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Bay Area Rapid Transit: The Future is Now

Jeffrey Syken

A rapid transit system serving the Bay Area was nothing new, after all, the “Key System” had been doing just that in the East Bay since the early 20th century. Even before the Key System, there were numerous small transit systems around the East Bay; some were horse-drawn, some were electric, however, few of them worked cohesively considering the fact that the towns outside of Oakland were sparsely populated and the roads closely spaced thus, the different companies’ trains ran along parallel streets, often separated only by a single block. With the completion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in November 1936, a new era was dawning for rapid transit in the Bay Area. However, it would not be until January 1939 that train service from the East Bay to San Francisco would commence. During WWII, when gasoline for civilian automobiles was rationed and the population of the Bay Area boomed due to wartime exigencies, the Key System was operating at its peak. Paradoxically, the post-war years would prove to be the most difficult and least forgiving for the Key System, given the deferred maintenance during the war years, a debilitating strike (in 1953), the infamous “Streetcar Conspiracy” and the rise of “King Car” in the Bay Area.

With the opening of the Bay Bridge came a tremendous drop in the number of ferry passengers and between 1930 and 1950, the number of cars in the Bay Area more than doubled, exceeding one-million vehicles. Increasing automobile traffic and declining passenger loads on Key System trains doomed rail service on the bridge; with few apologies from politicians, the press and the public-at-large. As commuting by car grew in popularity in the Bay Area, the suburbs beyond the Berkeley Hills flourished, but the Key System did not. By 1957, only 5.2 million passengers-per-year were using the Key System to cross from the East Bay to San Francisco. So it was that in 1951, the California State Legislature created a 26-member committee to develop a long-range transportation plan for the Bay Area that considered future growth, but the Key System would not be part of the plan. In 1957, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission stated: “a regional rapid transit system is essential to prevent total dependence on automobiles and freeways.” That same year, engineering planning began on what would become BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). A year later, in 1958, the Key System ran its last train across the Bay Bridge while buses took over many former Key System routes.

The story of BART began in 1946 whereby the concept was first discussed at informal gatherings of business and civic leaders on both sides of the Bay. In 1947, a joint Army-Navy Review Board concluded that another connecting link (in the form of a subaqueous rapid-transit tunnel between San Francisco and Oakland) would be needed in the coming years to prevent intolerable automobile congestion on the Bay Bridge. From 1953-55, all nine Bay Area counties were involved in planning, however, in the end, only three of those nine counties would participate in the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BARTD), as it was first known. In the November 1962 general election, voters in Alameda, San Francisco and Contra Costa County/s approved the sale of $792 million in bonds to build the 71.5-mile-long BART system. Ultimately costing $1.4 billion, BART would be the first urban “mega project” of the post-WWII era. There would be 37 stations and, of the 75 miles of right-of-way constructed in the initial phase, 20 miles were within tunnels or subways, 24 miles were constructed at grade and 31 miles were built on elevated structures. The “Candle on the Cake” would be the 3.8-mile-long Transbay Tube – an engineering marvel. Construction began in June 1964 and revenue service commenced in September 1972. Sixty years had passed since the nation had constructed a completely new urban rapid transit system. The future of rapid transit had arrived.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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