The problem with BART parking? Not enough buses

And as part of raising and lowering prices, BART’s parking fee cap of $3 may also be on the way out.

The problem with parking at BART is a lack of buses.

That’s according to some BART leaders, who on Thursday got a sneak peek at an effort to modernize parking at the agency’s stations Bay Area-wide.

Bob Franklin, customer access and accessibility department manager at BART, ran the BART Board of Directors, at their regular meeting, through the basics: BART has limited tools to manage parking demand, essentially.

Some days, some times, some seasons, BART parking lots can be filled to the brim, while they could just as easily be empty enough to encourage the rolling of tumbling tumbleweeds.

But if — and when — BART institutes a dynamic charging system, Franklin and his staff could lower prices, or raise them, to encourage more folks to park in slow times, or to ward off drivers when demand is high.

And as part of raising and lowering prices, BART’s parking fee cap of $3 may also be on the way out.

“Our goal is to increase ridership and ease access to BART,” Franklin said. But, he added, “we have limited tools to incentivize people who have a choice about when they’d park.”

BART directors who represent suburban and urban areas were split on the issue.

The parking lot at West Oakland BART station from the train platform on April 25, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The parking lot at West Oakland BART station from the train platform on April 25, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

BART director Debora Allen, who represents Contra Costa County, voiced concern that high prices would scare away BART riders who need to drive to stations. BART director Janice Li, who represents San Francisco, thinks BART should raise parking fees to benefit the agency and its riders.

But another line of thinking also emerged as the BART directors debated the merits of raising parking prices, or not — one contributing factor to parking woes is the lack of public transit connecting suburban areas to BART.

Put plainly, if people could more easily hop a bus to BART, they wouldn’t need to drive in the first place.

“I hear a lot from constituents that live up in the hills, ‘I’d take a direct bus to BART if it was there, can we make that happen?’” said BART director Rebecca Saltzman, who represents Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.

“I have to explain to them, buses aren’t what we do,” she said.

While it is true that BART hasn’t provided its own buses, the agency has and does subsidize bus service for its riders.

In 2014 BART began funding additional service on the AC Transit bus route Line 822, to help transbay riders whisk from San Francisco’s Mission District to Pittsburg/Bay Point in the East Bay in the late night hours after BART stops running.

And when BART suffers service outages, it regularly funds replacement service from Golden Gate Transit, AC Transit and Muni to run buses on BART routes.

Still, BART isn’t in the bus business — but its leaders think bus providers need to beef up their game.

During Thursday’s meeting, BART Board of Directors President Bevan Dufty, who represents San Francisco, agreed bus service was needed to ease parking concerns. So did BART directors Liz Ames, who represents Alameda county, and Lateefah Simon, who represents Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties.

The problem is deeply personal for Simon, in particular.

Without bus service that can reliably take Simon from her home in Richmond, CA to connect with BART, the director — who does not drive because she is legally blind — spends up to two hours daily to bring her 8-year-old daughter to school and then to head off to work herself via BART and Lyft.

It’s expensive, too — she sometimes spends $22 a day on travel, she told the San Francisco Examiner.

“There are transit deserts in our backyard,” Simon said. “I’d like to see our bus partners maximize pathways to BART.”

Sometimes the problem isn’t even a lack of bus service, but a lack of frequent bus service.

BART General Manager Bob Powers told the Examiner, “I believe if we make transit easier to take, more reliable, and frequent, we’ll see BART ridership go up.”

It’s long been identified as a pernicious problem.

SPUR, a local housing and transportation think-tank, published a report in 2015 called “Seamless Transit,” that skewered the Bay Area for featuring a hodge-podge of more than two dozen transit agencies. If those transit agencies functioned as one mega-agency, they postulated, people would have a more easy-to-use network.

A new effort called Faster Bay Area, which has proposed a one-cent sales tax for the November 2020 ballot to raise a $100 billion for regional transportation, features SPUR as a member of its coalition.

Among Faster Bay Area’s many goals is to build more public transit options in underserved communities, and to expand rail bus and ferry service networks, all aimed at increasing transit access — including to BART.

“Our regional transportation system is only as strong as how many people can access it,” said Arielle Fleisher, transportation policy director at SPUR. “We need to be able to move mass numbers of people to transit.”

Still, she said, sometimes people don’t realize that there’s a bus nearby that can help.

“More often than not, people have good service, they just don’t know because they’ve never really had to look,” Fleisher said. “A girlfriend of mine has good bus service (nearby), but she always drove to MacArthur BART. When I told her about this magical bus, she started taking it.”

AC Transit turned out to be the key for Fleisher’s East Bay friend.

But until every county in the Bay Area has frequent, fast public transit to BART, its leadership will spend plenty of afternoons arguing about parking.

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