A Guide to Riding BART for People Who Hate Crowds

This is Emma. Emma is seen here taking the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or “BART,” the San Francisco Bay Area’s regional public transit system.

Hang in there Emma!

Emma is not happy, because this train is too damn crowded. She can barely move her elbow without hitting this poor stranger on the right in the face. She’s so miserable that she’s planted her entire head in her armpit out of exasperation (or maybe because there’s some kind of foul smell on the train, which is pretty likely too). This photo was taken literally seconds after she had just gotten on the BART, and she already looks like this. And this isn’t even one of those stations, like 24th St in the Mission, that you’d expect to be super popular. This is Rockridge, darn it, which ranks 29th out of BART’s 46 stations in 2016 in terms of how busy it gets.

Actually, I have no idea what this woman’s name is. I snapped this photo immediately before the BART doors shut in front of me. I was still standing on the platform because this train was so crowded that I didn’t even try squeezing in. I took this photo because here was a stranger who, I thought, so perfectly embodied the experience of a BART commuter. If you are a regular BARTer yourself, chances are you can relate to Emma-or-whatever-her-name-is too. As well as to any of the following people:

As the Bay Area economy boomed, BART ridership increased steadily. SF Gate reports that in the five years following 2010, ridership increased by 31%. Each BART car on average seats 60 people, and can comfortably accommodate 47 more standing. But during rush hours, BART cars are often carrying 140 people or more — 33 people more than what is comfortable and 25 more than what the Federal Transit Administration recommends as the train’s maximum capacity. Ridership declined slightly in 2016, but the system still saw over 128 million trips in 2016, or about 351,000 trips per day. New cars with more standing room are slowly being added to the fleet, but at least for now, we remain sardines in a can.

As someone who likes people but hates crowds, I want to be more like salmon than sardine. I’m not asking to have the entire space to myself, but I want to at least be like those beautifully packaged salmon filets, sitting (I’ll take standing too) side by side with other filets with some basic dignity intact, instead of being piled on top of each other like those poor sardines.

This is all I’m asking for

I guess I should be grateful for BART crowdedness, because this was what jolted me out of my yearlong hiatus in doing personal data projects. After a particularly uncomfortable commute, I asked myself: what strategies can I employ to make my BART rides even a tiny bit less painful?

Through Kaggle, I found BART’s raw 2016 ridership data (unfortunately BART has not yet published 2017 or 2018 data to this level of completeness or accessibility). At almost 10 million rows, it is the largest dataset I’ve played with to date. In situations like this, I am doubly grateful for SQL, because this spreadsheet most certainly would have broken my Excel before the file even loaded. The dataset includes information on every trip (every origin-destination pair) that happened in every hour of every day in 2016. So if four people total tapped in at Embarcadero and tapped out at Fremont between 5:00 and 5:59 PM on June 24, 2016, there would be a row in this file that reads something like: Origin: Embarcadero | Destination: Fremont | Throughput: 4| Timestamp: 6/24/2016 17:00. And so on… for 10 million rows. While using data from only 2016 certainly has its limits, I do believe that BART trends from one year can help inform some decisions for future years.

I embarked on this project mostly because of my selfish desire to be less like a sardine and more like a salmon. But if you, like me, also want to get away from the sardine life, then these tips are for you too. It’s unlikely that all of these recommendations will be feasible for you, but it’s likely that at least one will be.


Tip 1: During the week, avoid 7–10 AM and 4–7 PM

Perhaps not surprisingly, the vast majority of BART rides happen between Monday and Friday. A regular weekday sees about 424.3K rides, which is about 2.5x what a regular weekend day would see. If you want to experience BART at its most glorious state, Saturday and Sunday are definitely the best.

Weekday BART = more sardine; weekend BART = less sardine

But most of us don’t get to be only weekend BART warriors. Most of us have to use the system on weekdays, too. How do we make that experience less miserable?

Probably not shockingly, what time you get on the train makes a huge difference. Fully half of all BART trips during the week takes place either between 7:00 and 9:59 AM or between 4:00 and 6:59 PM. So if your work allows it, it’s worth adjusting your hours to super early or super late. And if you wrap up work in the early evening, consider meeting up with friends somewhere that doesn’t involve BART, instead of commuting home right away. That way, you get to skip the evening rush and keep your friends!

8–9 AM and 5–6 PM are the absolute worst

Tip 2: Live in SF and work in the East Bay… or at least live and work on the same side of the bay

What if your schedule isn’t flexible enough to let you avoid rush hour? Turns out, the direction of human flow during peak commute time is heavily skewed and you may be able to use that to your advantage.

During the morning peak hours, significantly more people are riding BART from the East Bay into San Francisco, than from SF into East Bay, within SF, or within East Bay.

Go west, my friends

Naturally, the reverse commute happens in the evenings. 46% of all 4–7 PM BART trips are from San Francisco to the East Bay, far more than any other direction.

Go back east, my friends

Housing costs, job opportunities, and other considerations likely contribute to this trend. But if for some reason you have the money to live in San Francisco and can find a job in the East Bay, you would be setting yourself up for a true salmon-y life. Or even if you can simply live and work on the same side of the bay, you would likely experience far less crowded BART rides than if you lived in the East Bay and commuted into SF everyday, as long as you’re going in the opposite direction as traffic.

If you do work in SF, give preferential treatment to jobs that are not in downtown (also challenging, I know, because of where most job opportunities are located). During the week, Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell, and Civic Center are the top four stations that people BART to in the morning and leave from in the evening, so even the BART platforms (and your favorite lunch and happy hour spots) will be crowded, let alone the trains themselves.

Tip 3: If you must live in the East Bay and work in SF, avoid the Pittsburg-Bay Point line

If you have no choice but to commute from the East Bay to the West Bay during morning peak hours, you’re likely going to keep feeling like a massive sardine, but there are still things you can do to optimize. Living closer to the start of a BART line of course helps with your chances of getting a seat. Another thing you can potentially use to your advantage is knowing that not all BART lines are created equal. The Pittsburg-Bay Point line sees the heaviest traffic from the East Bay to SF during morning rush hour and in the reverse direction during evening rush hour. In fact, it is more than twice as busy as the Richmond route!

Richmond line = sardine; Pittsburg-Bay Point line = extremely sardine

So if you have to live in the East Bay and work in the city, consider living on the Richmond line if you have the choice. If you’re still not sold, just know that the Richmond line also comes with gems such as Berkeley Bowl (the best grocery store), Jupiter (the best outdoor patio with pizza and beer), and Costco (the best place to spend a day). Yum.

Tip 4: Work from home in the middle of the week

Let’s say you work at one of those tech companies that lets you work from home sometimes. How do you pick your work-from-home day such that you maximize your BART pain reduction?

WTF is up with people’s WFH schedules

Tuesday wins as the busiest day of the week for morning rush hour, followed closely by Wednesday and Thursday. If your goal is to avoid the biggest crowds, pick one of these days to work from home.

Tip 5: Win the weekend by avoiding downtown SF and the early evening

So far I’ve mainly been talking about weekdays, because I assume people reading this are similar to the average BART rider in that we use BART more frequently during the week. But sometimes we find ourselves BARTing on weekends too — and as I mentioned earlier, I would certainly encourage you to, because the person in this photo could be you!

So many empty seats! So glorious! But be a nice person and don’t put your feet on them!

What is the BART landscape on the weekend? We know that only 14% of rides happen on weekends. Saturday is a bit busier than Sunday. Ridership climbs steadily from morning, peaking around 5 PM and then declining. For comparison though, the busiest hour on weekends (5–6 PM) is still only 12% as busy as the busiest hour on weekdays (8–9 AM). So next time your friends want you to BART to them, suggest that you meet on the weekend, and ideally not in the early evening.

Weekends are almost as fun as bar graphs

Unlike weekdays, there is not much difference in ridership by direction of traffic, so next time you’re bored on a weekend, get on the BART and go anywhere! You’ll likely get a seat and maybe even get to see a new part of the Bay Area.

People are all over the place on weekends

Except, maybe don’t go to downtown SF. Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell, and Civic Center are still the most popular stations for people to get on or get off the BART at, even on the weekends. My guess is this is because they’re good places for transferring to the Muni or a Lyft so you can venture into SF neighborhoods that are far from BART lines.

By the way, North Concord, Oakland Coliseum/Airport, South San Francisco, and South Hayward are the least popular destinations on the weekends. So if you love having as much space as possible on BART, maybe it’s time to plan a Sunday outing to Pixieland, the children’s amusement park in Concord?

Tip 6: Go out of town in March, June, or August

Finally, usage of BART is actually pretty flat throughout the year, but March, June, and August are slightly higher in ridership than other months. So if you’re planning some kind of BART sabbatical — vacations, Lyft-binging, ferry-adventuring, etc etc.—prioritize those months so that you also skip the most crowded times of the year. And maybe instead of going on out-of-town family trips in December (when BART is at its emptiest), bring your whole family into town and spend the whole holiday season riding around on BART together. Sounds fun to me.

BART needs friends in the winter

As a regular BARTer, I’ve often marveled at how different the BART-riding experience is depending on when you do it. It really feels like night and day. Because of those soft cushioned seats, BART can feel like a dream on trips where you get a seat, the car is half empty, the sun shines in and warms your legs, and the train runs on time. Then there are the 8 AM Tuesday trips from the East Bay into downtown San Francisco, when you feel your face turning bright red from crowd-induced overheating and bouts of rage, and you wonder how it is that the tech and innovation hub of the U.S. has what seems like one of the sh*ttiest public transportation systems in the country.

Public transit, to me, is one of the most prevalent symbols of community living in urban areas. A public transit system that works well reminds me why I love cities, and why pooling resources with neighbors can be good for everyone. As BART is very slowly renovating its infrastructure and introducing more modern cars, my hope with this project is it will help myself and whoever reads this post hate BART just a little bit less, so that, yes, we are more like salmon and less like sardine—but also so that we don’t completely give up on the treasure and dream that public amenities truly are and truly can be.