The promise of federal money never fails to move San Francisco Bay Area politicians to action. With the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure bill likely to pass, the mayors of Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco penned an open letter arguing that the Bay Area is in dire need of money to improve its infrastructure. The region does face a unique set of transportation challenges, but its most pressing infrastructure problems stem from the breakdown of law and order. The city’s inability to address madness and criminality on public transit and on the streets inhibits access to already existing amenities.
The Bay Area’s geography required city planners to develop a unique network of transportation routes. Set on a narrow peninsula, San Francisco is connected to its suburbs by a handful of bridges and Bay Area Regional Transit, or BART, which runs trains through an underwater tube. Current BART ridership is down nearly 90 percent from 2019—a decline owing only in part to work-from-home arrangements instated after Covid closures. The network has deteriorated for nearly a decade, with ridership stagnating through the late 2010s, despite local population growth. The system has long verged on unraveling.
I took my last BART trip three years ago, when I chaperoned Sunday school kids on an ill-advised trip to the Contemporary Jewish Museum near the city’s downtown. Marijuana smoke permeated the platform area. I wouldn’t complain—the drug is legal—but half a dozen students in the group had yet to be b’nai mitzvahs. Many fellow passengers that morning were mentally distraught or physically ill. Those in our party avoided the misfortune of sitting on a syringe, but our trip was not without disturbance. As we returned from our excursion in a train car filled with the smell of burnt rubber, an absent-minded middle-aged woman dropped her pants in plain view of our kids. Once home, we took extra-long showers; at my daughter’s recommendation, I sprayed our shoes with Lysol.
BART’s problems go beyond quality-of-life issues, however; the service is dangerous. The 2018 murder of 18-year-old Nia Wilson by a deranged transient attracted national attention on suspicion that the attack was motivated by racism. No evidence of racism surfaced, but the disintegration of social norms that led to the brutal murder of a young woman in a crowded train station right in front of her sisters is unmistakable. The transit system is overrun with frightful individuals: some wander, others ingest opiates, and still others accost commuters and harass women.
Wilson’s murder was horrific, but it was not an isolated incident. The system has been plagued by seemingly never-ending episodes of sexual assault, robberies, and other violent crime. BART is reluctant to disclose crime data, but it regularly posts notifications of delays caused by criminal activity. Meantime, citizen journalists upload photos and videos on social media of BART’s dilapidated trains, human bile, public urination, and menacing creeps. Would-be passengers take note and keep away.
BART’s board of directors recently approved a $2.44 billion budget for the fiscal year 2022, but the system is an emergency on rails. Most of its funding comes not from fares and parking fees but from federal, state, and local government sources, including $385 million in federal emergency funds. The network’s plan to hire 17 full-time janitors and 10 security officers won’t be enough to transform it into a usable service. Its plan to extend operating hours is a cruel joke; the prospect of a midnight ride on a Zodiac express will not entice riders. For a price equal to the expense of three embassies in Kabul, San Francisco runs a largely useless transportation network.
Cross-bay auto traffic has picked up somewhat since the city eased Covid restrictions in the spring, but driving through the Bay Area is often no safer than taking public transit. Tourists need to worry about having their car windows broken by street-dwelling lunatics or gang members. After the 2014 passage of Proposition 47, which dramatically reduced penalties for numerous crimes, California has seen an epidemic of organized crime. Auto burglaries spiked when tourism came to a halt during last summer’s lockdowns and rose further once the city began reopening a few months ago. As a result, sidewalks in touristy areas exemplify post–Prop. 47 culture: once the afternoon sun pierces the fog, they light up with the aquamarine twinkle of shattered windshields. To reduce crime and lure tourists back, San Francisco must increase police presence on its streets, but its police department is short 400 officers.
Other methods of Bay Area transportation exist, such as the Transbay bus service and Oakland & Alameda ferry lines, but they significantly prolong the duration of many suburban commutes. Cyclist and pedestrian advocates have proposed the whimsical idea of dedicating a Bay Bridge traffic lane to bicycles. Some might relish a daily five-mile pedal across the bridge in often windy, drizzly conditions, but others would undertake the slog only as a last resort. And biking is a non-starter for small children, seniors, and others with mobility challenges.
Transit infrastructure facilitates the movement of goods and people. It was once considered the most important function of government. Today, Bay Area mayors plan to use funds designated for infrastructure to build a host of amenities, including subsidized affordable housing and broadband internet. Yet they fail to provide safe travel, leaving harried commuters at the mercy of vagrants and criminals. Before securing funding for pet projects, Bay Area politicians should ensure that all civilians can actually get around the city.
Photo By Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images