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.