After a two-decade wait, train riders in central San Francisco will finally have a place to go. The Bay Area Rapid Transit agency, the public-private partnership that runs subway trains connecting the city to its suburbs, announced that it is reopening the bathrooms at its downtown Powell Street station, the first of presumably many new restroom facilities in underground stations. To commemorate this momentous occasion, the agency staged a ribbon-cutting ceremony—with toilet paper, instead of ribbons, of course.
Several elected officials attended this historic occasion, including the BART directors and a California state senator. And this being San Francisco, a clown in a Covid mask was also present. Identified as “BART-rider Michael” and wearing a striped rainbow costume, the clown held up posters reading “Toilets are important” and “Toilet access for all.”
BART officials couldn’t have enough scatological references: they picked 2/2/22 as the date of the grand opening, for instance. The fact that BART officials, ostensibly serious people running a transportation network with $2.4 billion budget, are resorting to off-color jokes isn’t exactly reassuring. Nor is the fact that they obviously put so much thought into the details of this event. If the idea here was to distract from the systemic failures of Bay Area public transit, it’s likely going to backfire. The jokes will continue to write themselves and only call more attention to the sorry state of the region.
Why were the bathrooms removed from service in the first place, more than 20 years ago? BART media relations manager James K. Allison explained that the agency closed all bathrooms in underground stations following 9/11 on the recommendation of the federal government. Powell Street’s bathroom is the first of many to reopen. (I can only hope there will be no TP cutting at the future official events.) According to Allison, the board members and the general manager decided “recently” to open the restroom, “because it became apparent that the general public felt this was an important amenity.” The restroom is redesigned in a way that prevents people from spending a long time in it and will have an attendant present.
With the benefit of hindsight, crime and public safety now appear to have been a greater danger to the system and its riders than terrorism. By mid-2021, BART ridership was down nearly 90 percent from 2019, a decline partially attributed to work-from-home arrangements. But BART’s problems predate the Covid-19 closures. Despite healthy population growth in northern California, ridership flattened through the late 2010s. In the middle of the last decade, the system became notorious for so-called quality-of-life issues—what is colloquially known as being mobile drug dens. But if open drug use and various passed-out individuals weren’t deterrent enough for passengers, the rail service saw increasing violent crime, including the widely publicized murder of Oakland teenager Nia Wilson.
The network responded to the catastrophic decrease in ridership by cutting fares by half for the month of September and hiring janitors and social workers. According to the official statistics, the number of people choosing to travel by BART remained virtually unchanged after the measures were implemented. A better idea would be to increase the number of cops.
Another proposal championed by many locals is to install advanced technology at the gates to make it more difficult to jump turnstiles. Fare-beaters are linked to 80 percent of crime committed on BART.
Public restrooms are nice, of course, but for more than a decade after 9/11, commuters continued to ride the trains without them. The system’s real problem is not a lack of restrooms but a lack of political will to protect San Franciscans from criminality.
Photo By Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images