Portrait of a City: Riding BART All Day

16th Street → Millbrae
5 a.m.
I walk the dark streets of the Mission to catch one of the first BART trains. As I head down the stairs, Muni operators in fluorescent vests come up the escalator to start their bus routes above ground.

At this 16th and Mission BART station, more than 10,500 people exit through the turnstiles every weekday.

But at this hour most people are still asleep. Two passengers get on with bicycles and exit eight blocks later, at 24th Street. Two others remain — one sleeps in the corner, hood over his head.

The orange-yellow lights that dot the darkened streets of South San Francisco remind me that we’re above ground.

I will be riding the train until midnight — 19 more hours — to see what happens in one day of operation on the Bay Area’s Rapid Transit system.


Millbrae → Embarcadero
5:35 a.m.
We wait at Millbrae, where about 4,500 people disembark each weekday. The doors are closed to keep in the warmth, except in the back car. A steady stream of riders flow in during the 12 minutes the train is in the station, looking for seats facing forward.

The train lurches to movement with a handful of people in most cars.

By the time we reach South San Francisco, 13 riders have filled my car — one that, like many others, seats 56. Two read the San Francisco Examiner and turn to a page with the headline, “BART Looks to Get Cleaner, Quieter.”

It’s quiet, apart from a man who greets a woman with a nod and a hello — and of course the roaring screech of traveling rapidly underground.

The cars can go as fast as 80 mph, but the driver says his top speed on long stretches is about 65.

There are 27 in my car when we leave Balboa Park, and the number keeps growing until the train dumps the majority of its occupants at Powell, Montgomery and Embarcadero.

16th Street → Dublin/Pleasanton
6:50 a.m.
I leave the crowded benches of the BART station platform for a long trip to Dublin/Pleasanton. The woman next to me holds a morning prayer in the shape of a cross and runs her hand over it as her lips move, reciting the words.

We drop the downtowners, cross the Bay and rise in West Oakland. I love the moment when we lift from the tunnel, when natural light floods the train. It’s the beginning of the day, and shades of orange and yellow filter through thick, billowing clouds on the horizon as we zoom over vacant lots and collision repair shops, scrap recycling and day laborers.

Of BART’s 104 miles of tracks, 23 are aerial, and as the train roars overhead in Oakland, I can’t help but wonder how the residents below got the short end of the deal.

Turns out, residents and businesses in West Oakland were displaced during BART construction in the ’60s, fueling a resistance movement.

Once we’re past Fruitvale and the Coliseum, the few riders left are spread out and quiet as one woman squawks into her phone.

There’s an isolated community of houses below. Where am I? We pull into San Leandro, then Bay Fair.

In the next 10 miles to the end of the line, we go through forested hills, where deer munch on grass.

Dublin/Pleasanton → 24th Street
8 a.m.
The train fills about halfway in Dublin/Pleasanton.

A man stands facing backwards on the train, slowly dressing himself. Nobody notices anything amiss until we see the soiled brown stain on the back of his shirt and pants, and notice a stench.

Riders move on; some put their hands over their noses.

The man, graying from age or hard times, adds layers over his soiled shirt. He puts on a black sweatshirt, hood up, then a jean jacket, then a bigger camouflage jacket. As the train moves, he wets his face and starts shaving. Nobody pays attention.

The train keeps filling. A man writes on graphing paper. “Is it Wednesday?” he looks up and asks me. Next to me a lady reads the Castro Valley Herald.

A suited man with strong cologne puts his cell phone to his ear as he stands in the aisle. “How’s Mom feeling today?” he says into it. “Tell her I’ll call her back later.”

24th Street → Pittsburg/Bay Point
9:24 a.m.
A self-proclaimed schizophrenic with a spike-studded, patch-covered jean jacket stands outside the turnstiles at 24th Street, earning dollar bills in his guitar case by crooning Johnny Cash covers.

A class of second-graders from Synergy School pass him as their teachers corral them downstairs to the platform.

They are headed to the Herbst Theater. Most stand, but some pile into seats. Some giggle and goof. Some cling to poles as tightly as they can manage. One keeps her hands pressed against her ears.

They get off at Powell and the train quiets. It’s mid-morning now, and riders relax.

Some knit. Many listen to music. A mom leads her child onto the train with a leash attached to his monkey backpack. Others lug suitcases, headed to the airport.

Many just stare — at their own fingernails, at the stained floors, out the windows at the graffiti-filled roofs in Oakland, the cemetery of white crosses in Lafayette, the empty parking lots and warehouses below.

16th Street → Millbrae
11:22 a.m.
At 16th Street, a boy leaves his girl on the platform after a long kiss.

Two college-age girls talk on an empty train.

“So you, like, had cows around you where you grew up?”

24th Street → Richmond
12:04 p.m.
A woman carries on a tray of sprouting vegetables with popsicle sticks identifying them.

A guy with his bike leaned on his lap takes a chug of a giant bottle of Simply Lemonade.

A long-haired skateboarder sporting a thin chin strap as a beard bobs his head to heavy metal.

The car I’m in is hot — probably too hot. I notice others taking off their jackets, too. I move to the next car over. Much better.

As afternoon comes and the crowds clear out, there are plenty of empty seats, but the pace of riders is steady.

BART reflects fairly well the demographics of the Bay Area as a whole. According to a BART survey from 2008, the percentage of white people riding (48 percent) is slightly higher than the percentage of white people in the region (44 percent). Slightly fewer Latinos take BART (14 percent) than live here (20 percent). Other ethnicities are close to the same.

It’s impossible to typecast the riders on this train and throughout the day. There are gum-smacking teenagers, a nerdy bald man with a national park T-shirt and KQED messenger bag, and a mom telling her son for the last time to stop standing on the seats and pressing his face against the window.

Colma → Berkeley
3 p.m.
Bored, I count the windows (16) and doors (4) in my car.

As we go underground, my eyes turn inward, to the advertisements enticing us to buy: an Oakland A’s ticket, a better mattress, renter’s insurance.

A woman with an accent gets on at Powell Street and shouts to everybody on the train, asking for the phone number for Muni because she thinks she’s lost her wallet there. People look away. I find the number on my phone and give it to her. She’s lost her passport, too. She demonstrates how thieves could have taken it from her backpack. She has an art show to go to in North Beach and she needs to do her taxes and her Metro PCS phone is piece of shit. “You have a good karma come to you,” she tells me.

Two BART police walk through the car, the first I’ve seen today. They tell a teenager eating a Subway sandwich to put it away. On his head he wears what I have noticed many young men wearing — a baseball cap with an untouched flat brim, the sticker left on.

“Have you ever been to an old folks home?” the teenager asks his friend. “It’s crazy,” he adds before he gets an answer. He picks up his sandwich and starts eating again.

Berkeley → 16th Street
4:30 p.m.
The after-work vibe is more boisterous.

People chat with their co-workers or meet up with friends. Riders look into their phones, smiling at a recent text.

A guy with an almost shaved head transfers to the San Francisco-bound train at MacArthur, blathering into his phone about singing in the opera tonight and how he needs new headshots.

Work is over, and lines form at the downtown San Francisco stops. Embarcadero, Montgomery and Powell are by far the busiest stations in the system, with the first two averaging between 34,000 and 36,000 people exiting every weekday. Powell averages 24,000 exits.

There are never lines in the Mission or in the East Bay, but there’s an unspoken system on the stretch from Powell to Embarcadero. Line up. If a train comes and it’s not yours, move right. Allow passengers to exit. The line files in and the others maintain their places. Wait for the next train.

16th Street → Embarcadero
5:40 p.m.

First pitch of the Giants game is coming up, and orange starts to flash across the cars — jerseys, baseball mitts and blankets fill people’s arms. Two kids with Lincecum jerseys and panda hats ask their mom too many questions. “Where’s our stop?” “How far is it?”

She catches one digging in his nose. “Robert, do you need a Kleenex, honey?”‘

Lake Merritt → 16th Street
6:08 p.m.
Two guys headed to the game lean into each other and talk quietly. One has a Mohawk and diamond earrings. When they relax back I see bloodshot eyes and then a water bottle with clear liquor that they pass back and forth, chasing it with cranberry juice.

In another car, a mother with her high school-age son, college-age daughter and her daughter’s friend head to the Giants game.

The friend talks about “pleasure parties,” where women gather to try sex toys.

The mother squirms.

16th → Balboa Park
6:45 p.m.
The traffic in the underground Mission is heavy now. Trains come every couple of minutes, dumping between 50 and 80 people each time.

Apart from the crowded downtown stations, the two Mission stops are among the top five busiest stations. An average of 11,628 riders exited 24th Street each weekday last quarter, and 10,392 went through the turnstile at 16th Street.

But at this busy time of day at 16th and Mission, every person ignores or says a quiet “no thanks” to a middle-schooler with a crop-top haircut asking for money for his football team, Oakland Dynamite. He’s a running back.

“I’m not having much luck,” he says about collecting money. “I don’t know what’s wrong with today.”

19th Street Oakland → Balboa Park
7:50 p.m.
A young woman applies eyeliner using the back of a CD as a mirror.

Balboa Park → Embarcadero
8:30 p.m.
A group of four, late to the Giants game, talk about their favorite alcoholic drink, a Long Island iced tea, as they pass around a fifth of vodka. They’re giggling about the word vagina and saying it over and over again. If they’re over 21, it’s just barely. They finish the vodka.

A woman in her mid-forties tries to do a pull-up on the overhead bars and fails. “I used to be able to do like 10 of those,” she tells her friend.

I recognize a Cheeto sitting just below the front seat. I’ve already been on this train today.

Rockridge → Hayward
10:45 p.m.
I walk onto an empty train at Rockridge. I’m somewhat unsurprised to see puke — a little on the seat and a pile on the floor.

There are fruit snack wrappers on the floor, a cough drop under the seat, crumbs on the seats.

People close their eyes and pull hoods over their heads.

Hayward → 16th Street
11:22 p.m.
Near the Oakland Coliseum, fans coming from the Golden State Warriors game stumble on. A teenage couple canoodle in the corner, their heads huddled over a smartphone.

Three drunk boys get on the train, one so intoxicated he accidentally sits on a girl. One finds the driver to figure out which train to take home to Daly City. “Oh man, work tomorrow is going to be rough,” one says with a sigh before closing his eyes.

The 16th Street BART has the highest number systemwide of people walking directly from BART to home.

Tonight, more than a dozen unload. It’s midnight. We come up into the crisp night above ground, and half of us head down Mission Street, going home.

Filed under: BART, Front Page, Transportation

One Comment

  1. Christopher Tilley

    Enjoyed reading this, gave me a good sense of what it would be like to ride BART all day.

    Nice balance of facts with commentary.

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