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Transit Agencies Rethink Schedules for Fewer Commuters

Bay Area Rapid Transit launched a new schedule this month with more frequent service on nights and weekends and less frequent service at traditional peak commuter hours. It’s part of a shift toward round-the-clock service at big-city transit agencies.

An empty car on a BART train. The Bay Area transit agency wants to fill their cars with people by running more service during off-peak hours, at night and on weekends.
In Brief:
  • Under a new schedule starting this month, BART trains will come every 20 minutes on nights and weekends rather than every 30 minutes.

  • The agency is also running shorter trains to save money and promote a better perception of safety in fuller cars.

  • Other big-city transit agencies are emphasizing midday, night and weekend service as 9 to 5 commuters are less reliable than they used to be.

  • Last Tuesday, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) carried 192,081 passengers, its highest ridership day since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The next day it broke the record again, with 192,961 trips. It was encouraging news for a transit agency that’s facing as dire a budget crisis as any in the country.

    The bad news was that even if you combine the ridership of those two days, it doesn’t add up to a single typical weekday in September before the pandemic began.

    Transit ridership in San Francisco, like a lot of other big cities, was closely tied to downtown commuting patterns before the pandemic. Since then, the city has had the slowest recovery in the country, as tech companies have embraced remote work. While the city waits for the Godot-like return of its office workers, BART is shaking up its schedule. Last week, just before it had its two best post-pandemic days, the agency altered its schedules to emphasize more service on nights and weekends — and less on weekdays. The schedule is “designed to work for everyone, everyday,” according to the agency. It eliminates 30-minute headways on nights and weekends and promises “No BART rider will wait more than 20 minutes for a scheduled train no matter what hour of the day or day of the week.”

    “The idea is that Monday-to-Friday ridership is flat. People keep trying to tell us it’s not flat, and that people are going to go back to work any day now,” says Alicia Trost, chief communications officer for BART. “But the needle has not moved.”

    De-Emphasizing the Commute

    As part of the change, the agency is also reducing service on weekdays on several lines. It’s a risky move, Trost acknowledges, but it’s backed up by evidence of increased demand on nights and weekends, and the potential for ridership growth in off-peak times. And it’s a shift that most other big-city transit agencies are in the process of making.

    Also this month, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston launched new night and weekend service on its commuter rail lines. The Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York has been incrementally increasing midday, night and weekend service over the last year, in keeping with new investments included as part of the budget deal that helped the agency resolve its fiscal cliff. The D.C. Metro is running more rail service than ever, with additional emphasis on off-peak hours. Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority says it’s evolving into a “lifestyle network” that can be “easily and reliably used for any sort of trip — whether that be commuting, everyday errands or leisure activities.”

    The changes at big transit agencies are part of a bid for new relevance in a post-pandemic world where the 9-to-5 workday and rush-hour commute don’t pull the same weight they used to. Night and weekend ridership has been closer to pre-pandemic figures than weekday mornings and evenings at many agencies. Researchers at the Brookings Institution recently wrote that improving round-the-clock transit service is key to promoting the recovery of both transit systems and big-city downtowns.

    Shorter Trains, Fuller Cars

    In San Francisco, where transit agencies are seeking long-term funding that could make them less reliant on fares, BART is betting that ridership is likeliest to grow on nights and weekends, and running more trains at those times could encourage those trends.

    “We’re not sure what people are going to do, but it definitely starts with better service,” says Trost.

    The transition hasn’t been totally smooth. Plenty of riders have complained about less frequent peak service, crowded trains and schedule changes on specific lines, Trost says. But part of the shift requires “retraining our riders” on when to expect trains and how to use transfers to make trips quicker. BART is also running shorter trains on purpose — typically six or eight cars per train down from 10 — as both a cost-saving measure and an effort to make cars more full. The agency is under lots of pressure from lawmakers and would-be funders to operate as efficiently as it can. And Trost says that fuller cars can also help combat some of the sense of danger that people feel on mostly empty train cars.

    BART hopes the service changes will draw more riders to the system, even though it knows fare revenue can’t save it from its fiscal cliff. It’s much too soon to know whether the schedule shift is working. Its relatively big ridership days coincided with the Dreamforce conference in downtown San Francisco, one of the biggest events of the year. Trost says the agency has been “very cautious” in its budget estimates for fare revenue, and in terms of ridership growth, “anything will be a bonus.” In any event, it was time to bet on something other than the morning commute.

    “We’re just no longer prioritizing certain things, mainly for our survival,” Trost says. “Part of it is hoping and praying it’s going to work.”
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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