Farewell pandemic BART. It was a helluva ride

What COVID taught me about work, commuting and mental health

Farewell pandemic BART. We had some good times, dear friend.

For the past year, I’ve enjoyed the old tin cans. The ghost rider experience has been fantastic. Tons of free parking. Empty cars. Plenty of seats. You half expected a bar cart to come rollin’ by, serving Irish coffees and niblets, with a coronavirus chaser.

But like any good thing, it’s ending.

People are coming back to work. Which is great. And my private chariot is starting to get crowded again. Ridership data shows March was the busiest month on the trains since the pandemic began, peaking on March 24 when 138,794 souls hopped on board. That’s only 34% of budget projections, but just the same. It’s starting to feel the like the before times.

And that’s making me sweat. Literally. I remember the pre-pandemic crunch, when a drunken sailor couldn’t fall down in a rush hour train. Packed in like Vienna sausages, we’d sway and flow as a group, BART’s unique screeching feeding our general sense of despair. The dance of the living dread.

At the height of the Bay Area’s economic boom, getting in and out of The City was essentially unbearable. You could sit in traffic, counting the minutes until your next anxiety attack. Or you could pack into the trains, counting the seconds until your next anxiety attack.

By contrast, the pandemic era was horrible for our economy, but delightful for our psyche. You could drive up to the front of any BART station, take the very first parking spot and amble on up to the platform, assured a comfy seat with no one nearby. For veteran strap-hangers, it was nirvana.

Sure, the cars still stunk. Someone was usually smoking weed. There was always a passed-out individual in the back-corner seat. Sure, you still couldn’t hear your headphones through the rattle. And you never quite knew why the floors were so sticky. But it was kinda civilized. Relatively speaking.

Which brings me to the next part of my whinge.

Did you catch that Bay Area Council report last week? The one that showed 48% of our residents are likely to move away from the region in the next few years? The one that said 64% of us believe we’re heading in the wrong direction?

It was sobering stuff for an area that’s prosperity incarnate.

“Like many places across the United States, the Bay Area is still reeling from the pandemic and the devastation it leveled on all of us,” said Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council. “Add to that rising global inflation, continuing uncertainty about the economy and general fear and anxiety about larger geopolitical disruption and you’ve got a perfect recipe for deep gloominess.”

I hear you, Jim. I’ve become a world-class doom scroller. But what if we looked on the bright side a bit? Perhaps the pandemic has shown us the light?

My goofy take on the BART trains is a good example. The Bay Area’s infrastructure was bursting prior to COVID. Maybe a little slower, a little less, will be good for us. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If people want to move out of the area, we should rejoice. Don’t let the Golden Gate hit ya on the way out.Departures will ease the housing crunch, keep our highways and byways less congested and, bless it, keep the trains manageable.

If workers want to embrace a hybrid work model, all the better. We can work on repurposing office space to address our housing shortage. (Fwiw, a closer look at BART ridership data reveals folks are, indeed, coming into the office midweek, leaving the cars blissfully empty on Mondays and Fridays.)

Let’s stop praying before the altar of growth at the expense of our own well-being. Let’s embrace a sustainable pace, folks. Maybe full tilt isn’t the best speed for San Francisco.

Wunderman seems to agree.

“The poll measures a point in time. While we can’t ignore problems like housing and homelessness that have bedeviled us for years, I remain optimistic that brighter days are ahead, as we continue to reopen the economy and bring people back to offices and downtowns, add jobs and adjust to tectonic changes in how we live and work,” he said. “As a society, you just don’t go through what we’ve gone through in the past two years without a major hit to our collective human psyche.”

Hear, hear, Jim. Let’s mind our mentals. And trade our Google buses for a seat on BART. We’ll all be happier.

The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to asaracevic@sfexaminer.com.

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