent, Saturday trips down 6.1, and Sundays 7.5. For comparison, weekday afternoon trips decline a bare one percent.
  • When asking riders for comment about why they don’t ride more often, the agency specifically singles out sentiments like “Nights are sketchy,” “I feel unsafe,” and “Antisocial behavior.”
  • However, for all of the Sturm und Drang about security over the past year, the biggest obstacles are structural: asked why they don’t ride more during the week, the most popular responses were that stations are too far from people’s homes, trains are too crowded, and that BART takes too long.
  • On weekends the tune is a little different, with the most commonly cited problems being that BART isn’t close enough to weekend destinations, that service is too infrequent on weekends, and that people perceived stations as dirty.
  • Although data about ride-hailing app use is limited, it seems that use is highest in areas where transit use is also high, like around BART stations, but tends to peak at times when ridership on public transit is down the most.

Obviously these responses must be particularly frustrating for those tasked with turning BART around, since expanding to new areas is a slow, expensive, and frequently delayed process, and declines in off-hours service are not going to improve anytime soon as BART keeps working on technical upgrades.

On Thursday, most of the solutions kicked around during board debates focused on discounts and other monetary measures to encourage weekend travel, including giving away up to 1 million freebie tickets for weekends.