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they saw this in 1957, luckily for us

By enelson
Monday, June 4th, 2007 at 6:19 pm in BART, Freeway collapse, Freeways, Planning, rail, Transit vs. driving.


Behind every successful public service, there was an idea. That idea led to a proposal and that proposal led to a big bureaucracy that, whatever its faults, got the job accomplished.

Such is the case with the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, which was born by an act of the California legislature and governor on June 4, 1957.

BART, the entity, is now 50.

With the help of our librarian, I was able to find several fat envelopes of brittle, tannin-colored slips of newsprint from the year BART was born, hoping to find some nugget of wisdom or prediction that might sound laughable today.

I didn’t find a clipping from the day after the legislation passed. Maybe that envelope was destroyed in a recent basement flood in the vacated Trib Tower or maybe someone years ago borrowed that clipping and never put it back.

I found this, however: “Bay Area Mass Transit Need Held Urgent” atop a Dec. 29, 1957, story about the dissolution of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission and the release of its final report.

The story began with a long quote; something we avoid as a matter of style nowadays:

There is an urgent need to proceed without delay on a program directed at providing the Bay Area an adequate unified system of interurban rapid mass transit.

A satisfactory solution to the Bay Area’s traffic problem cannot be reached by building freeways alone. The solution can be reached only through a system of mass rapid transit developed on the premise of moving people — not moving automobiles.

The solution to our traffic woes cannot be solved by building freeways. A group of officials actually agreed to say this in 1957.


That was the year after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill creating the Interstate Highway System, the transport system that shapes our society today.

Still, Chairman Alan K. Browne of San Francisco and vice-chairman A.H. Moffitt Jr. of Alameda put their signatures to that statement.

Meanwhile, down south in the recently watered upstart metropolis of Los Angeles, plans were being drawn up for freeways through Topanga Canyon and along the beach in Malibu that were never built.

Today the Bay Area struggles with what by some measures is the nation’s second-worst traffic. But Thanks to Mssrs. Browne and Moffitt, and some consulting by the engineering firm of Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Hall and MacDonald, we have something that LA doesn’t.

We got BART’s real birthday, the start of service on Sept. 11, 1972.

So we now have a well-developed rapid transit system that provides 360,000 rides a day, and in a pinch can substitute for a major breakdown in the freeway system.

When that MacArthur Maze ramp collapsed April 29, we didn’t just get by. We thrived. One guy I talked to on the Bay Bridge even said traffic was better when the ramp collapsed. Why? Because some very smart guys back in 1957 decided the Bay Area couldn’t do without a major fast rail system.

There were some doubters, to be sure. San Mateo and Santa Clara counties opted out of the district, and have spent decades buying themselves back in (and in the case of San Mateo, back out again).

The other counties have realized all that time that they’ll be hard-pressed to develop the way that Pleasanton or Walnut Creek have. The path of Fairfield and Santa Rosa is paved with sprawl and ever-increasing traffic nightmares until their counties get bailed out by some future financial windfall that connects them with the rest of the area. 

What happens in LA when a freeway goes down? People take two-hour bus rides and three-hour detours, because there are few alternatives except for a very limited rail system that was built at great cost through highly built-up areas.

So here’s to you, Chairman Browne and all those other people who decided to take the road less traveled a half-century ago.

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14 Responses to “they saw this in 1957, luckily for us”

  1. david vartanoff Says:

    happy birthday w/ caveats. In 1957 there stull was train service across the bridge. Rather than improve an existing system, BART elected to throw out a half centuryu of experience and do a “Buck Rogers” system to appeal to the suburbanites. Fine except that everything cost double or more than budgeted opened years late, barely coordinates with local feeder buses, and is priced to disincent its most numerous riders.
    Glass half full–it did get built and with all its flaws it does run. Now, time for monthly passes, 24/7 service

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    David, the bottom line is that today we have a system built through the heaviest travel corridors, in spite of a popular sentiment in 1957 that freeways could solve congestion by themselves. I agree that 24/7 service and monthly passes would help, but there are longstanding issues with both of those things. Taxpayers probably wouldn’t agree to subsidize the overnight service and BART traditionally frowns on monthly passes as a subsidy for more affluent suburbanites at the expense of people who can’t shell out hundreds of dollars at one time for a transit pass. If my wife didn’t make a lot more than I did, there’s no way I’d be scraping together $315 a month for the Capitol Corridor, so I can see their point.

    Anyway, when such a time comes that we can get past these issues, we’ll have a system we can work with. If they hadn’t decided to build BART in the first place, we’d be screaming at each other today about the wisdom of paying $5 billion to drill a hole into Contra Costa County or lay pipe on the floor of the Bay.

  3. anon Says:

    Love the Buck Rogers terminology. I’d say, though, that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. We do have trains that travel the most congested corridors, and Bus connections, while limited, can be established going forward. The real lack of foresight lies in 1) the lack of express tracks, and 2) the fact that half the stations, while along heavily traveled coridors, don’t actually get a traveler anywhere but a parking lot. Places like Ashby, Daly City – they have nothing within walking distance. San Bruno Literally has a fence between the station and the Target. Moving people, yeah – but moving them where?

  4. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    That reflects the big issue that BART has faced since its inception. The designers wanted it to bring white people through the inner city to the job centers so that they could get all the good jobs, but not to let poor minority inner city residents get to the suburbs where the white people might have to see them.

  5. david vartanoff Says:

    Ashby is 10 min walk from my front door–just about as good as when I lived in the East Village in NY the same time from three different subway stations. Nearby, two commercial strips a couple blocks each way from the station. But you are certainly correct that a better planned line would have been either UNDER Telegraph or College thus an Ashby Station would be close to a pre existing major hospital and stronger commercial strips. As to feeder buses, many have been eliminated over the last decade and half as well as savaging the joint fares.
    Of course express tracks should have been part of the design–Wash DC is learning that now too. Bruce is right, the design was suburban friendly, not city friendly, BUT despite massive subsidy for the few long distance riders the urban core generates the bulk of riders.

  6. Scott Mercer Says:

    Well, I am from Los Angeles. And I’d like to defend my fair city. Specifically, our rail system.

    I dispute your opinion of MetroRail as “limited.” This is our mass transit rail system. Four light rail lines and 2 (okay 1 and 1/2) subway lines. 73 miles of rail, and we’ll have about 92 miles by the end of 2010 when two projects are done. We’re the fourth largest in the USA, right behind NY, Chicago, and you guys. We’re coming up fast behind you.

    If you include our commuter rail (RPR) system (Metrolink, confusingly), there’s another 400 or so miles of track you can add on, over 5 different counties. We have the most ridden single light rail line in the nation, the Blue Line, with 75-80,000 riders daily.

    Doesn’t sound limited to me. I will agree that it was built at huge cost, but I don’t get your criticism that it was constructed through “Built up areas.” That’s the only place TO build it, so you get the most ridership! The more ridership, the easier it is to justify the huge expenses involved.

    With any luck and a lot of money, we’ll be building another 13 miles of subway, and then we’ll have a nice system of 105 miles, getting really close to the length of BART and MUNI right now. We’re breathing down your neck. If you’ve never ridden our rail system, try it out the next time you’re in L.A. You might actually like it.

  7. Aaron Priven Says:

    Scott is 100% right when he says that you want to put your rail system in built-up areas, even if it’s more expensive. Compare this to VTA, which builds its light rail systems in the middle of nowhere and then has to wait twenty years for development to happen there.

    The real problem with LA’s rail system is that it’s such a drop in the bucket compared to the area that needs to be served. LA’s more recent approach of making enhanced bus systems (“Rapid”) that blanket the area much more thoroughly is probably a better plan for them — moderate results everywhere rather than extreme results in a few places.

  8. anon Says:

    David – Regards to Ashby Vs. the East Village, I’m getting more at the issue of what one finds upon leaving a station – walk out of Astor Place or Delancy/Essex and grab a coffee or a slice – window shop, or walk by some people on the street. The point isn’t the subway stop – its the neighborhood around it.

  9. david vartanoff Says:

    Ashby is more comparable to a station in a more residential area, Park Slope if you will, BUT on the several block route from my house there are two coffee sources one of which has occasional live music.
    The real issue is YES BART was VERY poorly designed routewise. That said its what we have, so the task is to build around it and nudge it to better serve us. I am ecstatic they are planning to upgrade headways evenings and weekends. Better late than never!

  10. Reedman Says:

    The present problem with BART is that it was designed for the Bay Area of
    1957. San Jose is now the 10th largest city in the USA. Building the
    Warm Springs Extension, and then connecting to VTA Light Rail
    should be the priority in order to service the 2007 transit corridors.

  11. david vartanoff Says:

    Actually doubletracking and electrifying the Capitol Corridor is cheaper and of more utility. go here for details.

  12. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Ripping up all these passenger rails and replacing them with more flexible transportation would be cheaper and more utility. But the point is not to get more utility or to save money. The point is to make longer commutes more acceptable, so that employers have a larger pool of employees to draw on, so that they can keep wages down and discriminate against people who might live closer to the job, but not meet whatever other criteria they may have in hiring, such are the correct race, national origin, religion or whatever.

    The point is also to allow developers to buy up cheap land which is far away from jobs and cover them with MacMansions which they can sell at enormously inflated prices. The whole point of BART was to make it acceptable to cover up the local farmland with houses. We no longer get our food from nearby central Contra Costa County, and soon there will be no more farms in the eastern part of the county. It is trucked in from farther and farther away.

    That is why there is the push for high-speed rail between the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. If they can get it, they can buy up all the farmland in the valley and sell them to commuters. They need the high-speed to make the commute seem possible. That is why they are lying about the cost of building it, its economy, and its ecological benefits. Having devasted the locals, they are going after the state. We will not have food any more, but the developers will have their profits.

  13. Mike Says:

    What does “more flexible transportation” mean? Employers do already hire people Stockton who drive to San Jose and other Bay Area cities. It’s not commute vs not commute; it’s commute in ways that are more destructive vs more sustainable.

  14. Guy Span Says:

    You may be interested in my article on (Not boring) depreciation as BART is now looking for billions of more dollars. I wrote this about four years ago and while I take a certain amount of glee in being proven correct, it is still a sad story about how the MTC allocates transportation funds and how public agencies play games with depreciation. Here’s the link, let me know what you think.

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