A little over five years ago, 18-year-old Nia Wilson got on BART in Concord with her sisters Latifah and Tashiya for the last time. John Lee Cowell, then 29 and three months out of treatment at a mental health facility, boarded the same train and stabbed two of the Wilson sisters, killing Nia and injuring Latifah, as they attempted to transfer trains at MacArthur Station.
This incident shook riders who rely on BART to stay connected to Bay Area cities for work, recreation and fun. Then the pandemic in 2020 shut down life as we’d known it, forcing many to pivot to remote work or unemployment while amplifying struggles with food and housing insecurity, mental health issues and chemical dependency, creating a new reality on BART. Ridership has dipped to 43% of pre-pandemic numbers, as some folks have stayed in remote positions and others have decreased their BART usage due to safety concerns.
In 2021, after hearing from youth who feared or had experienced or witnessed gender-based violence while riding public transportation, BART partnered with the Alliance for Girls and Unity Council to roll out a bystander intervention initiative called “Not One More Girl.”
Alicia Trost, chief communications officer for BART, says the initiative can benefit everyone—not just girls. It is, however, rooted in the lived experiences of youth. “Alliance for Girls brought us a report showing that youth in the Bay Area were frightened to ride BART because of catcalls, leering, staring and following—not just on the train or on buses, but on the way to take public transit,” Trost said. “Some people weren’t going to school or work because of it.”
With youth input, BART has responded with a comprehensive plan that includes policy and protocol changes, and a bystander campaign that comes with wallet-sized intervention cards. It has also cleaned up and modernized its cars, and added messaging about safety. “When we make the trains safer for girls and women, we’re making them safer for everyone,” Trost said. “We saw this as an opportunity to talk to people about bystander intervention.”
With the help of youth narrators, BART launched a campaign video highlighting four steps of its bystander intervention program. Step one is to assess the situation and take note of whether or not the harasser has a weapon. If yes, riders can call BART police at 510.464.7000. If not, riders can text 510.200.0992. Step two is to ask another bystander for support. Step three is to approach the targeted person, introduce oneself, offer to sit or stand nearby and/or strike up a conversation. Step four involves offering a few solutions such as calling for help, waiting together or connecting with a community resource.
“We’ve heard that young people—especially Black, brown, trans and nonbinary communities—don’t trust the system, whether it’s BART or BART police,” Trost said. “So we’re creating extra tools and resources so that we can try different approaches and rebuild the trust.”
BART’s station agents stock the wallet-sized bystander intervention cards. One says, “You got me? Someone is harassing me right now,” and the other says, “I got you. Do you need someone to stand with you right now?” Both cards list BART and community resources. “The idea is that if someone is harassing you, you can slip someone the card right now without saying anything and get support,” Trost said.
Excited to test out the system, I got back on BART this weekend after a long hiatus, and stopped at Rockridge, MacArthur, Ashby and Lafayette stations. Only one of the five station agents I interacted with immediately knew what I was talking about when I asked for the cards. With a little persistence, I did manage to get bystander cards from the various stations, but most of the agents knew little about them.
While I waited for my train at MacArthur Station, I took a pulse from BART riders who were willing to talk with me about their familiarity with the bystander cards and their overall feelings of safety while riding.
Hayward rider Brandi Green, 33, waited with her earphones on, slightly away from the other passengers. Green has been riding the train her whole life, and she’s never seen the bystander cards or noticed the billboards advertising the “Not One More Girl” initiative.
“Maybe if a guy was harassing me and there was a woman nearby, I could hand her a card,” Green said, while studying the card and contemplating how it would work. “A lot of times, I notice people don’t help. We’ve all gotten a little antisocial since the pandemic. Hopefully, people can grow back into wanting to be around each other and help each other.”
Green said that while she’s concerned by incidents like the recent Orinda derailment and mentally unwell people who she’s witnessed taking out their frustrations on passersby, they won’t stop her from riding.
“I don’t have a car and didn’t grow up with one, so I’ve always used BART,” she said. “I’m vigilant. I sometimes wear earphones and I’m always aware of my surroundings. I carry pepper spray and a knife, but I’ve never had to use it. I have heard some terrible situations happen with not just girls and women, but also men. So if we can have inclusive messaging saying, ‘I got you’ no matter who you are, it’ll be good. I think it’s important that we look out for each other.”
Berkeley rider Katherine Walsh, 40, takes BART a few times a week and feels like it’s become safer since the pandemic. “The cars are cleaner, but I’m seeing less disruptive behavior and fights than I used to see,” she said. “People are passed out and not in a good place sometimes, but I feel relatively safe.”
When I showed her the bystander cards, it jogged her memory. “I feel like I saw a poster with similar artwork to this,” Walsh said. “It’s cool. I would totally use this.” When I asked if she knew where to find the cards or if she thought other people knew, she offered a definitive “no.”
An Ashby Station agent who identified only as Robert has been on the job for 16 years. He said he’s not surprised by some riders feeling more afraid than they used to—because agents are also afraid.
“We deal with a lot in an eight-hour day. There are a lot of mental health issues, some drug use and things are unpredictable,” Robert said, as someone jumped the entrance without paying. “I have seen people scared and, at times, have offered to stand with them until their train arrives. I think the intention behind the cards is good. I do see the ads and the billboards, but I’m not sure how many people pay attention to them and I’ve never had anyone ask for the cards.”
Robert suggested that a small dispenser or signage on the windows of the agent booth telling BART riders to ask for them would get more cards into people’s hands.
Lili, a rider en route to 19th Street Station, has become extra cautious since witnessing a chaotic situation she believes was drug-induced years earlier. “I only ride on my own during daylight hours,” she said. “If these cards were available near the entrance where we insert our tickets, people would use them. I would.”
Stats show that 60% of the time bystander interventions do make a difference. But for the program to work, people need to know about it. Even while waiting for BART to up its distribution efforts, everyday commuters and recreational riders can have a positive impact. Riders can pick up a few bystander safety cards and share them with other riders until everyone knows how to be engaged bystanders. As the saying goes, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”