Few people know that Charles Darwin, apart from naming his boat after a canine breed and heralding the virtues of the peppered moth, loved pigeons. So when The New York Times published a piece about pigeons riding the city’s subway system a few years back, ol’ Chuck had to be up there in heaven doing that thing guys named Chuck do: chuckling.
It seemed that some birds in different New York City boroughs knew where to get on a train and where to get off. They hopped on in the Bronx, only to emerge on 86th Street a few stops later. It really seemed like the birds followed the same schedule day after day to get around via public transport. Fuck that flying crap.
Alas, no one has done an exhaustive study of the pigeons who live around BART … yet. A random sampling of the birds Planet Clair talked to seemed more interested in high-tailing it after a fallen Cheeto than discussing their daily perambulations. But one thing that most of the birds seemed to feel passionately about was BART’s early closing time.
“Why does it shut down at midnight?” was a familiar refrain. If a pigeon isn’t paying close enough attention, he can find himself stuck in Civic Center when his cozy little nest is actually near the Rockridge station. The same thing seems to happen to people. A lot of people. That’s why folks have been asking BART to expand its hours for years — particularly those rocker types who want to catch a show in SF without dealing with bridge traffic and tight parking.
If you call and talk to a BART spokesperson, they will all but laugh you off the phone for even asking. “That’s an old, old story,” said one PR guy dryly.
Still, the story will get yet another chapter this month, as thousands of people have signed a petition to keep BART open until 3 a.m. If the folks behind the push — spearheaded by Conan Neutron of the East Bay band Replicator — can get ten thousand signatures, they say the idea can actually become a voter referendum. (It took them just days to collect more than five thousand.)
But hold onto your butts, everybody. “It’s difficult to run a transit system by referendum,” said the BART spokesman even more dryly. “Can I call you back? I’m in the middle of something.” He never did.
Clearly, this guy thinks the BART-open-past-midnight idea is impossible, and no amount of votes will change that. Why? First there’s the maintenance issue — at first glance the weakest of BART’s arguments against longer hours, but actually one of its strongest. These trains are a bitch to keep up, and need daily attention during the system’s downtime (midnight-5 a.m.).
Okay, says the opposition. How about running a few trains, and fixing the others, then switching? Well, BART doesn’t have enough tracks to make that viable. They would have to run the trains very infrequently and at widely different locations to make that work.
Rockridge resident Nick Moffett is a rail enthusiast. He collects transit tickets from around the world. He actually goes to BART open houses. He has even studied the line and its engineering. He is a subway geek.
“The way the rails are laid out,” Nick explains, “think of a two-lane highway once built through the wilderness, now surrounded by strip malls, houses, etc. There are no cross-streets — just a long, lonely expanse of road and population growth. Now, imagine if you had to shut one lane down due to potholes. You’d have to do it when there was nobody on it, say early morning. That leaves one lane and no room for an additional accident of any kind.”
Nick adds that most people are appalled when they find out how much maintenance BART actually needs, casting it as a giant that can be neither moved nor improved.
The other issue is money, a far more complicated argument. It’s safe to say that BART doesn’t think many people would actually use the trains after midnight, and that the cost of paying the drivers, security, and all that jazz would far exceed the extra income.
It’s safe to say they haven’t really tried it. “They actually ran the trains late a few years back,” Conan says, “but they didn’t tell anyone about it.” Needless to say, the turnout was low. Yet BART now points to this as an example of why it would never work.
Just think how many people would go to shows across the bay if they knew they wouldn’t have to dash out at 11:45 p.m., to say nothing of late-night barflies or graveyard-shift employees. It’s ridiculous that an urban area of our size has this policy. But you know that already. The only people fighting this idea are the BART people, and unfortunately, they might actually have some good reasons.
But maybe it’s time to question a system so poorly adapted to its surroundings, so resistant to change, so fixed. Maybe BART needs to take a few lessons from the peppered moth before it turns into the dodo.