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Transit riders wooed by Bay Bridge shutdown now seem to be back in their cars

on November 6, 2009

When the Bay Bridge closed October 27 for an emergency repair, record numbers of commuters began traveling across the bay on buses, ferries, and BART. Now that the bridge is open, and cars are flowing relatively smoothly again, ridership on these public transit alternatives is dropping again. The final numbers are still coming in–but in the aftermath of this latest transbay disruption, have any driving commuters converted, or are they all back in their cars?

Public transit planners, especially at BART, are wondering: Now that they’ve ridden with us, how do we hang onto them?

The Alameda/Oakland and Alameda Harbor Bay Ferry services saw ridership double during the six-day closure period– from a typical 1,200 passengers daily, to between 2,500 and 2,600 each weekday last week. Ernest Sanchez, manager of the service, said his company added an extra ferry and ran continuous service all day to handle the extra passengers.

But despite the spike in passengers traveling across the bay, Sanchez said he expected the  surge in ferry commuters to level off.

“If the past is a guide,” he said, “ferry ridership does go up for a short period. But I would suspect by next week we will be back to pretty much normal ridership on both our services.”

Taylor Stafford, of Blue and Gold Ferries, said their lines encountered a similar phenomenon. “We’ve been through major disruptions before,” he said in an email, “so we had a good idea of what to expect.” By November 4, with the bridge back open again, ridership had already fallen back to normal levels.

“This is typical,” Stafford wrote. “Though these events help to expose the ferry service to new riders, prying people out of their cars on a long-term basis is extremely difficult.”

Clearly, BART absorbed the sizable portion of area commuters who would otherwise drive over the bridge. According to BART’s press releases, customers smashed the previous ridership record on the first full day the bridge was closed, a record only to be broken again on Thursday, when rider numbers hit a new all-time record,  442,000 in single day.

Once the bridge reopened, the BART numbers returned to earth. On Tuesday Nov 3, with the bridge fully reopened, about 40,000 fewer riders used the transit system, compared to the day before. By Thursday, the BART numbers were almost the same as the Thursday before the bridge closed. “We have had a spike,” said BART Public Information Officer Luna Salaver, “but it looks like we are going back to our normal range.”

To try to keep those new riders coming back, BART began a online survey that first record-setting day, asking first-time or infrequent passengers about their rider experience and what aspects of the trip BART could improve. The survey concluded November 3, with some 1,500 people contributing their suggestions.

“We’re overjoyed that commuters turned to BART in record numbers during the bridge closure,” BART Board President Thomas M. Blalock said in a press release Tuesday. “Time will tell how many of the new riders will stick with BART. The economy is one of the most important factors in ridership. Until the economy improves, we may see the ridership trend downward again now that people have the option to drive across the Bay Bridge.”

The added bodies in train cars led to overcrowding and some delays. John McMath, who travels from the MacArthur BART station to the city five days a week, said he noticed an inconsistent pattern of overcrowding on trains. Some were crammed with passengers, only to be followed by another nearly empty train.

“People see a train,” McMath said as he waited on the MacArthur BART platform Thursday morning, “and they don’t think maybe there’s another one coming. So they crowd in.”

In September, BART published the results of a year-long study looking into ways the transit agency could better manage the flow of passengers through the busiest stations and during peak-time rushes.  The study, undertaken by Berkeley urban planning consultancy Eisen and Letunic, explored the possibility of controlling overcrowding by charging higher peak time prices to passengers traveling through the Transbay tube or the especially-busy Embarcado and Montgomery Street stations.

This two-track pricing system, commonly known as congestion pricing, could motivate passengers to ride BART outside the rush-hour periods and nudge commuters to avoid the bottlenecks, potentially speeding up travel for all.

Commuter Sally Alper said she noticed on her ride from MacArthur to Embarcadero last week that there were longer lines than usual at ticket stations. Passengers unfamiliar with the system needed more time to purchase their fares. “It was not a huge deal,” she said, “but I think if [BART] had started right away with the all-night service, that would have been helpful.”

The Bay Area Toll Authority has floated the idea of congestion pricing, too, for example perhaps charging an extra $2 to drivers who drive across the Bay Bridge during the morning and evening commutes. During an average weekday, 250,000 passengers rely on the Bay Bridge;  61,107 of them cross during the two-hour morning and evening rush.   The Toll Authority reports 27 minutes as the average rush hour wait time on the Oakland approach to the bridge, but anyone who has sat in that traffic knows the wait can be considerably longer than that.

Despite the gridlock, drivers still rely on the bridge. Kit Powis, communications and public relations manager of the carpooling service 511 Regional Rideshare, said that after this latest closure there will be a certain percentage of drivers who will consider new ways of commuting.  But for most people, he said, the cost or inconvenience of public transportation makes it hard to change. “Certainly as gas prices increase,” Powis said, “people will begin to consider alternative options whether it be public transit or carpooling options.”

For John Knox White, Program Director at TransForm, the Bay Bridge closure showed that when presented with limited choices, people could still get to work without driving across the bridge. “The problem,” he said, “is that people are taking BART because of an emergency, not because of choice.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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