Henry Grabar, Slate
Downtowns won’t recover from the pandemic anytime soon. Public transportation must look elsewhere.
In 2016, the San Francisco morning rush was so busy that Bay Area Rapid Transit did something unprecedented: It paid some riders cash to take the train at a different time. The six-month pilot was the transit authority’s answer to a common problem for big-city subway systems. BART could not physically run any more trains through the four-and-a-half-mile tunnel beneath the San Francisco Bay every morning; the tunnel hit capacity around 8 a.m. Maybe commuters could be induced to head downtown at 7 a.m., or 9?
What a difference a pandemic makes. BART ridership is down about 90 percent from normal, and the future looks dimmer every day. The agency’s January 2021 ridership projection is mostly below its lower-bound projection from June 2020. “Every forecast we make that we thought was conservative, reality is much more dire than we forecast,” said Brendan Monaghan, a BART financial planning analyst.
The prevailing sense of doom comes from a dawning awareness that the old workday travel patterns are not going to snap back into place when the pandemic subsides. Even when it’s safe for Bay Area workers to travel to work, many of them won’t. The tallest building in San Francisco is the Salesforce Tower, a totem of blue glass and a symbol of the city’s tech economy since its completion in 2018. On Tuesday, the software company’s “chief people officer” outlined new work policies. “The 9-to-5 workday is dead,” he wrote. Most employees will be in the office between one and three days a week. Twitter, another San Francisco tech employer, has announced an indefinite work-from-home policy. The situation looks similar in New York, D.C., Chicago, and other major U.S. cities.