The all-night compromise

As the Bay Area grows, I’ve been hearing more and more talk about how we need all-night BART. Running trains all night, every night is a complicated problem that requires a lot of extra infrastructure to solve, so people are asking what it would take to enact a less ambitious proposal: running the trains 24 hours on weekends only. This seems like a reasonable middle ground, since there will still be time for overnight maintenance during the week, and people will be able to use BART to get in and out of the city on weekends.

BART makes a number of claims about why it doesn’t run all night:

  • Every hour of scheduled maintenance is necessary to keep the system in a good state of repair;
  • This work has to be done every night;
  • The longer maintenance windows on the weekends allow them to perform more complicated maintenance work that can’t be done during the week.

Even if we could postpone the night work on weekends, we would need to move those hours somewhere. Trains are still running along Pittsburg-Bay Point tracks until about 1:30 AM every day. During the week, they start again at about 4 AM. On Saturdays, they start at 6 AM, and on Sunday the line opens at 8 AM. This means our weekend maintenance window totals 11 hours each week. We can distribute these hours almost evenly throughout the week, though I’d suggest extending the Sunday night maintenance window with the leftover hour in order to try and make up for the backlog on the weekend. This means we’ve got 4.5 hours of maintenance from Monday night to Thursday night, and 5.5 hours on Sunday night.

It turns out we can’t really postpone BART’s opening, since the 4-5 AM hour is an unexpectedly big commute period. This means we’ll have to pull those maintenance hours from night service, and close BART at 11:30 PM five nights a week. It’s likely this service change will have a much bigger and more negative impact than the addition of late-night trains on weekends. It will almost certainly fail the Title VI analysis that requires BART to study the impact of service changes on minority and low-income riders. Past attempts by BART to extend weekend service were nixed for this very reason.

It’s also worth asking if this service change is going to help a lot of people. Boston’s MBTA recently voted to wind down its late-night subway hours, citing maintenance backlogs that are piling up, high expense, and low ridership, as expected. However, I think this article brings up one of the most overlooked points in this discussion:

“There aren’t that many jobs that are only two nights a week. We think this late-night service is not a broad solution to economic access because it’s not a seven-night-a-week service.”
Charles Planck, MBTA Assistant General Manager

If transit is supposed to be a great economic equalizer, then this plan for weekend-only 24-hour service isn’t what we want. People will be able to stay out later on weekends, but we pay for it by getting rid of late weekday service that people are probably using to get home from work, and we’ll likely need extra maintenance windows during normal service hours when more people need BART.

This isn’t to say late-night transit isn’t important—it is! The question I’d rather consider is whether it should be on rails, and I don’t think we can justify that. AC Transit’s 800 and 822 bus lines provide owl service along BART lines, but they come once an hour. I know late-night ridership is low, but if they’re that unreliable, people might act like they’re not even there!

Muni runs owl bus service on a number of lines. Some of them are not very frequent, but the most frequent show up about every 12 minutes. The N-Owl substitutes for an important rail line and shows up every 15 minutes. Philadelphia’s SEPTA runs owl buses on weekends along its subway lines, and these buses also come every 10-15 minutes. Why do the BART owl routes have such poor frequency in comparison?

The reason may be the length of the line. The 14-Mission has a route length of about eight miles. The N-Owl clocks in at around nine and a half. SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line is just under 13 miles long. By comparison, the 800 route is almost 27 miles long! This means that service at a certain frequency on the 800 will require roughly twice as many buses (and drivers, and so on) as on the MFL, or three times that of the N-Owl. (This is a fuzzy approximation since about eight miles of the 800’s route are spent on freeways, but that still takes time.) As such, huge frequency increases on these routes might be expensive, but they are definitely much cheaper than the work required to bring all-night rail to BART. I would also argue that it’s wasteful to build that infrastructure if we can’t get decent ridership on buses with 20-minute headways or better. Not only that, but this liberates us from the weekend-only stipulation, and that probably serves everyone better.

The all-night BART discussion is often framed as a question of how to run trains all night. This tunnel vision has prevented us from looking at other modes of transportation that are better-suited to solving the problem in the near term. When you think about this problem, I urge you to instead look at it as a question of how to provide service to the areas covered by BART, regardless of the kind of vehicle that does it.

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