An ode to BART

The Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) carries an average of 360,000 passengers on a weekday and 100 million every year. During the recent multiple-day strike, the Bay Area struggled to provide alternative service for its commuters resulting in heavily overloaded roads, particularly on the Bay Bridge. This event showed how vital this 41-year old regional system is but also emphasized the Bay Area's residents' love-hate relationship with BART. Taken for granted as a reliable and easy way to get around, it is also often a source of unpleasant experiences such a smelly carpets, seats, and station plazas, and escalators that are broken as many days as they run. BART has upgraded many cars with new interiors in recent years and will eventually replace the old cars with new ones starting in 2017.

One of the interior designs proposed for new BART cars

BART was born out of the fact that the Bay Area experienced significant population growth after the war and traffic congestion was already becoming an issue in 1947 due to the unprecedented rise of the automobile. The Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission, comprised of representatives from each of the nine counties around the Bay and formed in 1951, concluded that "If the Bay Area is to be preserved as a fine place to live and work, a regional rapid transit system is essential to prevent total dependence on automobiles and freeways."

In the1970s, BART was more modern than Star Trek
Early BART car designs (1965)
Courtesy of San Francisco Public Library History Center

When BART commenced service in 1972 after 5 years of planning and 8 years of construction, the used technology and design were cutting-edge. Passengers were to travel in comfort in spacious cars and cushioned seats, pretty much like air travel at the time. This concept would have worked perfectly fine if the interiors had been replaced every 5 years and passenger numbers had not soared to the levels as they have, from 15,000 trips per weekday in its first year of service to 384,000 trips per weekday in 2012.

I tried to document BART's spirit of innovation and what is left of it today in a short film that I created for the Asphalt Shorts film series organized by City|Space. Shot in Super 8, the amateur film technology of choice at the time. The filming made me explore stations I didn't know, spend a long time on drafty platforms, observe the broad spectrum of BART riders, and record images I couldn't see right away. It was fun and made me appreciate BART even more.


For the history of BART with many period photographs, click here.