by Liz Reid
I’ll admit it: I’m a 30 year old woman with a security blanket. That security blanket has two wheels, a set of handlebars, and weighs about 20 pounds. It’s my bicycle, and I hardly ever go anywhere without it.
Friends and colleagues often offer me rides to places I need to go, and are utterly confounded when I turn them down. My bicycle offers me a level of flexibility and independence that the passenger seat of a car could just never provide.
So when I heard that BART was experimenting with lifting its restrictions on bicycles, I was elated. And really skeptical.
Currently BART bans bikes during rush hours in commute directions. That's for a reason. If you ride BART in the mornings and evenings on weekdays, you know that most of the trains are crowded. On some trains, finding a place to stand is challenge enough, let alone a place for me and my bicycle.
“During commute, the trains are already at crush load,” Antonette Bryant told me. Bryant is president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 and a station agent. She says that while most cyclists are courteous and respectful of other passengers, she worries about those who are not.
“If you come to a car that’s crowded and you’re on a bike, you’re not supposed to get on that car. I’ve witnessed, as an agent and a rider, people forcing their way on the trains, with bicycles.”
Steve Beraldo, of BART’s Customer Access Department, hopes that cyclists know what they are doing. Every Friday in August, passengers will be allowed to bring bicycles on board trains at all times. I asked Steve how this is going to work, when commute-hour trains are already packed with passengers.
“We’re really gonna emphasize that this is an experiment. We really need all the bicyclists to use common sense, use good judgment, and not board crowded trains.”
This month’s experiment is just one part of a comprehensive plan to facilitate bicycle access to BART, made possible through a grant from CalTrans.
Victoria Eisen, co-founder of Eisen Letunic, the Berkeley-based transportation, environmental, & urban planning firm that authored the bicycle plan told me about half of the people who ride bikes to BART bring them on board.
"And of the people who bring them on board, I think about half of those bring them on board because they don’t have a place to leave them at the station, where they feel safe that their bike will be there when they get back home,” she said.
This is a legitimate concern for many cyclists. The nearest station to my home is North Berkeley, where there are no lockers or in-station parking areas. To me, it’s just not worth the risk; I’ve had a bicycle stolen in the past, and it’s not a fun experience.
Eisen said that one of the important goals of the new bicycle plan is to increase bicycle parking—both in terms of availability and security—at stations throughout the BART system.
But for some cyclists, bike parking isn’t the issue. “When I’m coming to San Francisco or when I’m coming to the East Bay, I often have multiple stops and I need my bike on the other end,” Adina Levin, of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, told me. “Bringing your bike on board gives you 16 times as much access as walking, you can get 16 times as far, so it’s a really powerful tool.”
If this commute-hour experiment is successful and BART does end up lifting the ban, I’ll definitely be taking my security blanket on board. But don’t worry, we won’t block the doors.
BART’s rules regarding bicycles on board have become increasingly lenient over the past 40 years. Here’s a timeline of the history:
1972: BART opens, no bikes are allowed on board
1974: Bikes are allowed in the rear half of the last car, during non-commute hours, with purchase of a $3 permit. No more than 5 bicycles are allowed on the train at once.
1988: Bikes are allowed in both the front and rear of the last car. Bikes allowed during commute hours only in “reverse-commute” directions: from Embarcadero to East Bay destinations in the morning, from the East Bay to Embarcadero in the evenings.
1997: Permit no longer required to bring bike on board. Bicycles allowed in the rear half of any car except the first.
1998: Time restrictions tailored to focus on specific trains with heavy commute loads. Blackout periods reduced from approximately 5 ½ hours per day to 3 ½ hours per day.
1999: Cyclists no longer required to enter through the rear doors of cars.
2009: BART designates “Bike Spaces” on many of its new cars.
BART isn't the only train system grappling with the issue of taking bikes on board. The East Bay Bicycle Coalition recently distributed this humorous video of a flash mob performance in Brussels, Belgium: