Podcast: Crowding relief efforts for Downtown San Francisco Stations


Podcast: Crowding relief efforts for Downtown San Francisco Stations

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Episode 4 of our podcast series "Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART" looks at what BART is doing to improve our busy Downtown San Francisco stations.  BART Planning Manager Tim Chan discusses projects to provide capacity relief and other modernization efforts to enhance the rider experience.

Transcript Below


Host:

“Welcome to ‘Hidden Tracks:  Stories from BART.”  I’m Chris Filippi.  Well this time we’re talking about the future of some of the busiest stations in the BART system.  Embarcadero, Montgomery Street, Powell Street and Civic Center are seeing more riders all the time.  BART has launched an ambitious plan to handle the increased workload for those stations as well as to give them a fresh look that fits in nicely with all of the changes happening in downtown San Francisco.  To talk more about this I’m joined by Tim Chan who is a planning manager here at BART.  Tim, thanks so much for joining us.”

Tim Chan:

“Happy to be here.”

Host:

“This is some exciting stuff that’s going on and let’s just talk about capacity because these stations, they really are getting busier all the time.” 

Chan:

“Absolutely. And you know, when the system was originally designed we were designing for 200,000 people.  We had no idea back in the 1960s and 1970s that we were going to grow to the point where we are right now where we’re seeing average daily ridership of about 450,000 people.”

Host:

“And I mean obviously these riders are experiencing that.  San Francisco, especially Embarcadero and Montgomery are extremely busy.  Talk about some of the ideas that are being considered and what actions are being taken to deal with that increased workload.”

Chan:

“I think maybe a lot of people have heard about things like the saddlebag, side platform ideas as well as the second tube.  And certainly those ideas have generated a lot of interest regionally.  But what we want to do before thinking about a multi-billion dollar investment is we want to think about what are some of the shorter-term ideas, operational things, investments that we can make that will allow us to address the capacity, the growing capacity, the growing demand issues that we will continue to have over the next five to ten years.  So things like looking at the escalators.  Is there a way for us to meter the crowd, the crowding on the escalators?  Is there a way to look at speed for the fare gates and for the escalators?  One idea that we’re looking at right now is platform screen doors and adding platform screen doors to our downtown stations allows us to crowd a few more people at the platform area.  But then also looking at changeable message signs.  So if we have information at the street level, at the concourse level to let folks now that we’re at crush load down at the platform you know can that help people make decisions about whether or not they want to go down to the platform right now or can they wait a little bit longer before going down to the station, the station platforms?”

Host:

“I’m trying to imagine the screen doors.  Can you describe those and tell us how they would work?”

Chan:

“Sure.  The platform screen door idea is not new.  If you to travel to Europe and to Asia they already have platform screen doors in many of their systems.  Also, if you go to the airport and you’re riding a people mover system chances are you will experience a platform screen door as well.  So what happens is there’s a glass wall, often a glass wall, that separates from the platform and the tracks.  So there are doors that open up and they’re supposed to line up to the same doors as the cars.  So what happens is when there are no trains then the doors are closed.  And then once a train arrives at the station then those doors will open up.  The platform screen doors serve a couple of really important purposes.  Again, one is to address the capacity issues.  It allows people to get a little bit closer to and safely to the platform.  But the other really important aspect of it really is suicide prevention.  And so what we have experience on the BART system is that in the last five, ten years when there is an incident that occurs on the BART system especially during the most congested periods we are seeing massive delays of two hours.  And so when that happens during the afternoon peak or the morning peak it really just wrecks the whole system and it wrecks everyone’s commute.  So we want to find ways to both help address the suicide and reduce the suicide numbers and also address the capacity issues.”

Host:

“I know there’s been a lot of public outreach on this.  There have been public meetings on this at the stations.  Give us a sense for where we stand in terms of process and when might riders see some changes, some implementation here?”

Chan:

“Over the past three years, we’ve gone out to the downtown stations from Embarcadero to Civic Center with ideas first to solicit input on the station modernization planning but then also following up with ideas and improvements, recommended improvements and investments for those stations.   So some of the earlier things that we want to maybe move forward and test first for example would be at Embarcadero.   And so people who use that station will notice that there is this circular seating. Beautiful, original to the station and some of the seating is located pretty close to the escalators.  And what we’ve noticed during extremely busy morning periods is that people are sitting at the circular seating but then as people are lining up to cue up and to go up the escalators they’re actually wrapping around the seating and pushing more and more people out to the platform edge and that to us is something that we want to help reduce.  So our thinking maybe is to take a look at maybe removing some of that seating but then also insuring that we replace the seating in kind somewhere else on the platform.   Also, some of the seating is directly in the way, in the cueing lanes for people trying to get into and out of cars.  So we also want to be smart about where we located a lot of that seating to always make sure that it’s not going to be in the way of our customers.  So those are some of the shorter term things that we’re considering right now.  Again, Also, with the bond that’s coming up we’re looking to make major escalator investments in the downtown San Francisco area both at the platform level and at the street level.  These escalators are some of the oldest escalators in our system and so they’re past the prime for replacement and overhaul.   So the bond is going to help address those issues and allow us to get better functioning escalators and for them to perform throughout the day.”

Host:

“I’m speaking with Tim Chan, he’s a planning manager here at BART and we’re talking about the future of the downtown San Francisco stations. Always a very hot topic.  I know another thing riders are concerned about is just the presentation of these stations, how they look, how they feel.   Talk about some of the steps that are being taken to deal with the aesthetic concerns.”

Chan:

“Even before I do that, I do want to acknowledge that when we went out to survey our customers, and we were at the stations to hear our customers about their concerns, their frustrations and their ideas you know what we heard loud and clear for our customers is that the aesthetic is really important but  we want to make sure the equipment is functioning first.  So that’s our priority.  But after that, what we know is that when people are in our stations, when they are clean, when they are attractive it generates a really unique kind of experience that people want to be at our stations, they want to be riding BART.  So as we are coming in with brand new cars, we also want to make sure that our stations are going to be reflected and upgraded to that 21st century aesthetic.  So what we’ve done through our station modernization is we’ve taken a look at the existing architecture and design of each of these stations.  And what we know is stations like Powell Street with what I consider and I know many people feel the same way are the iconic bubble tiles.  And a lot of our customers have told us please preserve that because that is so unique to Powell Street and to Montgomery.  And so we’ve done that but then we’ve also looked at other opportunities for upgrading and updating our stations to make them more attractive.  So for example, starting next month we will be putting finally a new ceiling and lighting system.  And so it’s going to be a very simple grid system but it’s going to be modern looking and it’s going to transform the concourse area of Powell Station.  We’ve also identified art opportunities and something that we haven’t done a lot at the downtown stations but we’re now looking at these opportunities to bring in artists from the region, from around the country, locally as well to look at how we can brighten up a space and make it look more attractive.  And we’ll be doing this at all of the four downtown stations.”

Host:

“And of course this all fits in to what’s happening in San Francisco more broadly.  Fitting in with things like the Better Market Street plan.  There has to be a lot of coordination here.”

Chan:

“Thank you for bringing Better Market Street because that’s exactly what BART is doing.  So I work extremely closely with the planning staff, the MTA staff and the public works staff on making sure that whatever we’re doing inside our station is being closely, very closely coordinated with what happens at the street level.  So one example I like to bring up is our canopy project.  And so there as we are going in to make escalator investments we are now required by state code to put a protective canopy on top.  So because we knew it was going to be on Market Street we set up a process by which we worked extremely closely with the city family to select an architect team and then to come up with a design.

And right now as part of phase one, we’ve already I think the contract is already out to bid and so one canopy will be located at Powell Station the other one will be at Civic Center.  And then the phase two if the bond passes we see us completing the rest of the entrances along Market Street from Embarcadero to Civic Center.”

Host:

“I know one of the ideas that you’ve been excited about the results on is the pit stop at 16th Street.  Tell me what that is and how it’s been going so far.”

Chan:

“Sixteenth Street, many people know, it’s a really challenging area.  It is very vibrant but it’s also got some challenges.  So what has happened over the years is that there really are no places for people to use the restrooms.  So what the city has done, and they’ve done incredibly successfully, is they’ve started up the pit stop program first in the Tenderloin and now they’ve expanded it across the more problematic areas.  So we saw an opportunity to partner with the city and in particular public works to look at how we can add another pit stop facility at 16th Street but one that also will support and provide some relief for our customers.  And so we worked with them, we provided money as a match to locate a second pit stop facility at the northeast plaza of 16th Street station.  There’s already a JCDecaux unit that’s on the southwest plaza.  And now we wanted to add a second one on the northeast plaza.  What we know from the data is that last year we saw I believe over 12,000 people using that particular northeast plaza facility and of that over 2,000 of those people were BART customers.  So because of the success of that one we sought grant money and part of that money goes into continuing the facility at the northeast plaza but we’ve now added a second facility at Civic Center.”

Host:

“Is there any possibility that idea could be expanded to other stations?”

Chan:

“Absolutely.  So I just mentioned that we got some money for Civic Center.  And so yes absolutely we will continue to explore more opportunities where it is most problematic.  And Powell Street’s another station that I’m working with the city and Union Square BID, the business improvement district, to see if there are some opportunities there.  But then looking at other places as well.”

Host:

“I’m speaking with Tim Chan, a planning manager with BART and we’re talking about the downtown San Francisco stations.  One of the phrases I’ve seen thrown around, especially with Powell Station, is a ‘gateway station.’   Explain that, what does that mean?”

Chan:

“Powell Street is a gateway station because first and foremost it’s where the tourists come from around the world, from around the country.  And a lot of times the Powell Street Station is the first station that they will see.  And that’s why we’ve made as many investments as we have at this station.  And I know our customers aren’t seeing all of it right now but they will be over the next three years.   So things like the new ceiling, new lighting system, things like a new canopy system that will occur on the street level of Powell Station.  But then also I call it phase two of the Powell modernization.  What we’re going to be doing there is most importantly we’ve got this big ticket vending machine area-breakroom that’s over by the Nordstrom-Westfield entrance and Hallidie Plaza entrance and that creates just a huge problem for sightline and circulation.  And so our project there will be to relocated the ticket vending machines, the add fare machines to the sides of the lobby area and then relocate the breakroom to another part of the station.  And that will completely open up the lobby area and allow full sightline, full visibility and then also allowing more natural light to come in.  And then up at the ceiling area we’re going to be adding an art light box.  It’s going to be just absolutely beautiful and we’re really excited about it and those improvements we start construction next year.”

Host:

“And it’s interesting to me because it seems like that’s become a priority for BART when it comes to its new station design is this emphasis on openness, on improving sightlines and making the stations really part of the community that they serve and it seems like that really feeds into a lot of concerns and a lot of needs that our riders have. Among them is safety.  You’re just safer in a place where there are better sightlines.”

Chan:

“Yeah and you know in our strategic plan, and this is really guiding our station modernization program, we have three overarching goals if you will.  One is making transit work because it is our bread and butter.  Our trains got to work, our stations got to work.  But what’s really also important it’s about connecting to our stations and really providing access, multi-modal access walking, biking transit and sometimes even driving to our stations.   But then also creating a sense of place.  And security is so critical for all three parts of that goal.  It’s making sure that we reduce those hiding areas, that we do as much as we can to increase the lighting levels and also doing our best to try to monitor, reduce the elements inside our station.  It’s a really challenging area and a lot of what goes on inside our station is a really a reflection of what goes on outside of the station and in our cities and in our communities and we’re really just trying our best to respond to that.”

Host:

“Also hear a lot about HOT teams.  Tell me what those are and how that’s going?”

Chan:

“So San Francisco has done a really nice job.  They’ve established Homeless Outreach Teams.  And what they’ve done with this outreach team is assemble a number of professional experts and they might be mental health experts, they might be medical experts and or homeless resource experts.  And they assembled this team to go out and engage the homeless population and the various subgroups of the population and try to get them to the resources to the services and housing that they need to get to.  So they have not been coming into the BART station and we saw this as an opportunity to partner with the city of San Francisco to help fund for an outreach team leader and to bring a team down to the BART station.   The homeless issue we hear from our customers and we know it’s a big big big issue in our stations.  So what we want to do is to be able to in a very sensitive and humane way, engage the homeless, the different types of homeless populations in our stations and to encourage them to get to again the resources, the services, the places where they need to go.  So the SF HOT team that we’re partnering with the city is one big step toward achieving that goal.”

Host:

“Certainly sounds like BART has some pretty ambitious plans for its stations.  Bottom line it for the rider who relies on say Montgomery Street, or Embarcadero or any of those really busy downtown San Francisco stations. They rely on BART, they’re a commuter, they see the growing crowds.  Kind of bottom line it for them.  What’s your message to them and when can they expect to see some changes?”

Chan:

“First I absolutely always thank our riders for being patient with us, for being our customers.  I know they’ve been dealing with the crowded conditions, the sad looking states of our stations for quite some time.   I want to tell them that relief is coming.  Not just with the new rail cars but we are making investments in escalator performance and capacity relief inside our stations and wherever possible we’re looking to upgrade our stations.  One of the things I wanted to highlight has been our station brightening program that we started about three years ago.  And what we wanted to do was really provide what we call some early wins.  We know that a lot of these major investment projects sometimes take years because we have to find the money and go through the design process and then there’s a procurement process and all of that and sometimes it takes a few years to get it off the ground.  It was really important for us as part of the station brightening program to number one get some early wins so that our customers could see some benefits and some relief but then also how can we more effectively and efficiently coordinate our resources?  From our cleaners, from our painters, from our repair and maintenance folks.  So this program allowed us to focus first on the four downtown stations where we’ve done some major amounts of cleaning, and that’s been a challenge, because you know the minute we clean the social issues come back and then the next day you know that it gets dirty again but we’ve also committed to more staffing at the four downtown stations.  What we see is that the painting has made a major transformative experience if you will particularly at the Powell Street station and then also at Civic Center station.  So the station brightening program is one way for us to get to dealing with some of the stuff that we can do right now.”

Host:

“Is there still an opportunity for people to offer their input, to sound off?  And if so what can they do?”

Chan:

“We have project web pages.  So we encourage people to go check out our project web pages and we are in the process of updating our information for everything from Embarcadero to Civic Center.  And so we’ll be posting more information on things like what are the recommended prioritized improvements for each of the stations?  What will the stations look like after we do some of the modernization work?  If we actually have capital projects there, what can you expect in terms of the construction schedule?  When are we going to get in there to make the improvements and when are we going to get out of there?  Information like that.”

Host:

“Tim, thank you so much for your time.”

Chan:

“You’re welcome.”
Host:

“That’s Tim Chan a planning manager with BART talking about the future of our downtown San Francisco stations.  Thank you for listening to ‘Hidden Tracks:  Stories from BART.”