Seven years ago in the midst of the Great Recession, BART significantly cut evening and Sunday service in an effort to balance its budget. Prior to cutting service, BART provided 15 minute headways – a level of frequency that supported more spontaneous travel without planning around a train schedule. BART service was cut to 20 minute headways, a level which remains today. These cuts contributed to about a 13 percent decline in year-over-year Sunday ridership between 2009 and 2010 to 104,000 riders (during this same timeframe, weekday ridership declined just four percent).
In spite of this infrequent service, BART’s off-peak ridership has since grown to record highs – about 131,000 Sunday riders in 2016. Evening and Sunday Transbay trains are often packed, and countless more potential riders choose to drive instead due to the long wait times associated with infrequent service. Off-peak ridership has grown unevenly: the Richmond Line, for example, serves about double the Sunday passengers per revenue hour compared to stations on the Pittsburg/Bay Point Line. Yet, while BART’s financial situation has improved, 15 minute evening and Sunday service was never restored.
Last year, BART examined restoring 15 minute headways and concluded it was not feasible given current fleet constraints. BART’s car hours represent the primary driver of its maintenance needs; this year, BART will reach an all-time high in car hours through additional increases in car hours due to new service concentrated around much-needed peak period capacity relief, and additional service to be added as a result of the Warm Springs extension opening this fall. Additional increases in car hours would exceed the available shop capacity to keep vehicles up and running.
BART’s new fleet and upcoming bond measure will hopefully alleviate existing maintenance constraints, but it could be a few years before 15 minute headways are finally restored. In the meantime, current infrequent service proves counterproductive to local and regional goals to support transit-oriented lifestyles: in many cases, it’s possible to drive or take an Uber to your destination in the amount of time it takes to wait for BART.