Transversing the Bay is a study of the San Francisco Bay Area that utilizes mass transit systems, advice
particularly the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and local ferries. By framing the movements of people and the spatial and affective domains created by these systems, side effects
our aim was the documentation and distillation of the emotional resonances and ephemeral qualities of place found in this region. There is a unique social ecology that revolves around each transit hub that informs the surrounding landscape, treatment
varying by the age of the line and the density of the location.

The photographs and sound that we captured were constrained by a one mile diameter within walking distance of the various transit hubs and reflect our particular experiences. It became obvious over the course of our study that the core/periphery relationship is a crucial one and our documentation is a reflection of movements from the furthest flung suburbs inward. In addition we found that the core urban centers are oversaturated by photography, by an almost blinding amount of representative documentation that can be found within seconds, so a prioritization of the over-looked peripheral spaces of everyday life become the primary focus of the photographs.

Mass transit in its most general form is a compression of time and space—riding it puts one in an interstitial zone between here and there. Regional transit systems span geographic distances to unify a diverse body of experiences and lifestyles, serving to urbanize the suburbs and suburbanize the metropolitan core. Our outside-in orientation provided surprising results, showcasing the variety of urban densities and scales that shift and transform as one moves throughout the Bay. Very few parallels can be drawn between these outer regions and the raucousness of Pier 39 or Powell Street. Pittsburg has huge open fields, rolling hills and coastline, dotted with heavy industry and new suburban developments. Compare this to Hayward where there is relatively high density right next to it main BART line but a half-empty downtown only a few blocks away with dozens of empty storefronts. Fremont has a Bollywood Movie theatre (Big Cinema) on one side of its transit hub and a lagoon on the other surrounded by gated communities. Lafayette with a hill dotted with white crosses for dead soldiers and just down the hill is a the Round-Up, an eighty-year old shack of a bar where during the day old locals have conversations ranging from gardening to pot legalization to ayurvedic medicine.

Ferries from Oakland to Sausalito provide another perspective on mass transit in the Bay Area. This method of movement used to be the prevalent form of transportation between Bay Area cities and the water level view of the Bay generates a very different picture of how the Bay Area moves and thinks. The San Francisco Bay Area is clearly influenced by its relationship to the water. Maritime activity used to be essential to the identity of the Bay. SOMA was home to sailors and dockworkers with short-stay hotels and bars that open at 6am. Every little port that dotted the edges of the Bay played its role in the maritime economy. Despite having a busy port in Oakland and cruise ships occasionally leaving from San Francisco, that water now plays less and less a part in what defines the Bay Area.

Just like any large metropolitan conglomerate there is a lot of diversity and capturing the diversity of people, objects, experiences, and environments is a daunting task and one fraught with difficult decisions and omissions. But what does all this mean for regional identity? The Bay area is many things to many people, its meaning is diffuse and indeterminate. The only way to get to the heart of the matter is to wade through specific instances, events, histories, and evidences of living that litter the ground of our existence.

Essential to a Bay Area identity is its proximity to nature. We say this with the understanding that nature is a highly coded sign constructed to describe elements of the landscape that are absent of the built environment. There remains an essential relationship between people in the Bay and how they relate to the landscape. For starters there is a lot of nature to go around. We are surrounded on all sides by Palm, Pine, and Eucalyptus, although it would be easy to forget if you never leave the flatlands of the inner East Bay. Within an hour in any direction one can be not only in a little strip of park or other reclaimed green space but in proper wilderness. The number of designated State, Regional, and National Parks built into and around the urbanized parts is one of the redeeming features of the Bay. And this relationship to nature is essential to our regional identity. From the crunchy tree-sitting eco-warriors to the weekend warriors in spandex trekking across the North Bay parks to the families enjoying a Sunday in Crissy Field, Tilden Park, Golden Gate Park, or the beach.

The Bay Area is full of contradictions. It is both a globally-connected region with diverse communities of immigrants from different backgrounds, yet it remains parochial and inward-looking. It has some of the wealthiest people in the United States and prides itself on being socially liberal, yet there is a high tolerance for glaring inequalities. It subverts and flattens the reality of different social classes, its endogenous development generally serving the interests at the top. San Francisco is derided by many for the perception that anything goes, people blinding accepting and embracing alternative lifestyles and subcultures embraced without fuss or critical thought. In many ways being part of a sub or counter-culture defines the mainstream in the Bay Area.

Another contradiction is the Bay Area’s relation to the military. From the Presidio and Fort Ross, to the vast military infrastructure of WWII with naval bases and shipyards in Alameda, Hunter’s Point, Richmond, Concord, and Mare Island, the military-industrial complex has exercised great influence over the region’s economy. Today most of these operations have been long abandoned, facilities turned over to developers or left to rot in place. However the emergence of Silicon Valley has its military connections, its tech pioneers often work on military projects including domestic surveillance for the “war on terror.” (see Trevor Paglen’s Torture Taxi) However, there is an equally long history of protests against war and the military industrial complex here in the Bay Area. For many, standing against militarism is a point of pride central to their identity, yet the military has been and remains a crucial part of the economy.

Perhaps the biggest and most understudied factor that is reshaping the Bay Area is the suburbanization of the urban core. San Francisco’s development priorities have essentially promoted a tourist infrastructure; through redeveloping certain neighborhoods to be palatable to suburbanites, encouraging gentrification, changing zoning laws to attract condo development, and luring starchitects to building signature buildings for tourists to flock and ogle. Without a transit infrastructure, city life becomes less accessible and thus mass transit is a fascinating lens through which one can refract the complex histories, joys, horrors, and experiences of a region and its people.

The history of the Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) system begins immediately following the end of World War II. In 1947 military officials sent a memo suggesting the state build a tunnel that went under the Bay. By 1951 the state legislature commissioned research into ways of relieving congestion on the Bay area roadways and to replace the aging Key System electric railway that had previously shuttled passengers across the Bay Bridge. The need and desire to have a modern regional transit system was considered throughout the 1950’s, ed
but it was not until 1957 that progress was made towards this goal through the formation of the Bay Area transit district and the initial phases of establishing its bureaucratic mechanisms. This region-wide transit district created a jointly-managed system between the five inner counties of the Bay Area, who elected officials to manage the system and assume partial responsibility in funding the project. By 1962, both Marin and San Mateo counties dropped out of the plan citing prohibitive building costs, tax concerns, and for San Mateo County, a desire to support the existing Southern Pacific commuter rail1 which served the peninsula. Marin also sought to keep out a supposed ‘criminal element’ with politicians using this fear to stifle any further planning.

In the summer of 1962 with federal, state, and local funding mostly secured, engineering documents drawn up, and all the bureaucratic apparatus in place, construction on the system commenced. Work on the right-of-ways, highway re-alignments, stations, and tunnels began concurrently. On June 19, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson presided at the official ceremony commemorating the start of construction in Concord. Construction proceeds apace with the Oakland subway beginning in January of 1966 and San Francisco’s Market street subway in July of 1967.

At a total of 3.6 miles long, the Transbay tube was built in sections on land, and each of the 57 sections were dropped into place from a barge and the sealed and connected to the already completed parts. The tunnel itself took four years to complete between 1965 and 1969. An additional four years were needed to complete laying the tracks and electrification of the tunnel.
The system had its first passengers on September 11th, 1972 starting with the Oakland to Fremont line. By January 29, 1973 the Oakland to Richmond line is opened, and in July, the San Francisco-Daly City lines were operational. All four of the lines were complete, online, and in use by the end of July that year. The Transbay Tube was not online until September 1974 nearly two years after the first line was opened to the public.

The architecture of the original stations was clearly a product of its times. Its design was striking and modern—raw geometric concrete Brutalism formed most of the structures, while each station had unique touches like the red bricks at 12th Street, the blue bricks at 19th Street, white hexagonal tiles at Powell Street, or the cast concrete sculptures at 16th Street Mission and Richmond Stations. There is a certain charm to the stations although few would argue that they have aged gracefully.

As early as 1970, BART officials wanted to extend BART to the Oakland and San Francisco airports. It took over 28 years, and nearly 1 billion dollars to extend BART to SFO. To this day there is only a shuttle bus to Oakland airport from the Coliseum BART. Despite the desire for train extension to Oakland airport, multiple studies have proven this unfeasible. BART continues to plan on new stations and extensions—filling in gaps, sending the lines further south and east and connecting to further suburbs. As its history has shown, it is a very long and expensive process.

With any large infrastructure project there are always problems and accidents, BART has had its share. Only a month into passenger service, a control systems glitch cause a two-car train to run off the tracks at Fremont. In 1979 there was an electrical fire in the Transbay tube that left one firefighter dead and closed tube service for almost two months. March 2006 saw a couple of small incidents: a tunnel fire between Embarcadero and Montgomery stations, a fire at the Hayward electrical substation and multiple glitches with a newly installed control system. A massive electrical fire started in the Hayward Maintenance Yard in May 2008 disrupting Fremont service for months.

BART’s cars are another unique aspect of the system. Years of design and research went into the choice of cars. Because they were custom designed and on non-standard gauge rail widths the fleet was expensive to build. BART’s seats were meant to emulate a comfy commuter rail atmosphere but have proven to be costly to maintain, clean, and it was recently revealed in March, 2011 by researchers that the seats contain traces of fecal matter, other bacteria and two strains of MRSA2. Most of BART’s original cars are from 1972 and are still in service, though part of the fleet was replaced in 1987. BART is now in the initial stages of re-designing their fleet and aim to get new train cars by 2018 that will hopefully have less absorbent fibers and hard, non-porous surfaces.

Over the past three decades, BART has been able to pick-up the slack when the highways have failed. The BART System weathered the Loma Prieta earthquake without major difficulties and filled the crucial transportation gaps left by the collapsing of sections of the Bay Bridge and other freeways. From October to December of 1989 as repairs were being made, daily-ridership increased exponentially. This also happened when a section of the Macarthur Maze collapsed in 2009. BART’s busiest days have usually happen in concert with these massive road failures and large events like baseball playoffs and holidays. Daily ridership is on average around 300,000 people.

BART was quick to publicize their first baby, Stephany Ann-Marie Ehler, who was born aboard a train on July 21, 1996. As the first baby ever born aboard a BART train, Stephany was awarded free, lifetime privileges to ride BART. Subsequently there have been two other BART-related births although no information was available as to if they got anything for their troubles. They have been less excited to publicize any deaths that have occurred on the system. The only notes were of a shooting that happened in the mid-90’s, a maintenance worker was gravely injured and the recent events surrounding the death of Oscar Grant.

On January 1st, 2009 Oscar grant took a bullet in the back on Fruitvale platform courtesy of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. The incident sparked multiple anti-police protests, a high-profile trial and journalists proclaiming that the court’s decision may spark a riot, similar to what happened in Los Angeles with the police-beating of Rodney King. The predicted mayhem did not occur however it called in a lot of questions regarding policing on the BART system and BART’s accountability to the public.

Throughout the history of the BART there are lingering questions about the costliness of the system. The total cost of building the system was approximately $15 billion (adjusted to today). It now costs more than $200 million per mile to build new track of BART. This is due in large part to the non-standard gauge rails, custom cars, and electric third rail. These design decisions continue to be a burden on the extension of BART to an ever expanding Bay Area population. New developments like the eBART3 are relying instead on intermodal exchanges and diesel trains to extend the range of transit rather than waiting and hoping that in thirty years BART can extend its tracks further into east Contra-Costa County.

The decision to single track many parts of the system saved money up front makes expansion prohibitively slow and costly. It has also meant that it is currently impossible to run trains 24-hours because maintenance and safety inspections need to happen regularly. This proves to be a costly mistake because future expansion means a complete reshaping of many of the Bay Area’s busy highways and thoroughfares and using intermodal systems means changing trains and fragmentation of the system. The cost, design, scale, and the bureaucratic machine behind this system will continue to be of concern throughout its lifespan.

Most of the dates and events presented here come from BART’s official chronology available at

1 The SP Commuter line became Cal-Train
3 http://www.bart.gove/about/projects/ecc/