BART At 50: Fit For A PresidentAug 31, 2022 04:33PM ● By Gail Murray
Photo courtesy of BART: President Richard Nixon, First Lady Pat Nixon and BART General Manager B.R. Stokes September 27, 1972 on a train ride from San Leandro to Lake Merritt.
Sixteen days after BART opened on September 11, 1972, and shortly before the Watergate scandal unfolded, President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon were among the first passengers. It was an historic occasion for the new transit system. Nixon came to the Bay Area “to marvel at the future of mass transportation,” according to Mike Healy, BART’s Director of Public Affairs. And marvelous it was. BART was the first new rapid rail system in almost 60 years.
It wasn’t like the subways on the East Coast. It had big picture windows, wide upholstered seats, and carpeted floors. It looked like the seating in an airplane. The cars were air-conditioned and insulated. BART was as comfortable as a car, but faster, because the trains weren’t stuck in traffic. And that was the point, BART was designed to lure people out of their cars.
“Nixon enjoyed the ride, commenting that the system looked like NASA,” said Healy, who was also riding the train with the president that day. Later Nixon commended BART for “setting an example for the nation” and presented the transit system with a $38 million check.
In 1972, BART served about 100,000 riders a week; by 2016 the number of passengers had increased to nearly 440,000 a day. The elegant and comfortable cars were fit for a president, but fabric seats and carpet flooring couldn’t stand up to the test of time as BART’s popularity surged.
The plush train interiors had served their purpose of attracting riders on to public transit. But with so much use, they had become soiled and expensive to maintain—each wool seat cover had to be individually removed and dry cleaned. And it was costly. BART was spending $600,000 a year just on dry cleaning. Forty-two years after service began, in 2014 the upholstered seats were replaced with vinyl cushions easy to wipe clean.
And while the wall-to-wall Mohawk carpeting and padding helped reduce noise, it was high maintenance requiring daily vacuuming and frequent deodorization. In 2008, the carpet was replaced with vinyl flooring. By 2017, BART began retiring the original train cars with “Fleet of the Future” cars equipped with easier-to-maintain seats and floors, hi-tech amenities like WIFI, and digital maps depicting routes and locations. Since service was available to both the San Francisco and Oakland airports, the seats were also installed higher off the floor for luggage storage underneath.
When the COVID-19 public health crisis hit, improving train ventilation became a top priority. BART installed MERV-14 filters, often used in hospitals, to improve train ventilation. The system filters the air on trains and replaces it with new air close to 50 times an hour. BART has come a long way over the last fifty years and continues to evolve with new designs and technologies. For a treasure trove of historical BART documents and photographs, visit bart.gov/50years.50th Birthday Party and Family Fun Festival: Saturday, September 10, Lake Merritt Station Plaza 11am–4pm. A free public celebration with food trucks, music, kid's games, tours, and more.
About the author: Former Walnut Creek Mayor Gail Murray served as an elected member of the San Francisco BART Board of Directors between 2004-2016. She is writing a memoir and guidebook, “Lessons from the Hot Seat: Governing at the Local and Regional Level,” based on these experiences. In honor of BART’s 50th anniversary, she wrote a series of stories about its history.