For the first time since before the pandemic began, Golden Gate Media took BART during commute hours — a harrowing experience where the lights on our delayed train suddenly turned off, music loudly blared, and mask-less riders openly injected heroin from the seat behind us.
Our trip epitomizes the conundrum the beleaguered transit district faces as it tries to convince the public that it is safe to return to riding the trains.
The train encountered a mechanical problem in Downtown Oakland, which left us stopped at the station for about 15 minutes. The lights turned off as the operator restarted the train. Music blared from someone’s portable speakers. Two young men seated behind us decided the darkness of the subway car provided a great opportunity to break out needles to inject drugs.
The lights came back on, and other passengers were aghast at the sight of the two men shooting up. A fight nearly ensued.
“I hope you end up dead on the street tonight!” one bystander yelled. “You’re messing up BART and the Bay Area!”
Homelessness, open drug use, fare evasion, violence, and theft are maladies that plague the BART experience, issues that pre-date the pandemic. The agency has instituted several initiatives to deal with the problems with mixed results.
Other riders have complained about similar problems on their recent BART rides.
“Every time I ride, it's crazy that people do not wear their masks,” said one rider who gave comment during a recent BART Board of Directors meeting. “The trains, at least some of them especially on the weekends now are crowded and people cannot socially distant. People are playing music. Onboard, people are using drugs on board. I see people getting their phones snatched like one in every 10 times I ride. And it's crazy.”
Ridership is down approximately 85 percent since the start of the pandemic, and it has been slow to recover.
“When people are returning to the system, and this is the behavior that they see, I make a conscious effort to avoid BART,” the commenter continued. “If I can take AC Transit, if I can take Caltrain, if I can take the ferry to get where I'm going. I'm going to try and do that instead of riding BART because the behavior of the people on BART is just ridiculous.”
The transit district has included initiatives in its upcoming budget to address safety on trains.
“BART will continue its efforts to provide an environment that makes all riders feel safe,” the agency noted in its preliminary budget memo. "The BART Police Department (BPD) recently created a new Progressive Policing and Community Engagement Bureau, which will continue to ramp up its work in FY22. Comprised of the Transit Ambassadors, Crisis Intervention and Community Outreach Unit, and Community-Oriented Policing Division, the Bureau is an umbrella over a growing team of non-armed personnel paired with police officers who have received specialized training.”
In fairness, we did see teams of BART Police and transit ambassadors when boarding in Downtown San Francisco. The agency has faced major staffing issues — particularly when trying to fill vacant police officer positions.
“The Bureau will focus on connecting those experiencing homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse with services and is committed to building trust and nurturing relationships between the communities BART serves and law enforcement through a culture of accountability, responsibility, and collaboration.”
“I know we can't fix all of the problems overnight, but it seems like we're not even trying,” the commenter also told BART’s Board of Directors. “I'm saying you guys are going to be losing passengers when people come back to the system and this is what they see.”