SF reopens: BART riders dreading the end of the pandemic

‘I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be packed like sardines’

I’m going to miss pandemic BART.

The wide open spaces. The empty seats. The faint smell of disinfectant. It was all quite civilized, if you could put aside the mask-induced claustrophobia.

That could all change now that California has celebrated Reopening Day. I expect to see more people on the trains after our June 15th emancipation, chugging into downtown as offices come to life. Still, that wasn’t the case Tuesday morning. The trains were still pretty sparse and most everyone grabbed a seat with a little social distancing to spare.

How long will it take before we’re all packed in again, like Vienna sausages? It’s hard to say. But plenty of folks have an opinion.

Rickey Love Roberts, a downtown security guard from San Jose, was riding the SFO line from the East Bay Tuesday morning, having spent the night at a friend’s house.

I chatted him up as we rode along and turns out he hadn’t heard about the reopening, but was excited about the prospects.

“I take BART a lot. I also take CalTrain. Grew up on VTA. I’ve used all the transits to The City,” said Roberts. “I also drive, too. It’s been really nice to not deal with traffic. I’m seeing the slow decline as traffic comes back, along with the bad air pollution. It’s been kind of interesting.”

I share Roberts’ enthusiasm for public transit of any stripe, but we were both a little leery of returning commuter hordes.

“I think the trains are going to have a boom, especially when you think about the new trains that BART is trying to roll out. That’ll be interesting. How transit tries to keep up with the new influx of people. It’s exciting.

“But I’m going to really miss the roominess of the train,” he added. “I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be packed like sardines.”

A neighboring rider leaned over and chimed in: “It’s so nice. … I gotta feeling it won’t be that bad for awhile.”

Bidding adieu to my new friend from San Jose, I started walking from car to car and realized that the commuter traffic actually had picked up a bit in the always popular middle segment of my morning train. Back in the pre-pandemic days, I always rode in the first or last car, hoping to get a little more room to stand. It was kind of weird, moving backwards on BART. That kind of mobility wasn’t an option in the past.

I had reached one of the rear cars and, sure enough, there were more seats available. That’s where I found Betty Dankas, a regular BART commuter from Concord, who works as an office manager for a real estate developer downtown. She was in one of BART’s socially awkward, strangers-facing-strangers couch seats. I plopped down across from her and broke the transit system’s cardinal rule: I spoke to a stranger.

“This is probably my fifth week, or so,” said Dankas, when asked how long she’d been back on the train. “It’s been amazing. I was driving for a while. But the traffic just got too bad. Took me an hour and a half to get home. I was over that. Then, when I saw there were more people on the train, I felt a little safer. Because that’s what I was worried about.

“With nobody on board, there’s a lot of things that can happen. With more people, there’s a better chance that someone is going to jump in and help you out if you need it.”

Dankas shared my fear of returning crowds on BART.

“I do love it empty,” she said. “It’s kind of nice. You always get a seat.”

Amen.

asaracevic@sfexaminer.com

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