As BART accommodates more bicycles on its trains than ever before—more than 8,000 on weekdays in 2010—riders, bicyclists and transit planners are eyeing the transit system’s bike policy closely.
Around the US, each city’s rail system handles bike riders in a different way. In Portland and Denver’s light rail systems, and Los Angeles and New York’s subways, bicycles can be brought on at all times, though there’s not always space. BART, which recently concluded a month-long experiment letting commuters bring their bicycles onboard during rush hour on Fridays, bans bikes during morning and evening rush hours.
On the other hand, BART lets more bicycles board in more places than Boston’s MTA subway, where rush hour bike blackouts last six hours every weekday, and bikes are never allowed on the Green Line; or Denver’s RTD system, which allows bikes at all times but caps the number allowed on each car and limits the doors they can enter through.
BART, like the systems in Boston and Chicago, keeps one car on each train bike-free at all times—for BART, the front car. Folding bicycles are allowed at all times, even rush hour. But BART lacks the convenience of a dedicated bike car, like those on Caltrain, a system whose bicycle accommodations BART riders—with and without bicycles—have praised.
“If we were a really dense subway system like London, it might not be as big of an issue,” said Steve Beroldo, BART’s Bike Program Manager, about BART’s efforts to promote bicycling. He said bikes can expand the reach of BART’s stations, which are sometimes several miles from one to the next. Beroldo called the challenge of balancing the needs of riders and bicyclists “a relatively new dilemma. It’s something that we have to address.”
The August pilot was among BART’s recent attempts to encourage riders to bike to stations, and sometimes bring their bikes on board. Since 2008, the transit agency has removed seats from more than 350 cars, to make room for bikes, strollers, and luggage. About four percent of riders reach BART trains by bicycle, a number that BART hopes to double in the next ten years.
When BART opened in 1972, bikes were banned from its trains. Two years later, it opened its doors to bicycles for the first time. The complicated system involved permits for bicycles, restrictions on which doors bicycles could enter, and caps on the number of bikes per train. By 1996 BART dropped the permit system; it stopped requiring bicyclists to board through the rear doors in 1999. According to BART’s Bike Program Manager Steve Beroldo, the transit system hasn’t seen major changes to its bike policy in more than a decade.
Even within the Bay Area, each rail system handles bicycles differently. San Francisco’s Muni Metro trains share several stations with BART, but the two systems’ rules have little in common. Muni’s light rail cars never allow conventional bicycles on board. In 2011, Muni began allowing folding bikes into the rail cars, but system spokesman Paul Rose said the priorities are “space, safety, and access,” and that the trains—smaller than BART’s—don’t have enough room for full-sized bikes. Muni trains are never longer than two cars, while BART’s are sometimes up to ten.
Bicyclists transferring to Caltrain at Milbrae BART will find a different set of rules on the Caltrain service, which runs between San Francisco and the South Bay. Each Caltrain train has two cars dedicated to bicycles, where riders can secure their bikes to racks using onboard bungee cords. Caltrain’s largest cars can accommodate 80 bikes per train. Spokeswoman Christine Dunn calls Caltrain’s dedicated bike cars the “most successful bicycle policy in the United States.” Asked to compare Caltrain and BART, Dunn said, “We accommodate far more bicyclists with our system than BART does.”
Bike advocates agree that Caltrain sets the standard. “Caltrain has to be the best,” said Andy Clarke, President of the Washington, D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists, in an email. Clark praised Caltrain’s dedicated bike cars, calling the policy “unprecedented.”
Why hasn’t BART adopted bike cars? Robert Raburn, BART Director for District 4, says this is the number one suggestion he hears about bicycles. The issue surfaced in focus groups and public comments that BART received in 2011, and in Oakland North’s interviews with BART passengers.
Last Tuesday BART rider Dennis White, 66—not a fan of sharing his BART cars with bicyclists—echoed the question while boarding a train at the Rockridge station. He said bicyclists are “a nuisance,” calling them “selfish and rude.” “Why don’t they just make the last car for bikes only?” White said.
Many bicyclists are asking the same question. Lana Rishina, an attorney, had her bicycle on BART Tuesday, with her 5 year-old son strapped into a bike seat. She said she would like to see a “special train car for everything on wheels.” Sam Brown, 40, said he tries to be courteous to other passengers when he brings his bike on board. But Brown supported the idea of a dedicated bicycle car, which he said would put “like-minded people on one train.”
“It’s hard not to feel like you’re in the way,” said Adrianna Taranta, 52, who didn’t have her bike Tuesday, but often brings it on BART. “This has been going on for 30 years,” she said of BART’s efforts to accommodate bikes without inconveniencing other passengers. “So many other cities have been able to resolve this problem.”
According to BART officials, dedicated bike cars aren’t a change riders should expect to see any time soon. “BART’s a completely different animal from Caltrain,” said Bike Program Manager Steve Beroldo. “It wouldn’t work well for BART.”
Caltrain stops for two minutes at each station, Beroldo said, while BART trains stop for only 20 seconds, so bicyclists wouldn’t have time to move down platforms to a designated car. BART can’t add more cars, since train platforms are already maxed out at ten cars. And because BART uses “reverse direction” trains—the front car becomes the back car on return trips—there are logistical problems, Beroldo said. A train’s first car can become its third, fourth, or tenth on the return trip, which could confuse riders.
Dedicated bike cars are not a common feature in American rail systems. Washington D.C.’s Metro, the rail system Beroldo says is the “closest to BART,” doesn’t have them. Neither does New York’s MTA subway, Chicago’s L, Boston’s subway, Denver’s RTD, or the MAX Light Rail in bike-friendly Portland.
The DC metro has a longer commute-period bike blackout than BART, while Chicago’s bike blackouts are shorter. Many systems cap the number of bikes on each train, unlike BART. But Portland and Denver’s systems permit bikes at all times. New York’s subway also allows bikes on board during rush hour. MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan says “our bike policy is to encourage bicycles when we can,” but that it can be “very difficult” for bicyclists to board the subway during rush hour. New York’s policy has a prominent critic in Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said of bikes on the subway, “I just don’t think they should allow it.”
As for a dedicated bike car, Donovan said “I don’t think it would be feasible” in New York. Representatives from San Francisco’s Muni Metro and Portland’s MAX Light Rail both said that bike cars have been discussed, but never seriously considered.
The East Bay Bike Coalition’s Executive Director, Renee Rivera, offered praise for an unexpected transit system: the Metrolink trains in Los Angeles. The Metrolink system allows bicycles on board its trains at all times. “What really works is leaving it up to the user,” she said. “People learn from experience.”
As BART works to accommodate more passengers—the transit system had 415,000 riders on September 15, a near-record—space is getting scarcer. The transit system is promoting bicycling, and hopes to double the number of bike trips to BART stations by riders, from 4 percent to 8 percent by 2022. Of these bicyclists, 59 percent bring their bikes onboard trains, according to a 2008 BART study.
BART Director Raburn was encouraged by the August bike pilot, which allowed riders to board during rush hour. “It looks like everybody got along,” he said. But BART won’t take further action on the issue before November, and the pilot period ended in August. As for how to accommodate bikes and more riders, Raburn said, “We need to listen to our passengers.”
Correction: The original version of this article stated that Caltrain was privately-owned. Caltrain is operated by Herzog Contracting Corporation, but is owned by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board. The Board is made up of representatives from San Francisco County, San Mateo County and Santa Clara County.