BART, once considered a premier mass transit system, has been going through a terrible squeeze because of the Covid pandemic. Ridership dipped below 20% of the 2019 totals at the height of the pandemic, and recovery has been excruciatingly slow. It is still tottering along with at about 175,000, or around 42% of the 2019 totals, which hit a weekday average of almost 411,000. (AC Transit’s bus ridership experienced a similar plunge, from 53 million riders per year to 21.2 million in 2020-21 and 28.9 million in 2021-22, but has now recovered to about 70% of the 2019 totals.)

The one bright spot for BART is a higher average on weekends. Ridership on 20 May was 60% of the pre-pandemic totals, and it 69% on Sunday 21 May.

The system has been helped by installments of a $1.6 billion federal grant, but that money will dry up early in 2025. BART officials plan to draw up a deficit reduction plan that includes limiting new expenses, finding new revenue sources, and reviewing capital projects and present it to the board of directors by March 31. Those revenue boosters could include two 5.5% fare increases starting in January 2024. 

Covid has had the major impact on ridership, with far fewer employee choosing to commute, but working from home instead, or coming to work less frequently. It is not yet known how many will return to the commute or how many will simply never need to return.

Some of BART’s problems, however, cannot be blamed exclusively on Covid, as is shown by a recent survey commissioned by the Bay Area Council. Police-related delays accounted for 26% of delays between April and June last year, while equipment breakdowns and staff shortages were other major factors in delays.

The survey found that about 85% of BART riders who have cut down or eliminated their use of BART said they would ride the system more often if it were cleaner and safer. They said they would want more frequent cleaning, restrooms that work, and the ejection of people who violate BART’s code of conduct, which bans drug use, fare evasion, and vandalism,

Respondents who had reduced or completely cut their usage reported that safety concerns and cleanliness remained the biggest impediments to getting back on board. The group’s most negative ratings were on BART’s efforts to address homelessness, to keep passengers safe from crime and violent behaviors, and dealing with drinking and drug use on the system.

Among all respondents, a shocking 53% said they knew of someone who has been a victim of a crime on BART and 46% have personally witnessed a crime on the system.

The poll results have led the Bay Area Council to call for specific policy prescriptions, including the increase of police and security personnel on trains and strong enforcement of the customer code of conduct, which includes the removal of rule breakers.

BART has already planned to block out unruly law-breakers and fare cheats by installing many tall, new entrance gates in the coming months.

Delays due to police activity, which can stem from drug activity or other crimes, frequently stymie service according to BART data A majority of respondents (65%) said BART should “only focus on running a clean, safe and reliable public transit system” as opposed to “connect[ing] people in crisis on their system to supportive services.”

So BART has a long way to go to restore the system and increase ridership  by cracking down  on crime, , and luring back more riders by improving service, reducing delays, improving clean-up, and finding new sources of revenue.