Some original BART employees, circa early 1970s (courtesy of
No, not the original Star Trek cast: BART employees, circa early 1970s (courtesy of

Bay Area traffic might suck, but Bay Area traffic without BART sucks a whole lot more.

It’s a fact that was made painfully clear in early July to the hundreds of thousands of Bay Area workers who were subjected to cruel and unusual commute conditions created by a strike and system-wide shutdown of the 104-mile regional transit system.

And now, as another BART strike looms, Bay Area commuters are again faced with the prospect of horrendous traffic conditions on the horizon.

Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny the essential role BART plays in moving the Bay Area. 

So, what better time to take in some BART 101 (it’ll help pass the time while you’re waiting for your train).

(Note: Much of the following historical information is adapted from BART’s official history.)

BART transports an average of roughly 400,000 passengers each weekday. It’s the nation’s fifth-largest rail system, stretching from the far reaches of the Bay Area’s eastern suburbs to San Francisco International Airport, south of the city.

So when trains don’t run, things get messy: snarled traffic, exponentially longer travel times, and many thousands of very, very disgruntled commuters.

Which makes it all the more surprising to realize that BART has only been around for a relatively short period of time: operations started just over 40 years ago (with no transbay service until 1974).  Compare that to New York City’s much larger subway system, which began running in 1904, or Boston’s even older rail network, which launched in 1897.

So what did we do before BART?

The Key System

In 1903, a privately-run mass transit network called the Key System (or Key Route) began providing bus and streetcar service in Oakland, Berkeley and a number of other East Bay cities. In the 1940s and 50s, the network also operated regular commuter rail service to San Francisco via the lower deck of the Bay Bridge. But by 1958, in the face of booming highway construction and rapidly rising car ownership rates, the transbay service was dismantled, leaving a dearth of transit options across the Bay.

Two years later, newly formed public agency AC Transit bought the Key System’s existing East Bay bus routes (the streetcars had been phased out by 1948). The Key System: San Francisco and the Eastshore Empire, by Walter Rice and Emiliano Echeverria, provides a comprehensive history.

A lengthy but very entertaining Key System promo video … with a nice little revisionist history of California, replete with descriptions like this: “Life in Spanish California was leisurely and gay. A warmhearted people in a kind and bountiful land expressed themselves in colorful fiestas. Where … lovely senoritas and dashing caballeros danced the exciting steps of old Castile.”

BART is born

In 1950, close to 2.7 million people lived in the Bay Area, about a million more than were here the previous decade. It was just the beginning of a regional population boom that would continue to grow by roughly a million people every decade for the next fifty years, a trend that guaranteed increasingly heavy congestion on local roadways.

In 1957, a commission created by the state years earlier to study the Bay Area’s long-term transportation needs, recommended the construction of a five-county rapid rail network linking major commercial centers to suburban communities.

In its final report, the commission wrote:

A segment of the transbay tube is lowered into the Bay (courtesy of
A segment of the transbay tube is lowered into the Bay/

“If the Bay Area is to be preserved as a fine place to live and work, a regional rapid transit system is essential to prevent total dependence on automobiles and freeways.”

The original plan included San Mateo and Marin counties, both of which eventually bailed amidst cost concerns (as well as a controversy over the engineering feasibility of running a line across the Golden Gate Bridge). The final proposal included a 71.5 mile electric rail system with 33 stations in 17 cities spread across the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco. Among the largest public works projects in history, the total cost was projected at just shy of $1 billion, with the brunt of funding from a $792 million bond measure approved by voters in the 1962 general election. In the end, the final cost of the system turned out to be north of $1.6 billion.

BART construction officially commenced in June, 1964. President Lyndon Johnson presided over the ground-breaking ceremonies of the 4.4-mile Diablo Test Track between Concord and Walnut Creek. By January, 1966, construction of the Oakland subway began, and in November of that year, the first of 57 giant steel and concrete sections of the 3.8 mile transbay tube was lowered to the bottom of the Bay. The tube was completed in August ,1969 and for a short period of time, people were allowed to bike and walk through it.

An early BART promo

The wheels start turning

After 466 days of work, a 3.2-mile bore through the hard rock of the Berkeley Hills was completed in February, 1967. Later that summer, crews started construction of a subway section about 100 feet below Market Street in San Francisco.

BART began offering service to the public on September 11, 1972, on a 28-mile segment between Fremont and MacArthur stations. The day before, the Oakland Tribune published a 40-page special section declaring:

“BART is no longer a dream. It’s here and it’s yours.”

Transbay rides, however, didn’t begin until September 16, 1974.

In the end, the monumental process took many years longer and hundreds of millions of dollars more to complete than had been originally anticipated.

Today, the 104-mile system has 44 stations serviced by a 669-car electric fleet that was considered revolutionary when first introduced. In 1973, its first full year of operation, BART average weekday ridership was about 32,000. In 2012, the system carried an average of more than 366,000 weekday riders. On Nov. 4, 2010 — the day of the Giants World Series victory parade — a record 522,200 people took BART.

Scroll through the Oakland Tribune’s archived collection to see some great additional BART construction photos.

  • Thomas Hawk

    It’s amazing that this necessary and historic public transportation system that transports 400,000 people a day can be crippled by 2,800 workers at a time when we need it most. Sad.

    • Grace Barca

      Why is it sad?

  • Chuck Williamson

    BART counts riders every time they exit a station. If you take the train to work, take another train a few stops to get lunch, take a train back to work and then take another train home you count as 4 trips. So technically BART really carries a little over 200,000 people and only 50,000 or so of those folks take the trains into San Francisco during the morning commute.

  • dto510

    No mention of how BART construction destroyed West Oakland and Downtown Oakland’s historic commercial districts, or how BART replaced an urban-oriented streetcar system with a suburban commuter system, starving our interurban systems of funds. And of course, the fact that Bay Area transit mode-share has dropped every decade since BART opened.

    • Matthew Green, KQED

      Thanks for this suggestion. I will add this in. Stay tuned …


Matthew Green

Matthew Green runs KQED’s News Education Project, a new online resource for educators and the general public to help explain the news. The project lives at

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