BARTmageddon Post Mortem

This summer, I’m working as an intern at the mobile gaming company GREE. The office is in Downtown San Francisco. Since I’m living in Berkeley, I take the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) from the Downtown Berkeley station to the Embarcadero station every morning and then walk to the office. The entire trip takes about 35 minutes, door-to-door.

This morning, I expected to take BART to work. However, when I logged into my MBA class’ dedicated Facebook group, I noticed that my classmate Mike had posted an alert that BART service between the East Bay and San Francisco would be “out of service” until further notice. Oh no! Without BART, how would I cross the bay to San Francisco?

I searched Google News for ‘sf bart’ and ‘service’ and discovered that a huge fire had damaged a section of BART rail during the night and workers were scrambling to repair the damage.

I quickly sent my manager an email informing him that I would be late to the office. I considered telecommuting. But after 30 minutes, I realized that I needed to access files on the company network and didn’t want to fiddle with VPN. In the following section, I describe the steps I took this morning to cross the bay and get to work. I also provide some analysis of the situation from an MBA operations perspective (i.e. I am a nerd).

My drawing above shows the location of the damaged rail. According to a Berkeley resident whom I met at the bus stop, BART has never experienced such a service outage in two decades! For this reason, I believe BART officials were caught completely off-guard. It’s quite incredible that BART workers were able to mobilize during the night, coordinate with AC Transit, and get trains up and running by 3:45p today.

What made this outage especially devastating was it cut off access to the transbay tunnel that connects SF and the East Bay. (The remaining BART stations continued to function without any issues on their respective sides of the bay.) Without the ability to cross the bay by BART, thousands of riders decided to jump into their cars or call cabs and cross the bay via freeway. The result: a bottleneck on the Bay Bridge.

Witnesses described the Bay Bridge as a “parking lot.” In fact, around 8:30a, I asked BART and AC Transit for an update and they informed me that motorists on the Bay Bridge were experiencing 1-2 hour delays. Traffic was incredibly backed up. Beyond the BART outage, several other factors contributed to the disaster on the bridge.

  1. There was a Giants vs. Astros baseball game, resulting in more cars being on the road than usual
  2. The bridge’s toll gates created an additional bottleneck by requiring every car to slow down to 5MPH
  3. Finally, two car accidents on the bridge reduced the number of available lanes

My classmate Jerry wrote on our Facebook group and advised people to take the F and/or the FS transbay buses operated by AC Transit. These buses ferry people from Berkeley to SF every day. I normally don’t take them because the trip takes me about 55 mins versus 35 minutes by BART. But with BART out of service, I had few alternatives. I packed my bags, left my apartment, and headed to the nearest F bus stop.

However, when the F bus came, it did not stop for me. The bus was already filled to capacity! I was frustrated. Let’s look at what happened.

Let’s say a typical F bus has capacity for 5 people. Normally, the bus cruises down its route, stops at each bus stop to pick up passengers, and then crosses the Bay Bridge to SF. Meanwhile, a ton of BART passengers go to the BART station and take the subway through the transbay tunnel to SF. Everything works out because BART has enough capacity to transport the remaining East Bay residents.

However, in a BARTmageddon scenario, those BART passengers no longer want to use the subway because they can’t actually cross the bay. A bunch of them decide to drive or call a cab. These guys end up creating a huge traffic jam on the Bay Bridge, severely slowing down the F bus from ferrying people across the bay to SF. The remaining passengers decide they want to take the bus and crowd the bus stops. Most of them go to the stop nearest to the BART station. When the F bus shows up, it quickly fills to capacity and then proceeds to its final destination, ignoring all other passengers at ‘later’ bus stops. Since I had waited at a later bus stop, I was ignored.

Here’s what I did. I walked along the F route until I came across a bus stop with a long line of people. I figured this was probably the stop where the most people boarded the bus. I was right. From here, I waited for 1 hour to finally board an F bus. At around 11:00a, I finally made it to SF.

The problem here was that AC Transit did not increase the number of F buses in circulation. As a result, each F bus came in 30 minute intervals. What AC Transit did in response was actually kind of smart from an operations standpoint, but did not work perfectly from a logistical standpoint.

Knowing that passengers could still take BART to Oakland, AC Transit decided to pool all of its buses at the Downtown Oakland station (the one closest to the transbay tunnel). It then directed BART passengers to take the BART to Oakland and take a bus to SF.

In this ideal scenario, AC Transit and BART would work together to leverage pooling efficiencies and bring people across the bay in a speedy fashion. After all, if AC Transit distributed its fleet across all bus stops, there’d be some buses that cross the bridge filled to maximum capacity while others would only be half-filled. Not every route has the same number of riders.

However, this scenario did not play out the way AC Transit and BART intended. Part of the problem was a lack of communication. Only passengers who physically went into a BART station and talked to an attendant learned about this plan. Everybody else just went to their nearest bus station. There was a lot of information on Twitter, but not everybody has a smart phone or uses Twitter. I think BART and AC Transit eventually realized that the plan was being twarted by inefficient communication and pulled back some buses to relieve the most crowded bus stops (such as Downtown Berkeley).

I keep trying to think of ways BART and AC Transit could have improved their ground communication on such short notice. There weren’t a lot of realistic alternatives. However, I do think BART should have advised all passengers to go to Oakland via the website. This would have helped the people who learned about the BART closure from the Internet and went straight to a bus stop instead of a BART station.

It was a pretty bad situation, all around. But I think BART and AC Transit did a impressive job managing the crisis (all things considered). I especially have to give props to the ground crew. At many of the stations, city employees came out to the bus lines to help organize people and pack the buses to maximum capacity. Outside the Berkeley station, for example, there was a nice lady who helped coordinate incoming buses and repeatedly thanked us for our patience, told jokes, and delivered updates on BART repairs. As I mentioned in an earlier post, if you’re going to make people wait in line, you should keep them entertained so they don’t angry.

Thankfully, BART is back up and running. The ride home was surprisingly smooth. Trains were mostly empty. Everybody who drove to SF had to drive all the way back. In Oakland, we passed by the burned building. It was a charred mess of rubble and broken piping.

Hopefully, tomorrow will be less eventful.


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