On weekdays, BART commuters in San Francisco get to play the unwelcome equivalent of a human jigsaw puzzle.
Arriving at and departing the overcrowded Embarcadero and Montgomery stations often means riders have to squeeze, shimmy, sidle and shake their way through the crowds.
And while crowding is already an issue, the problem is only going to get worse — total ridership for the entire system could nearly double to hit 750,000 passengers a day in 15 years, a level that would be unsustainable under BART’s current conditions, according to the transit agency. Not only is the congestion an inconvenience for riders, it also poses a safety threat because the jam-packed conditions could put passengers perilously close to the platform edge for lengthy amounts of time.
With those factors in mind, the regional rail operator is proposing several changes at the two easternmost downtown San Francisco stations, including removing furniture and payphones, adding surcharges or premium fare prices, and eventually building new platforms at the sites.
The capacity problem is most acute at the Embarcadero station, which has a platform that is 7 feet narrower than most BART stations.
“How we survive with Embarcadero is a big issue for us,” said Paul Oversier, BART’s manager of operations. “This is something we’re going to have to deal with in the short term.”
Some of the solutions for the Embarcadero capacity issue seem basic. Removing the large seating disks in the middle of the platform and replacing them with thinner benches, along with taking out the seldom-used payphones, present the most pain-free alternatives.
However, behavioral changes might have to come through other means. The transit agency could charge more expensive “premium” fares for passengers arriving at the Embarcadero or Montgomery stations.
Another measure could be to add a “peak of the peak time” surcharge, where passengers would pay extra if they arrive or depart in the middle of rush hours.
Several national rail operators, including New York’s Long Island Rail Road and Washington, D.C.’s Metro service, charge peak-time rates. The Long Island Rail Road peak time rates are $2.25 more than regular fares for even short trips. BART officials, however, have not discussed specifics of any proposed peak-time fares.
“These are not popular among our riders, but it is a concept that utility companies deal with,” said Robert Mitroff, BART’s manager of capacity planning. “They price their electricity to meet the peak demands, because that’s what costs the most to produce, and we could do the same with our ridership.”
Eventually, BART will have to make major infrastructure changes at the stations. A potential improvement is the addition of “saddlebag” annexes — additional platforms that sit on opposite sides of the trackway.
The entrances to the supplementary platforms could be tunneled with relatively little disruption, Mitroff said, although the project would cost at least $615 million.
As it stands, BART already needs to identify $650 million for various capacity improvement projects, and the platform additions are not included in that funding shortfall.
“The saddlebags project is huge,” Oversier said. “And that’s going to be the next big thing we’re going to have to deal with at the Embarcadero and Montgomery stations.”