Transit agencies everywhere have been struggling to bring back customers and make ends meet ever since bus and subway ridership plummeted in 2020 with the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
But few agencies have had as difficult a time as Bay Area Rapid Transit.
Ridership on the five-county rail system, whose trains used to be stuffed with rush-hour commuters, is only 45 percent of what it was before the pandemic began — one of the lowest rebound rates for any public transit agency in the nation, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
Los Angeles’s subways are carrying around 65 percent of the passengers they were before Covid-19, and the San Diego public bus and trolley system’s ridership has returned to prepandemic levels.
One of the primary reasons, of course, is the rise in remote work, which has particularly affected the Bay Area because so many tech jobs can now be done from anywhere. Far fewer people overall are now commuting each day into San Francisco, and it’s unclear when or if that might change.
“San Francisco is at the tail end of the return-to-the-office train, so to speak, and so it’s kind of a very unique set of circumstances that we’re trying to navigate here,” Robert Powers, the general manager of BART, told me.
The agency mainly serves as a commuter rail line, not an intracity transit service, so its customer base is relatively narrow, says Kari Watkins, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis.
“It’s very much about the job trip, as opposed to other kinds of travel that you might be doing,” Watkins told me.
By contrast, San Francisco’s bus and light rail system, the Muni, which carries people locally between city neighborhoods, has seen its ridership bounce back to 80 percent of what it was before the pandemic, according to A.P.T.A. And in the East Bay, the AC Transit bus system, based in Oakland, is operating with about three-quarters of its previous passenger load.
BART’s lingering loss of ridership has been a disaster for the agency’s finances. Passenger fares and parking fees covered just 21 percent of BART’s operating expenses in 2022, compared with 66 percent in 2019, according to the agency.
Federal pandemic relief funds helped fill the gap, but those are expected to dry up in the next few years, so BART will face an operating deficit of at least $150 million per year, according to agency figures. Powers and the leaders of other California transit agencies have been hoping that Gov. Gavin Newsom would throw them a lifeline in his budget proposal for next year, but he has yet to do so.
Powers said his agency was planning to rearrange BART’s train service a bit in the next few months.
Ridership has rebounded more on Saturdays and Sundays than during the week, suggesting that people are more interested in returning to BART for other kinds of trips than they are for commuting to work. So, starting in September, BART plans to increase service on nights and weekends, while cutting back the number of trains that run during weekday rush hours, he said.
Powers says he hopes the shift will cater to Bay Area residents’ current needs, while giving the agency time to see whether more workers return to offices, and whether new ways to finance public transportation in California will emerge.
“As the general public navigates this remote-work thing, they want more nights and weekends — going out to dinners, going to the shows, going to the sporting events,” Powers told me. “It’s those types of recreational trips in the Bay Area that we see where there’s an opportunity to increase our ridership.”
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Wendy Holder, who recommends a wine region in Riverside County:
“I adore visiting Temecula. The wineries are my personal haven, especially midweek. With so many to choose from, you can experience very small, quaint wineries, such as Palumbo, up to the larger ones like Wilson Creek. Visiting midweek with fewer crowds, I’m able to truly immerse myself in the wine-tasting experience. Additionally, exploring the charming Old Town is a treat. I can leisurely browse the boutique shops, try out local delicacies at the restaurants and soak up the town’s unique character at my own pace.
Despite its small size, Temecula has a big heart that resonates through its warm and welcoming community. From the locals who greet you with a friendly smile to the sense of community that permeates every corner, this town embodies a spirit of hospitality and authenticity. It’s in the heartfelt conversations with winemakers, the passionate dedication of local artisans and the genuine connections formed with fellow travelers.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
And before you go, some good news
A camera under a South Lake Tahoe home captured incredible footage of a mother coyote raising her newborn pups.
The video shows the furry pups playing in snow, having play fights and crowding around their mother as she feeds them, CBS Sacramento reports.
“This has been one of the most amazing learning experiences I’ve ever had with any wildlife species,” said a local nature lover who set up the camera.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back on Tuesday. Enjoy your weekend. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Briana Scalia and Johnna Margalotti contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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