When the Past Was Better

Believe it or not, the East Bay used to have a locally owned, all-electric, zero-emission mass transit system. And it went nearly everywhere.


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“By 1946, when it was acquired, it was already in really poor shape,” he continued. “Just like today in Palo Alto, several cities wanted to restrict access by train, and buses were simply cheaper to run. City governments, including Oakland’s, wanted them gone.”

As Bay Area populations surged through the ’50s, transit options dwindled. In 1951, the California Legislature established a committee to come up with a long-term plan for transportation in the region. The Bay Area Rapid Transit District developed its plans for BART in 1957 to limit dependence on motor vehicles and buses. In 1962, voters decided to fund BART, which took nearly 15 years to build. Unlike the Key System, which was privately owned, BART was built using $1.7 billion of public funds. Instead of riding through neighborhoods, it rides above or underneath them, and instead of being accessible and flexible, it’s often unreliable and limited.

In 1962, voters approved a BART plan that would have 40 trains running in each direction per hour. Today, it only runs 16, and trains are often overcrowded.

To its credit, BART is the country’s cleanest major transit system, emitting fewer pounds of CO2 per passenger mile than any other transit system, and it has declared that it will be transitioning to a fully carbon-free renewable electricity portfolio in the coming years. It’s also the most financially efficient transit system in the nation.

“BART was built to last forever—it was built much better than the Key System was,” said Stashik. “They never did any work on Key—it was rocking and rolling along those rickety tracks. The only high-class part of the Key System was on the Bay Bridge, otherwise it was stopping every couple blocks.”

But BART is also not what was promised to Bay Area residents, nor is it the transit system the area needs and deserves. Many of the underserved communities of today could have benefitted greatly from access to an affordable train system right outside their doors.

Riding BART from University Avenue in Berkeley to San Francisco takes 27 minutes today; it took a Key System train 28 minutes to make the same trip in 1940.

Now, as the population in the Bay Area continues to swell, BART is embarking on a multibillion-dollar campaign to acquire 775 new train cars, which it calls “more modern, reliable, comfortable, and quieter than anything in service.”

It’s also undergoing a $915 million project to replace the 1960s control system and a $3.5 billion project to lay 90 miles of new rail, repair corroded tunnel walls, and replace train equipment.

Imagine if even a fraction of the money spent constructing and maintaining BART could have been used to modernize the existing train infrastructure that formed the East Bay. It is interesting to think that MUNI, formed in 1912, remains today one of the oldest transit systems in the world—yet the Key System is not only gone, but completely erased from memory. Today, San Francisco is one of just seven American cities with a surviving urban transport system.

The first Key train left Key Route Plaza in 1904, at Piedmont Avenue and 41st Street. In 2005, Rocky Rische-Baird painted a mural on the wall of the building,4063 Piedmont Ave., that stands at the intersection remembering the Key System. Building renovations in 2014 lead to the unexpected destruction of the mural, a casualty of neglect and gone before much could be done to preserve or save it. What could be more demonstrative of the way we’ve forgotten our transit history?

Whether our transit future is fleets of autonomous vehicles run by competing companies, or a BART system that fits the needs of all Bay Area residents, our transit past serves as a reminder of how quickly things can change.

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