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Oscar Grant protests miss the big picture

Yesterday I had an hour between meetings to have coffee with my mother in Rockridge. I thought it would be a good opportunity to twitter the latest BART protest, and hopefully to pick up a few more readers of my microblog thanks to intrepid, live reporting of what promised to be a large and potentially riotous demonstration in the heart of Oakland’s supposedly “power elite” neighborhood. Unfortunately for me and for the protesters, it was a complete bust. The media outnumbered the handful of protesters, and BART and the neighborhood took no chances securing the transit station. I enjoyed no discernible uptake in my twitter popularity, and the protesters looked pathetic and marginalized. But lost in their divisive and extremist rhetoric is the fact that the protesters are basically right: BART is a deeply flawed and unjust organization.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system opened in the early 1970s with a promise of uniting the central Bay Area with a high-speed rail system. The system’s construction wreaked havoc on Oakland and San Francisco’s downtowns, precipitating the fall of the DTO as an upscale shopping destination by tearing up Broadway for years, and driving the final nail into the coffin of West Oakland’s once-vibrant 7th St. As the system expanded throughout the 80s and 90s, far-flung suburbs received high-intensity transit service far out of proportion to their size and density, and the residents of central cities found themselves subsidizing suburban transportation at an ever-increasing rate. Despite failing to meet ridership projections, a uniquely costly construction type, and decades-long problems with escalators and elevators, BART remains the most politically popular transit service, receiving a share of regional transportation dollars far out of proportion to its ridership. Today, BART’s legacy is an ever-expanding regional development footprint and fantastically wasteful expansion plans that starve the much more efficient and larger bus agencies of needed operating funds. This is not just an issue of priorities, it is an issue of social and environmental justice.

BART’s per-rider public subsidy (at an average of $6.14) is more than twice that of AC Transit ($2.78), neatly intersecting (PDF) with the fact that its ridership is twice as white as AC Transit’s (43% to 21%). Its subsidized parking lots in the suburbs encourage driving and transfer additional funds to the suburbs at the expense of the inner cities. Most galling, fares from the outer suburbs don’t come close to covering the operating costs of those train lines, while intra-city fares in Oakland are actually more than the operating cost of a trip from, say, Fruitvale to the DTO. This means that every trip within Oakland is subsidizing a trip from the outer suburbs. Both the structure and the operation of BART is subsidizing suburbanites at the expense of the central cities, and its low-cost parking has been shown to encourage more driving.

This is not just a legacy of the 1950s BART plan, it is a result of continuing policy choices by the elected BART Board. The same Board that for decades refused to create a civilian oversight board for its large police force has chosen to create an unjust fare structure and repeatedly break promises made to voters. Those broken promises include a shockingly wasteful Airport Connector that bears no resemblance to the project approved by Alameda County voters, and the VTA’s 2008 tax measure that took all of a month after it was approved for the transit agency to announce that it would jettison all of the local-serving projects in the tax and redirect the funds to the duplicative San Jose expansion (which won’t even go to downtown San Jose, as promised to Alameda County voters when they approved the Warm Springs extension).

The BART Board flies below the radar of public and media interest. The last contested BART election, for the North Oakland-Berkeley seat, saw a transit advocate unseated by Bob Franklin, a union leader upset by Roy Nakadegawa’s efforts to run the system more equitably. The wasteful nature of BART is part of its political power: the construction companies and unions are strongly supportive of the enormous costs of expansion, which go directly into their pockets, while low-cost bus systems aren’t lucrative to big political donors. AC Transit is relentlessly criticized for buying nice buses and for attempting a widely successful Bus Rapid Transit project, yet nary a peep is raised by the media when BART embarks on trains to nowhere, at the cost of over half a billion dollars a mile.

So how does this relate to Oscar Grant? The protesters are eager to connect Oscar Grant’s death with wider social justice causes, yet they focus exclusively on the BART police. BART’s unjust operating structure, the subject of a racial-discrimination lawsuit, has been utterly ignored, and the protesters appear to fail to understand that the elected BART Board is fully responsible for a lack of civilian oversight for the BART police, as well as the despicable response to the incident in the first place. This gives BART Directors, like the aforementioned Bob Franklin, cover to claim they “take the protesters’ demands seriously” while in fact doing nothing to address the substance of those criticisms. Unless and until the protesters connect the dots of BART’s deeply unjust operations and the culpability of its elected officials (who are accountable to the voters), lame attempts to shut down urban stations will do nothing to improve transportation equity or social justice.

Posted in actransit, airport, bart, budget, california, oakland, san francisco, san jose, taxes, transportation.

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15 Responses

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  1. Mike Spencer says

    Besides the brutality, another reason I will never forgive BART is the lack of oversite it had on its police in the first place. Recall the article/broadcast about the man allegedly beaten by Mehserle at West Oakland BART prior to Grant’s death. The man said that he reported the incident by phone to BART but never heard back. Why, BART only had one officer assigned to taking complaints and he was on vacation. It fell through the cracks and insteand of someone maybe intervening to counsel the officer, we had a horrendous fatal shooting and ensuing events. That lack of oversite speaks volumes about mismanagement.

  2. Akit says

    BART enjoys wasting money. Here are two projects that are just a total waste:

    1: Board member Lynette Sweet promotes the sippy cup program so it’s OK to drink coffee on BART. A new “approved” cup was in development. Then in front of the Chronicle reporters, she spills it all over a platform while the camera snaps away her cleaning-up. BART then scraps the program.

    2: BART’s RFID card program. Instead of letting Translink do all the work to make a one-card system, BART decides to defy the MTC and makes their own exclusive card for their system. They also implemented the RFID card parking program, and once again, goes ahead of their time when Translink will take over.

  3. das88 says

    This is a very well written post. It takes a lot of complex issues and clarifies them.

    I’ve talked to progressive friends who are always constant apologists for BART. They only see BART as the good guy in a titanic struggle against the evils of automobile culture. They get blinded that BART could be better and that BART does real damage to other transportation systems.

    Hopefully this type of clear writing will help people to understand the issues in a wider context.

  4. Charles Pine says

    Rachel Kaplan promoted that awful airport connector scheme a year ago when she ran for Oakland city council with your endorsement (and was still on the AC Transit board!), and she is pushing it even more now.

  5. Becks says

    Charles – your comment is completely untrue, even down to getting Rebecca’s name wrong. Rebecca Kaplan supports development around the Coliseum area and some kind of improved connection to the Airport, but not the current boondoggle project. Please show me evidence that she’s pushing for the current Oakland Airport Connector.

  6. Charles Pine says

    Yes, it is Rebecca not Rachel. I apologize for confusing cheap novel titles.

    None of those Airport Connector schemes deserve priority in a list of Bay Area transportation needs. For a fraction of any of those schemes you can run luxury minibuses every ten minutes from a BART station. If Kaplan is specifically in favor of that, I will stand corrected.

  7. Joanna says

    Mr Pine, you say that you stand corrected, but from my perspective in reading various blogs that you respond to, I see you often making these bald statements that are often untrue. Rather than do that, why don’t you take the time to find out the real situation (ie what Rebecca Kaplan really stands for) before putting your own stamp of disapproval on the topic. Personally, I see it as stemming from your frustration in not getting what you wanted with the police measures, etc. (weren’t you at one point running for some office?) Tone it down and try working WITH people. That’s part of what’s wrong in this city. Snap judgements are made without knowing the whole story.

    It’s like this – you can be for tax cuts and against tax cuts – but obviously it depends on the context of more than just the statement that you are either for or against tax cuts. That’s one thing that bugged me throughout the campaign season – on all sides of the political fences.

    Please, let’s try something different. Working together to understand why each of us has a different reason for believing what we believe and understanding that there are some things that we’re simply not going to agree on, but are willing to work towards finding middle ground. Often if we see the big picture, we’ll understand why our snap judgement was wrong…

    Thanks.

  8. V Smoothe says

    As a matter of fact, Charles, a frequent and efficient bus connection between the Coliseum BART station and the Oakland Airport is exactly what Kaplan advocates. Why did you even bring her up in the first place if you don’t know anything about her position?

  9. Mike Caton says

    One statement that jumps out as not meaningful is that “every trip within Oakland is subsidizing a trip from the outer suburbs”. Can’t you make that same statement for any 1- or 2-stop trip?
    i.e., every trip from San Leandro to Hayward is subsidizing a trip from the outer suburbs? Even if the statement is meaningful, is it relevant? Do we say “Screw you Pittsburg, you have to drive?” What’s the point of a public transit system?

    I would love to take BART more but it doesn’t go where I need it to. And I live less than a ten minute walk from the closest station. But it’s better than nothing. Before we declare BART to be unsalvageably inequitable and a failure from the standpoint of getting people out of cars, let’s work together to see what we can do to fix it.

  10. dto510 says

    Mike, the point of a transit system should not be to transfer funds from the inner cities to the outer suburbs. The only way to fix BART is to fundamentally change its operating structure so that residents of the suburbs don’t receive as much in subsidy: that means no free parking, sharply higher ticket fares, and no more extensions to nowhere that duplicate existing infrastructure (there is already a train from the East Bay to San Jose, for example). BART is arguing in court that Alameda County voters voted to tax themselves with the intent of creating an extension to Milpitas! For BART to stop lying to voters about the enormous costs and puny benefits of its infrastructure would be a good step.

    Also, no, that cannot be said for any one or two-station stop. A ride between Orinda and Walnut Creek is much costlier to the system than a ride from the DTO to San Francisco, yet the latter ride costs more. As the Transbay Tube reaches capacity and inner-city commuters start suffering service cutbacks, that will become apparent.

  11. Storm Bear Williams says

    Living in El Cerrito, I now fly out of SFO instead of OAK just because of the idiotic AirBART connection. Yeah, I have to go through SF but I go right to the terminal, my day is going to be complicated enough, I don’t need ANOTHER connection hassle while juggling all my luggage.

    And to the point of the fair structures, they make no sense at all.

  12. whatsername says

    I WONDERED why it’s so expensive just to go between Oakland stops, that didn’t make any sense. Now it does. Got to accommodate those commuters living in the ‘burbs…

  13. Bill Steffen says

    YOU are missing the BIG picture my friend! Oscar Grant is DEAD! You talk about “extremist rhetoric”. What is your article but “conformist rhetoric” that detracts from the real issue. The murder of Oscar Grant.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Oscar Grant | Daily News linked to this post on March 22, 2009

    [...] Oscar Grant protests miss the big picture [...]

  2. Translink finally implemented on Muni & BART « Living in the O linked to this post on March 25, 2009

    [...] This is really just another example of BART being difficult and not cooperating with other transit agencies. There’s so much more to the story of BART being a bad transit neighbor, and dto510 covered this in depth last week: [...]