Rush hour is now anything but at the Montgomery Street station in the heart of San Francisco.
Gone are the laptop-wielding workers jostling on trains beneath the high-rise offices of lucrative tech companies. At 5:30pm on a recent weekday, a woman carrying oversized shopping bags with three girls easily secured several rows of seats.
Three years into the pandemic, remote working continues to be a way of life for many office workers, and few major transit systems in the United States have suffered worse than the Bay Area Rapid Transit. The 131-mile network depends heavily on suburban residents commuting to San Francisco on a daily basis and less than other transit systems on local passengers trying to get through the city.
Weekday ridership on BART is down to 32 percent from before the pandemic began, underscoring a desperate time for San Francisco. Without daily foot traffic, major retailers are abandoning downtown, and analysts believe the downtown area has yet to hit rock bottom. Homeless encampments and open drug use further deterred visitors, while passengers did complained about security and lack of cleanliness.
BART officials are starting to come to terms with a future that no longer revolves around a downtown workplace culture. They are considering gearing up to serve more spectators and sports fans on nights and weekends.
Across the United States, transit systems that have relied on office workers for decades are scrambling to stave off financial collapse while commuters stay at home. Many systems are calling for bailouts from their local governments as federal pandemic relief runs out, but they’re also racing to reinvent themselves.
Kansas City, Albuquerque AND Boston they experimented with the elimination of tariffs. Dallas offers subsidized Uber rides to transit users. Washington Metro is invest in housing and retail shops in dozens of its stations.
« If someone says they know their way out of this predicament, they’re fooling themselves, » said Brian D. Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. « This is a really challenging time. »
In the San Francisco region, BART was created half a century ago to ease congestion as more and more commuters made their way to the city for work. Before the pandemic, the system was so popular that trains were often overcrowded. There was talk of spending $15 billion build a second underwater tunnel to ferry even more train passengers into downtown San Francisco.
But passengers who had packed BART trains did, too it turned out to be a liability in a post-Covid world where tech workers and other professionals have stayed at home.
BART has one of the lowest public transit fares in the nation compared to before the pandemic, according to data from the American Transportation Association. Other California agencies are doing 32 percent better than BART: The San Francisco-focused Muni Line is up 58 percent, the Los Angeles bus and train system is also up 58 percent, and the AC Transit bus system, headquartered in Oakland, it’s operating at 54 percent capacity. The New York City subway and bus network is at 72%.
Alejandra Alvarez, 65, commuted on BART from the East Bay suburb of Richmond to San Francisco for two decades to work at a doctor’s office front desk and has seen the number of passengers drop during peak hours in recent years. Once, she said, a man tried to snatch her iPhone from her hands. Another time, a woman undressed in the train car.
“There are days like those, and there are days when it’s smooth sailing,” Ms. Alvarez said, as she waited behind the yellow line platform to catch the BART train home one recent evening. « And it’s less crowded now, which is nice. »
BART and other transit operators are losing revenue for every empty seat or line during rush hour. Bus and rail systems have relied on billions of dollars in federal Covid relief funds to keep going, but the money is expected to run out within a few years, public transit leaders say.
In California, after public transit agencies asked for help, the state legislature agreed last week to provide $1.1 billion over three years to avoid severe cuts to public transportation. State lawmakers also agreed to redirect $2 billion from transit infrastructure to day-to-day operations, a sign that once-bullish expansion dreams are giving way to survival needs. Governor Gavin Newsom, who initially proposed cutting transit funds to reduce a $32 billion state budget deficit, has yet to approve the budget proposals.
In the Bay Area, saving BART also means saving San Francisco. City leaders fear transport cuts will further discourage office workers and tourists, making recovery even more difficult creating a « cycle of fate ».
BART stands to gain a sizable share of state funding approved by the legislature. Robert Powers, the general manager of BART, said he also hoped that changes like shifting train schedules to serve more leisure passengers would buy the system time until it could find new funding or return the commuters.
« We think the economies of the downtown Bay Area will recover, » Powers said. “We firmly believe in this and we will be ready. We will be there for the riders. »
Other transit agencies are experimenting with incentives and services. Next month, the Los Angeles Metro will allow passengers to ride after them for free pay a certain amount every day or week.
Denver is offering free travel on its bus and rail system throughout July and August. Philadelphia’s SEPTA system is selling deeply discounted monthly passes to employers, including Wawa and Penn Medicine convenience stores, to discourage workers from driving.
In Seattle, the kids were able to do this travel for free on public transport since last fall, an effort to nurture the next generation of transit users, said King County Executive Dow Constantine. The county also provides a free transit pass to anyone attending a hockey or basketball game at Climate Pledge Arena in downtown Seattle.
Mr Constantine said he wanted the efforts to rebuild passengers « in what I think is a permanently changed environment ».
Large-scale changes that would increase transit use — more development near stations, congestion charges or limited parking in cities — are generally not the purview of transit agencies, said environmental law professor Ethan Elkind from the University of California, Berkeley, who has written a book on the history of the Los Angeles Metro.
« You can put the New York City subway in the middle of Oklahoma and you’d have no passengers — that’s kind of a harsh reality for American transit, » said Mr. Elkind. « There’s only so much they can do with service and rates to attract riders. »
In many cities, bikers may only need to go to the office on Wednesdays. Or they want to pick up their children from school in the middle of the day or take a trip to the supermarket.
Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which operates buses and rail in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, unveiled a new bus network last year that has eliminated some lesser-used routes, including some that have been around since World War II. DART has also increased the frequency of its most popular routes to make bus transportation more convenient for impromptu trips.
The Dallas-based agency has partnered with Uber to provide discounted rides to customers that allow them to reach destinations that buses and trains miss. For $6, riders can purchase a day pass that covers the cost of train, bus and Uber rides, said Gordon Shattles, a spokesman for the agency.
« The only thing we couldn’t move was the rails, » said Mr. Shattles.