BART launched its new ‘Early Bird’ service, but who is using it?

On Monday, BART officially shifted its start time from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m., a change that will last for the next 3.5 years. In an effort to mitigate the impact of this switch, BART launched the Early Bird Express program. Buses pick up riders between 4 and 5 a.m. and ferry them (largely) from outer-lying suburbs into downtown San Francisco.

The first day was a bit shaky, but there’s more concerning long-term news for BART: the Early Bird Express ridership is at roughly 1,000 riders in the first week, down from the roughly 2,900 riders taking BART prior to the service change.

How is everybody else getting to work? It turns out about 1,500 of the remaining 1,900 people are just taking later trains, says Anna Duckworth, a communications officer at BART.

“They shifted their schedule,” Duckworth said. “We’ve seen the early train numbers jump up.”

ALSOBART now starts at 5 a.m. Some riders will be out of luck.

The addition of mid-line routes may aid riders, she said. Concord, South Hayward, and Daly City all have trains leaving at 5 a.m., in addition to the trains starting at the end of the lines.

Of the 400 riders unaccounted for by BART, Duckworth says, “The assumption is that they’ve found other ways to take their trips, whether it’s driving, ride-sharing, or carpooling.” This is in line with BART’s expectations, she said, saying the agency expected a few hundred riders to stop using the service when the schedule switched over.

AC Transit declined to comment on whether their overnight service has increased, saying their planning department was actively tracking the numbers but not ready to say anything conclusive.

Maintaining the ridership sustained prior to the service switch is a daunting challenge. BART could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue if the loss of ridership remains steady, and the region’s commute traffic could get even worse.

“We didn’t want to lose riders,” Duckworth said.

The change in service is necessary to expedite the retrofitting of the Transbay Tube. BART estimates pushing the start time to 5 a.m. will save the agency $15 million and cut the project’s timeline by four months. To accommodate riders who have come to rely on the transit agency for their morning commutes, BART launched the Early Bird Express program.

The rollout brought some good news. Though there were some widely reported hiccups on the first day of service, Duckworth says the service is running relatively smoothly.

“So far, so good,” she told SFGATE. “We did have a couple of first-day glitches that we’ve been able to iron out, and we haven’t been hearing a lot of complaints.”

These glitches included a long line of riders at Pittsburgh-Bay Point, a delayed bus at El Cerrito del Norte after a bus was thwarted by a crossing train, and a driver who got lost on his way to the Pleasant Hill station, causing short delays.

So far, BART has shown an ability to adapt. After an effort to start buses earlier on Tuesday at Bay Point still left a number of individuals waiting for the next bus, all early riders were able to catch a bus on Wednesday by pushing the earliest bus time to 4:07 a.m and following up with a second bus at 4:15 a.m.

Duckworth explained that BART saw more riders at Bay Point than the agency expected. As of now, the Antioch station has early bus service through Tri Delta to the Bay Point station, at which riders can transfer to a Bay Point bus to cross the bay. Duckworth inferred that many frequent Antioch riders were instead choosing to drive straight to the Bay Point, expediting their journey across the Bay Bridge.

“We’re going to be monitoring the data and maybe decide we don’t need as many buses at Antioch, and decide to shift to Bay Point,” Duckworth said.

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