Guest Commentary: BART’s New Manager Could Save Bay Area Transit

...or oversee its continued decline

Trash and traffic cones stored in a grimy BART station. Just a little of the overwhelming evidence that BART doesn't get customer experience. Photo: Ian Griffiths
Trash and traffic cones stored in a grimy BART station. Just a little of the overwhelming evidence that BART doesn't get customer experience. Photo: Ian Griffiths

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With the announcement that BART’s General Manager, Grace Crunican, will be stepping down in July, the BART Board has a rare opportunity to change the trajectory of public transit in the Bay Area. To accomplish that, the Board needs to select a General Manager who can lead two fundamental transformations:

1. BART must become a customer-focused organization

BART is a huge, complex organization with thousands of employees, billions of dollars of assets, hundreds of miles of tracks, its own police force and fleet of trains, and its own directly elected board.

In trying to manage such a large bureaucracy, BART’s leadership has increasingly lost track of what matters most: its customers.

Too often, BART runs its system based on what tends to be least difficult for its own operations and staff, not what would make getting around the Bay Area easier for passengers. BART’s stagnating ridership and declining customer satisfaction, which hit an all time low of 56 percent in 2018, underscores this disconnect.

Hand written, confusing signs on BART
Confusing signs are the order of the day at BART. Photo: Ian Griffiths

Entering a BART station is often an unwelcoming and dismal experience, where station agents are locked in imposing glass boxes, and important information is communicated with handmade signs affixed with duct tape. Maintenance equipment and garbage dumpsters are regularly stored in plain sight and in the way; public announcements are inaudible and convoluted on and off the trains; and confusing schedule changes on weekends and evenings make using transit inconvenient.

To establish accountability to customers, the next BART General Manager should follow the lead of many other North American transit agencies and successful companies and appoint a “Chief Customer Officer.” Staff should be reorganized to answer to a Customer Experience Department that has authority to make real changes to practices and culture. Right now there is no shared vision for customer service at BART, with no one taking overall responsibility for rider experience. That has to change.

Changing BART into a more customer-focused organization requires not only internal realignment but also promoting a sense of common shared purpose among employees–something that is sorely lacking. Employees should feel empowered and encouraged to do things in the best interest of customers, rather than feel like they will be punished for trying to innovate.

Lastly, changing staff culture also will require reforming hiring practices to bring in a new generation of innovative, skilled leaders. The Bay Area is home to some of the world’s most innovative companies and user experience professionals. Too many BART senior leaders have spent their entire careers at the agency and only know the “BART way.”

2. BART must champion a seamless regional transportation system

BART’s ability to attract riders is connected to how well the regional system functions as a whole. Transit should provide efficient, convenient and affordable mobility between any points in the region–not just from BART station to BART station. The quality and coordination of public transit on all the 26 Bay Area transit agencies, which together carry three times as many riders as BART, are essential to BART’s success.

In the past, BART has been unwilling to integrate its fare system with other transit systems. There shouldn’t be a “penalty” for transferring from a bus or train to BART.

Grime, visual noise, trash storage, and confusion are the order of the day at most BART station. Photo: Ian Griffiths

While people across the Bay Area regularly express that they want integrated and seamless public transit, the transit agencies regularly resist. Leaders claim that overcoming regional differences or jurisdictional fragmentation is simply “too hard” to even attempt.

Transit operators, particularly BART, have used the excuse of having limited funding to avoid even discussing greater regional integration.

This must change if we care about things like inequality, expanding access to affordable housing, combating global warming, and reducing traffic. To survive and thrive, transit agencies must either work together to provide a superior product, or face continued decline.

BART’s General Manager has out-sized influence in regional discussions of integration, due to BART’s status as the backbone of Bay Area transit. BART carries a quarter of the region’s transit riders and will soon connect its five largest counties.

BART’s next GM can become the Bay Area’s biggest champion for regional integration, leading by example, and using BART’s size and influence to promote an ambitious, inclusive vision for better mobility.

Photo: Matthew Roth
Photo: Matthew Roth

Recently, Crunican has shown new enthusiasm for collaborating to develop a regional approach to setting transit fares, one of the most central obstacles to regional integration. At a recent Clipper Executive Board meeting, she stated “We [the transit agency directors] ought to be talking about the complexity to the user, the difficulty on affordability, fairness issues, and the issue of the cost savings that we would have if we come together.”

Whether BART follows through on these words will depend on the next General Manager’s philosophy and leadership abilities. SFMTA is also searching for a new director. And Therese McMillan took over as Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in March.

Together, this amounts to a once-in-a-generation chance to align the Bay Area’s biggest transportation agencies and chart a bold new course, putting the public interest above organizational and political needs. Let’s not miss this opportunity.


Ian Griffiths is a Co-Founder and Director at Seamless Bay Area, a non-profit advocating for policy reforms to create a world-class, integrated regional transportation system. From 2015-2019, he worked in BART’s Planning department, and previously worked for Metrolinx (Toronto) and AECOM on transportation planning, urban design, and customer experience initiatives.

  • quisqas2378

    With an editorial like this I think Ian Griffiths should become the next BART GM or at least allow him to be BART’s first Chief Customer Officer, just saying…

  • Kieran

    BART must change in many ways and this article’s a good indication of how it needs to be more passenger-focused. Another thing that needs to change is that at stations like Richmond and Millbrae, BART needs to truly time the transfers with Amtrak/Caltrain so that passengers aren’t stranded trying to transfer from say, an Amtrak train at Richmond station to the BART train, for instance.

    Besides restructuring BART’s cleaning policies so that the stations/trains actually remain clean, BART needs to truly make certain the new trains hold up mechanically as they enter service. Obviously that’s a lot to ask from BART but it’s so basic that it’s just a damn shame that these issues I’ve raised haven’t been fixed yet.

  • mx

    A new BART GM, Chief Customer Officer, or perhaps an enterprising transportation journalist could learn a lot by spending a day hanging out at Powell Station watching how both tourists and regular riders use the system. The confusion at the ticket machines (and BART vs Muni confusion) alone could fill a book.

    We certainly need regional fare and schedule integration, “get up and go” frequency, and so much more, but there’s so much that could just be done at really minimal cost if someone just walked around the stations and was committed to the customer experience.

  • david vartanoff

    It really is time for BART to give riders in the East Bay (AC, Wheels, West County, Central County etc) the same local transit pass deal Muni riders have.

  • Kieran

    Very true..I don’t see why BART didn’t get that done decades ago….It’s truly one of the easiest and quickest things BART can do to actually help out quite a bit of passengers.

  • SFnative74

    I wholeheartedly agree. Every aspect of the customer experience should be smooth, seamless, and stress-free (if not enjoyable!) from the moment one approaches the station to the time they leave their destination. Then you will see more people embracing transit as a good way to get to work rather than just an experience they have to endure. Our current transit systems are just plain embarrassing with their filth, unreliability, poor communications, and lack of enforcement on the vehicles or in the station. Anyone who has ridden nearly ANY transit outside of the US knows what I’m saying. Let’s show some pride in our infrastructure.

  • p_chazz

    I have the feeling he’s angling for it…

  • p_chazz

    Thank God for small favors. At least there is no need for a website to tell BART passengers if the system is on fire, like there is with the Washington Metro:

  • p_chazz

    BART ticket machines are no more or less confusing than the ticket machines in Washington DC and Los Angeles. In LA, you have the Metro vs. Metrolink confusion.

  • 19 years riding the system and I can attest it’s seen better days. Balboa Park: electronic sign on the platform’s been broken since I started using the station last August. Many of the fare gates are broken (either don’t work or are permanently open which only encourages fare cheating). No police presence especially during morning/evening rush. Food and human waste abound..urine stench is overwhelming most times. Usually an escalator out of service (rampant problem throughout the system). That’s just this station. Many others are worse, especially CC and Powell.

  • p_chazz

    At least the broken sign in Glen Park Station informs riders that it is not working. It reads “This sign is out of service.”

  • crazyvag

    At the very least, the station should have a giant countdown timer to next train departure to reduce everyone’s panic.

    Also, end the practice of keeping train at end stations with doors closed. It’s so anti-customer!

  • Kieran

    Yea, giant timers would be useful, along with a voice that follows the countdown precisely. It’s little improvements like those that will actually help BART out a helluva lot.

    Actually, as far as trains at terminal stations with their doors being shut, sometimes I see them with the doors shut and other times I’ll see the doors wide open. Based on my experiences, I think it depends on the driver’s preference and if they want to keep the doors on their train open.

  • p_chazz

    BART needs to truly time the transfers with Amtrak/Caltrain so that passengers aren’t stranded trying to transfer from say, an Amtrak train at Richmond station to the BART train, for instance.

    That would require Capitol Corridor trains to arrive on schedule.

  • crazyvag

    What’s pathetic is that I can get the countdown in my app, so data is clearly there.

  • Kieran

    I know that that asks a lot from Amtrak for the Capitol Corridor trains to consistently arrive on time. It’d be nice if they could actually deliver, though..

  • Kieran

    Yea that’s sad but I’m not surprised..BART has had countless chances to improve yet for the most part has failed at moving forward.

  • Update: this morning at BP station. Station agent MIA. Someone vaping on the platform. Someone else blasting loud music on the platform. Oh, look. Another fare cheater.

    Absolutely no police presence. Eventually, the station agent came back out of breath…he had been chasing someone outside the station who had stolen a rider’s phone. I asked him why there wasn’t any police presence…he said he had called for back up.

    WTF?!!? Back up? There should be an office patrolling every single BART station, including platforms. I really wish one of the news channels would do an undercover story on how BART continues to BS riders and the public about “police patrols” and “increased safety measures” when every single freaking day I see no one at the BP station in uniform. Not even the POP clowns checking for fare cheaters.

  • Ming

    Or…BART and Caltrain could actually run trains with enough frequency that it wouldn’t matter? When I see the 20+ minute gaps in the BART schedule, I sometimes wonder why they bothered spending billions of dollars building BART at all. Either those stations are in the wrong locations, or there was never enough demand to justify building a subway in the first place. And from personal experience, Millbrae isn’t actually serviced by BART in any usable way, so no one tries to transfer trains there.

  • Kieran

    As desolate as Millbrae seems, the handful of times over the years that I’ve been there, I’ve actually seen a good amount of people, not only waiting for BART but transferring to Caltrain and a few Caltrain passengers transferring to BART. I personally don’t see why BART has 20 min gaps in service, to be honest, either. It never should reach that amount of time in terms of having passengers wait, excluding right before BART gets done for the night.

    Though as simple as it is on paper to run BART and Caltrain often enough to where timed transfers don’t matter, don’t forget that since this is America where transportation’s generally done atrociously, you really can’t expect that much even when it’s a simple, sensible option.

  • There’s only one train running through SF on Sundays. 20 minutes apart. No wonder people drive or take Uber.

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