Friday, July 5, 2013

What’s the BART Strike to Bicyclists? – agony and ecstasy

For those in other transit-heavy cities, who are unfamiliar to the San Francisco Bay Area, a rail-system shutdown might not seem so bad to a bicycle commuter. In New York, Chicago, Boston, or DC, bicyclists sometimes think of transit as a sad alternative to pedaling. When I lived in New York, and later in Tokyo, biking to work saved time and money. It also offered a funeasy alternative to cramming into rush hour crowds, or sweatily waiting on a platform during hot humid summers.

But, the unique geography of the Bay doesn’t allow bicycling to function as a transit alternative in the same way. While bicycling can substitute Muni trips for the San Franciscans in the compact 7x7 tippy top % of the peninsula, the vast numbers of BART riders outside the city have no non-motorized way to cross the bay. You cannot legally walk or bike between the East Bay and SF/Marin anywhere north of the Dumbarton Bridge. Even with the shiny new retrofitted East Span of the Bay Bridge (under construction indefinitely), a pedestrian/bikeway will only carry people to Treasure Island, not the last-(2)mile(s) of the West Span.

Also, where BART acts like a subway in dense areas, within SF, or between Berkeley and Downtown Oakland, it plays the role of regional rail on the sprawling low density fringes, through Contra Costa County or the Southeast Bay. Many of these distant places are relatively isolated without BART or a motor vehicle due to geographical choke points. For example, to go from Oakland to Walnut Creek, bicyclists have to cross a volcano.

The Agony
Since bikes aren’t usually allowed on BART, or even in BART stations during commute hours (which I will lovingly refer henceforward to as the “BART Bike Ban”), the strike doesn’t directly affect bike commuters. Most bicyclists with transbay commutes take buses, ferries, or the choicest option, the Caltrans Bike Shuttle.  Bicyclists are indirectly affected by the overflow of commuters onto these non-BART alternatives, manifesting as congestion and/or fewer seats. Count that: bicyclists are already normally restricted from BART, and with the strike, they face inflated competition on their regular non-BART workarounds. 

To add insult to injury, the BART Bike Ban was slated to be lifted for a 5-month pilot project beginning July 1, the same day BART workers struck.  When I told people about the unhappy co-incidence, a lot of them replied, “Is that why they’re striking?” People thought the policy of opening bikes onto BART might be strike-worthy. 

The Ecstasy
Thankfully, although these complaints are intended to highlight the systemic injustices faced by Bay Area bicycling commuters, I can’t complain too much since my de facto commute has been relatively painless. On the first day of the strike, I was prepared for the Bike Shuttle to be snarled in bumper-to-bumper traffic; my trusty ex-NASCAR shuttle driver edged through the crawling freeway, bikes trailing behind, and when fully situated in the left-most lane, he turned on the rotating roof light, zipped onto the shoulder and zoomed zoomed zoomed. ~30min total, 50% longer than usual, but hardly anything to cry about. Additionally, Caltrans graciously ran both Bike Shuttle rigs, accommodating 28 bikes/trip instead of the standard 14. Thanks Caltrans!

It needs to be noted: I am of the lucky and privileged contingent living within bikeable- vicinity of MacArthur BART, the Bike Shuttle’s only destination outside SF.  I know of numerous others who begin their commute with a bike ride to BART in the East Bay, lock up at the station, get on BART, and walk the last-mile to their workplaces in the city. To those bicyclists who’re forced to shift into driving modes, I mourn your loss, and I hope that the 30-day contract extension, and the lifting of the BART Bike Ban, will inspire you to bring your whip into the city and ride around during and after work. Live it up! Ride away.

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