BART Board Scratches Surface of SFO Transit Mess

It's great that BART is working with TSA to offer a perk for riders, but it also highlights failings of the airport service

BART/SFO Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
BART/SFO Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

BART has set out to give people who use transit to get to San Francisco International access to the priority security lines. Step one is to develop an app that can prove people arrived at the airport via transit.

From BART’s release:

The directors voted to approve trip verification technology (TVT). With TVT, SFO-hired staff would use devices at a designated entry point to scan Clipper cards or QR codes on BART apps to verify a customer used public transportation to get to the airport. If the trip on BART or other public transportation is verified, the customer would proceed to a priority line to go through TSA screening.

This is in response to declining ridership on BART’s SFO line, ostensibly due to competition from Uber and Lyft. As the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Rachel Swan reports, “For the past two years, BART officials have watched riders peel off the airport line. Entries and exits decreased 2 percent from 2017 to last year, and dropped another 8 percent since then, according to agency records. That’s translated to about $4 million in lost fares.”

But analysts we spoke with think it’s going to take way more than an advantage in the security lines to lure customers back.

Information and wayfinding sucks

For visitors arriving at SFO, it’s almost as if the airport were trying to confuse people about transit. “Last time I came through Terminal 2, there was a MuniMobile banner,” wrote Beaudry Kock of Seamless Bay Area, in an email to Streetsblog. Since Muni doesn’t serve the airport, that banner is “thoroughly useless to any transit-oriented arriving passenger.”

He also points out there’s no BART departure boards at arrivals and baggage claim. There should be. And they should “factor in the time it takes to travel from Terminal 2 to the BART stop on the circulator.” They should say things such as “Next train departing in 8 minutes; it will take you 5 minutes to get there.”

“Heck, even just having roving ambassadors for BART, like Heathrow Express/Central have in London, might help, selling tickets and providing information almost as soon as you step off the plane,” added Kock.

And then BART only goes to one terminal (and Caltrain doesn’t serve any).

Information and wayfinding might help, but there’s a more fundamental problem: BART’s infrastructure almost seems designed to be a pain in the ass. Yes, if you’re going to the International terminal, it’s fine. But as anyone who uses the airport knows all too well, getting to the other terminals requires a transfer to a people mover (Uber/Lyft and taxis take you to your terminal, so why should transit require a transfer?).

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Advocates have long derided this set up. If BART and SFO were going to go to all the trouble of building an extension into the airport, why couldn’t it have continued across the horseshoe and at least had a second or third stop so patrons wouldn’t have to transfer? Take the Piccadilly line to Heathrow in London: it has multiple stops inside the airport. Kock hopes that at some point they can consider “punching BART through to each terminal.”

And let’s not even get started on the Rube Goldberg Caltrain connection. As transit expert Alon Levy pointed out, it’s worse than useless. If SFO went to all the trouble of building a people mover, why is there no stop at Millbrae for Caltrain, so Caltrain patrons don’t have to take BART to get to the People Mover to get to the terminals? Meanwhile, the airport has spent over $200 million to extend its people mover to a new parking structure (and a hotel).

And people wonder why BART and Caltrain can’t compete with driving?

BART-to-SFO economics disincentivize transit

It costs $9.65 to take BART to SFO from Montgomery. But it’s only $5.25 to go to the Millbrae Station, just outside the airport. Consultant Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard, commenting on the newly proposed BART SFO incentive, broke down the cost issue perfectly in this tweet:

Depending how far you’re going from the airport and how many people you’re traveling with, those fees can make transit a non-starter.

What do you find are the biggest obstacles to taking transit to SFO? And is the TSA incentive going to help? Post your thoughts below.

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