Bob Powers wants BART passengers to pull up a chair, sit down, and lay it on him.
The commute doctor is in.
BART’s newest general manager, who was just appointed to that job in July, is kicking off a listening tour this week. Powers will seek out BART riders, BART staffers, and anyone who wants to pull him aside at predetermined BART stations to chat.
“I’m a big proponent of listening to the riders. If something’s not working for them we should think long and hard about solving that problem,” Powers said, Monday.
He’s cupping his ear at a crucial time for the agency: It is partway through a multi-million dollar effort to design cheat-proof fare gates, the Bay Area’s homeless epidemic has seeped onto BART cars and stations, and BART board member Debora Allen is seeking to shoo buskers off of train cars in the name of some perturbed BART passengers.
That’s the least of BART’s challenges, and those facing its 400,000 daily riders. Its train car order from Bombardier has also been stalled, leaving the agency’s Fleet of the Future exactly that: farther in the future.
That’s partly why Powers met the media precisely where he did, Monday.
Powers sat in a room just behind BART’s operations control center. Behind him, through the room’s only window, sat a giant, wall-sized screen blinking and glowing BART’s entire 128 mile-trackway for operations staff to monitor.
It’s the lifeblood of the system — and it’s a war room. Every stopped train, every rail malfunction, every minor station hiccup flows flashes on that board in light, and is quickly addressed — or circumvented — by the dozen or so staffers there.
So why meet here?
Powers answered the question with another question.
“What comes to mind when you think about BART? You could argue there’s no more important agency for the health of the Bay Area than BART,” he said. And this place, this “is the brains of the system.”
“When we’re 98 percent on time” in a day, he said, “it’s because of these men and women.”
Powers, an Alameda resident, mostly takes BART to work. He grew up in Chicago, with a father and brother who he described as also “in the business” of transportation.
“It’s in the DNA,” he said proudly.
It’s that understanding of BART’s challenges, and BART’s import to the region, that he’ll take to riders starting Wednesday at Lake Merritt BART Station, from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., then at San Francisco’s Montgomery Station from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. He’ll visit different stations every Wednesday, and a full schedule of the October portion of his tour is available on BART’s website.
BART’s ridership, however, is nothing if not vocal. Powers already has an idea of what’s on their mind.
“Our biggest concerns from riders right now are quality of life: Fare evasion, homelessness, safety and security,” he said.
A recent survey BART conducted of its riders found 85 percent of riders agreed strongly or agree somewhat that “I pay my BART fare, it is only right that others do too,” perhaps lending support to BART’s efforts to curtail fare scofflaws.
Separately, Powers said riders’ perception that they’re not safe on nights and weekends may have led to a recent dip in ridership.
“The biggest thing we could do to help that ridership is to have some presence in the system on nights and weekends,” he said. That could mean more police officers, more customer service staff, or perhaps members of an unarmed ambassador team BART committed to piloting.
A divide between suburban BART representatives and urban ones is driving the conversation around fare evasion, busking, and yes, police, in different directions. Allen, for instance, has advocated for her busker-ban as a way to give riders from the areas she represents — Concord, Lafayette, Pleasant Hill, and Walnut Creek — peace of mind.
BART board director Janice Li, on the other hand, represents more urban San Francisco, where many riders highly enjoy a good turf dance.
More urban areas have also experienced their fair share of violence at the hands of police, driving Li’s support for a pilot to bring unarmed ambassadors to BART trains. Oakland residents frequently bring up Oscar Grant when speaking of BART, the man who while unarmed was shot and killed by BART police in 2009.
“I think more police just makes more pro-police people happy, but does it actually decrease fare evasion?” Li said. “Does it decrease incidents on trains? Does it improve rider satisfaction? Those things are way more important to me.”
This suburban and urban split among BART’s elected representatives is nothing new. The Bay Area is a diverse region, and its people have different needs for different reasons. When asked how he’ll split the difference between those opposing viewpoints, Powers goes back to the entire point of his tour.
“It’s not running into it with a solution right off the bat,” he said. “You have to listen to both sides because both sides have valid points, valid concerns, valid comments.”
Most of all, Powers said, “you need to balance the two. But you don’t get there if you’re not listening.”