The last stop: what happens when a US city’s subway starts to die?

<span>Photograph: Peter Dasilva/EPA</span>
Photograph: Peter Dasilva/EPA

On a bright day in early June, a crowd of activists dressed in black gathered in downtown San Francisco for a funeral procession. The crowd wailed and shared impromptu eulogies, not for a person, but for a public transit system.

Ashes to ashes. Bus to bus”, one intoned, as the pallbearers carrying cardboard replicas of trains and buses on top of coffins lay them to rest in front of city hall.

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Transportation operators in the San Francisco Bay Area have been sounding the alarm about the risk of major service cuts and mass layoffs, thanks to the sluggish return of riders after the pandemic and the boom of remote working.

And no system is more vulnerable to fiscal collapse than the Bay Area Rapid Transit, known locally as Bart. For the past 50 years, Bart has served as the connective tissue between San Francisco and the cities in the east and south Bay like Berkeley, Oakland and, most recently, San Jose.

While San Francisco is celebrating 150 years of its fabled cable car system whisking gleeful riders – mostly tourists – up and down its breathtaking topography, below ground there’s little light at the end of the tunnel.

Bart, with a fleet of 862 vehicles that zip along 131 miles of tracks (some of them dug 135ft beneath the chilly waters of the Bay Area), was an engineering marvel when it opened in the 1970s and became a model of self-sufficient funding. At its high point in 2016, the agency boasted 435,000 riders each weekday and brought in nearly half a billion dollars annually.

But the tectonic shifts of recent years have tipped Bart close to a dangerous precipice. Remote and hybrid work has become a permanent fixture and pandemic-era funding is running out fast. Despite a temporary cash injection from the state, Bart still depends on fare payers that may never return. Without them, or a new funding model, the future looks grim.

“We’re the poster child of the fiscal cliff,” James Allison, the Bart spokesperson, told the Guardian.

How did the primary subway for one of the US’s major cities end up on the brink of a financial death spiral, and can it pull itself out? The answer could serve as an inspiration or a cautionary tale for public transit around the country.

‘We can’t have Bart fail’

San Francisco has a reputation for being a tech laboratory, where ride-sharing apps, and now autonomous vehicles, cut their teeth. But protecting its public transit system is enshrined in the city’s charter, and there’s a lot to be proud of.

That system includes Muni, opened in 1912 as the first publicly owned and operated transit agency in a major US city, which has light rail, bus services, cable cars and fleets of street cars adopted from around the world. Bart’s creation was groundbreaking in its own right; it was the first US transit system made fully accessible for people with disabilities, while its network of underwater tunnels were designed with flexible joints to absorb the seismic activity of the region’s two active fault lines, and emerged from the 1989 earthquake unscathed.

view of a train at a platform from above
At its peak, Bart moved 435,000 riders every weekday. But the shift to remote working during the pandemic has hit the service hard. Photograph: Peter Dasilva/EPA

Just a few years ago, Bart stations were a bustling stream of riders and visitors, especially during peak commuting hours. Today, the picture looks very different.

Bay Area workers have adopted remote and hybrid work at the highest rates in the country, and the ridership numbers bear that out. Current ridership stands at just above 40% of what it was before the pandemic, and just above 30% for stations in downtown San Francisco where a glut of vacant office spaces and storefronts has prompted headlines about an economic doom loop.

Now, with many affluent tech workers gone, riding Bart can feel like a ghost train with mostly empty cars, save for a trickle of passengers and unhoused people trying to catch up on sleep.

“Look at this – hardly ain’t nobody here,” said Darla Brown looking up and down the West Oakland Bart platform on a recent Wednesday afternoon. “It used to be absolutely packed.”

A few stops away at Embarcadero station, Joseph Soriano, a tech recruiter, was standing on the deserted platform with his bicycle and pepper spray in his breast pocket.

For Soriano, who has been taking Bart since he was 11 years old, this fiscal cliff is not a new story: “Bart has always been asking for money – even when there were a lot of people using it.”

He questions how well the system has been managed, but concludes that: “We can’t have Bart fail. Bart is part of the Bay Area … Like HSBC, it’s too big to fail.”

Part of the problem is that Bart became a victim of its own success. Most public transit agencies rely on large amounts of funding from their state government to stay operational. Bart, on the other hand, earns most of its money from fares paid by riders, allowing it to operate more like a business than a public service.

Before the pandemic, paying riders made up 60 to 70% of Bart’s operating revenue, with just 5% coming from the state. By contrast, New York City’s transit agency gets 28% of its funding from the state, Boston’s gets 44% and Philadelphia gets a full 50%.

“We were kind of a model for self-sustainability,” said Allison of Bart’s funding strategy. “And now it’s become an Achilles heel.”

san francisco tram coming over a hill
San Francisco has a storied history of public transportation, dating back to the cable cars that have operated for 150 years. Photograph: Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Bart is recalibrating by rolling out a new schedule with fewer commuter trains and more evening and weekend rides. The agency is also addressing concerns about hygiene and safety, replacing its old, slightly grubby fleet of train cars from the 1970s with fresh-out-of-the-wrapper models, doubling cleaning and security staff, and reopening long-shuttered bathrooms.

But finding a long-term solution will be critical for the Bay Area to meet several ambitious goals, including reducing the region’s climate footprint and addressing inequality amid one of the country’s highest costs of living.

For one, the dropoff in ridership has not been spread equally. Public transit users are significantly more likely to be people who don’t have other options to fall back on. Bart’s own data shows that while stations serving the more affluent commuter class are quiet compared to 2019, stations far from the city center that serve low-income riders of color have recovered best.

Cutbacks to Bart and other public transit systems would hit those riders hardest. Silvio, a 91-year-old veteran who lives off his $1,200 a month social security check, depends on public transit to get to his cancer treatments around San Francisco and Palo Alto. If rides are less frequent “the public will be furious,” said Silvio, “not because it’s going to cost them more money, it’s going to cost them more time.”

Temporary help arrived this summer in Governor Gavin Newsom’s budget, which allocated $400m over four years for transit operations in the Bay Area. But once federal funds are spent in 2025, Allison says the agency is staring down operation deficits that run in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

‘Public transit is about economic and social justice’

Can Bart get its groove back? Some say the answer will come down to the ballot box.

Just as voters agreed to fund cable cars decades ago, the plan is to put long-term transit funding – such as a business tax – on the November 2026 ballot. But that vote is years away, leaving a massive funding hole between 2025 and 2027.

Scott Wiener, a state senator representing San Francisco, has been one of the most vocal campaigners for saving public transit from a death spiral. He has proposed an emergency senate bill that would provide funding to fill that shortfall by temporarily raising the tolls on seven Bay Area bridges by $1.50.

“If we allow these systems to fall apart, then it becomes irrelevant what the world looks like in three years, because it’s hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said Wiener.

Some elected leaders and business groups see the proposal as punishing drivers, but surveys have found broad support for public transportation – and in a city known for its heavily congested bridges, many long for the alternative.

After a couple days of driving to her new job as a homelessness case manager in San Francisco, Keyonda Cooper, 36, switched to taking Bart. “It’s convenient as hell,” said Cooper, who parks her car at the San Leandro Bart parking lot for $3 compared to the $20 to $40 she said she paid to park in the city, plus bridge tolls, gas and arriving at work frazzled by traffic.

a bart train with passengers inside
Solutions for saving Bart include new taxes and schemes that encourage riders to come back. Photograph: Ben Margot/AP

Dramatic cuts to public transit will immediately lead to spikes in traffic and air pollution. California has historically underinvested in the public transit of its major cities, which is surprising for a state that prides itself on exporting progressive climate policies. To meet its own climate goals, the California Air Resources Board says existing public transit networks need to double their capacity and service frequency by 2030, not cut them.

While long-term survival will depend on voters and the state, some groups say there are changes right now that could lure back riders. Bart is one of 27 different agencies across nine Bay Area countries that operate in separate fiefdoms with little coordination of maps, schedules or fare transfers – making for a fragmented and confusing user experience.

A non-profit called Seamless Bay Area has studied cities like Zurich, with world-class transit systems, and found the common denominator is having a centralised entity that is “accountable for ensuring that the system functions in a coordinated way to the benefit of users”, said Adina Levin, Seamless Bay Area’s advocacy director.

A recent pilot program allowing unlimited access to all transit options with a single, unlimited pass showed participants increased the number of rides they took by 35%.

Back in front of city hall in June, the mock funeral attendees threw flowers on the coffins of their beloved trains and buses as advocates and political leaders passed around the mic beseeching higher powers for funding.

“Public transit is about economic recovery, is about climate justice, is about economic and social justice and racial justice,” said the San Francisco supervisor Dean Preston, rallying the boisterous protesters with high stakes. “It is about what gets us around, what gets us to our doctors, to our schools, it’s what unites our neighbourhoods.”