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Buses & Trains: Going on a power trip

Posted By Beth Terry On May 7, 2009 @ 10:45 am In Global Warming & Energy Conservation,travel and transportation | 26 Comments

I spend several hours per week sitting quietly in a big plastic box. No, it’s not a new form of therapy. It’s BART. (Bay Area Rapid Transit.)

While I’ve transferred most of my medical and other services to within walking or biking distance of my home, I still have to commute roughly 18 miles each way to my job, which is located on the other side of the San Francisco Bay in Daly City. As I mentioned on Tuesday, we’ve chosen our home location to be within walking distance of a BART station. Fortunately, my office is even closer to a BART station on the other end.

As with walking and driving, public transit has its pros and cons.


Public Transit uses less energy than individual cars. In fact, BART has a carbon calculator as part of its Quick Trip Planner [1] which will let you know how much carbon you save on the trip compared to driving. One leg of my commute on BART saves 18 pounds of CO2 [2]. Yes, we’re still going on a power trip. Just not as big of one.

Public Transit allows time for reading (or sleeping.) I realize there are people who put on makeup, read the paper, eat breakfast, talk on their cell phone, and do a whole host of other activities while sitting in their cars in traffic. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are taking naps. Regardless of the safety and possible illegality of some of these activities, the drivers still have to pay a certain amount of attention to the road. On transit, you might be able to relax.

Public Transit, specifically rail, might be more reliable than driving. Depending on your transit agency, trains that run on schedule can be a better guarantee of getting to work on time than chancing the status of the traffic situation. BART is great that way. While I have run into a few snags here and there due to maintenance issues or the occasional police action, BART for the most part is on time and reliable. Can’t say the same for the traffic lanes approaching the Bay Bridge toll plaza. Buses out here are another story.

Public Transit can save money. Through the commuter check program [3], both employees and employers benefit in big tax savings for riding public transit. Whether the employer pays for the commuter checks as a benefit or deducts the amount from the employees’ checks, the savings is substantial either way. Commuter checks can be used to purchase transit passes. But they can also be used for parking at the station itself, if you don’t happen to live within walking or biking distance. Speaking of bikes, commuter checks will now support this form of transportation too, but I’ll get to that tomorrow.

Additionally, taking transit cuts out all the expenses of driving a car: gas, tolls, maintenance, parking fees and parking tickets, etc. Saving money was my primary reason for avoiding buying a car in the first place.


Public Transit might not be relaxing at all. I’m fortunate to have a work schedule later than most, so I always get a seat on the train and can kick back and tune out. But if I had to leave in the morning with everyone else, I’d be standing for a good portion of my trip, getting to know my neighbors in a very close way. But is this the fault of the transit system or the fact that we spend more on building new roads than adding new trains? And could we create a work system of staggered schedules so that everyone isn’t trying to ride at the same time?

Regardless of how many people are on the train, BART is really, really loud. Some people wear ear plugs. I have a pair of noise-canceling headphones, also plastic. I have a feeling BART is helping to create a society of partially deaf people, as riders turn up their iPods to compete with the sound of the train itself. You know your iPod is too loud if everyone else on the train can hear the sound leaking out.

Public Transit might be less reliable than driving. Depends on your transit agency, of course. As I said, some of the bus systems out here seem to follow whatever schedule suits the driver at the moment. Riders of Muni and AC Transit know what I’m talking about. Golden Gate transit, which goes over the Golden Gate bridge into Marin and Sonoma counties, seems to be the exception. I realize buses must contend with traffic issues just like cars do. But is there really any reason for 3 of the same bus to arrive together in a posse after a dry spell of an hour or more?

Public Transit might be less convenient than driving.
Depending on where your home and destination are located, you might end up having to transfer several times to get where you’re going. This is why I make transit one of my primary considerations for deciding where to live. Not all of us can do that. And maybe we need to be pushing harder in our communities to expand public transit rather than simply giving up and getting in our cars.

Public Transit trains and buses, like cars, are full of plastic & chemicals. Hear it from the plastics industry’s own voice, SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association [4]:

Bus manufactureres, too, are turning to plastics for exterior and interior components to provide dimensional stability and impact resistance in long sections. Trains and buses use plastics in seating, window/door frames and other interior applications that require durability, cleanability and low maintenance. Subway commuters in many cities owe much of their comfort to plastics, sitting on plastic-foam seats with plastic seat covers, standing on polyester carpets and holding securely to plastic handles. The moldings, window casings and interior panels of subway cars are also plastic, and the windows are polycarbonate.

Like I said, the inside of BART is one big plastic box. Plastic walls and ceiling. Plastic seats. Plastic floor. In fact, the floor is my main concern with BART at the moment.

You see, BART floors used to be covered with carpet. Nasty, dirty, stinky, carpet. And according to BART officials, the nasty carpet was one of riders’ main complaints. So in upgrading trains, and to make them more fire safe, BART decided to replace the carpet with a rubberized sheet system. They made the upgrades to a few cars, and patrons seemed to love it. The floors could be easily cleaned. And I personally never detected any noticeable odor from the material. Yes, it was plastic. But so was the carpet, when you think about it.

Well, a while back, I started noticing a different looking (and smelling) floor on some BART cars. It was rough and pebbly. I didn’t understand why it was different from the first replacement option. I only knew it smelled terrible. In fact, I can’t ride in cars covered with that flooring without getting a headache. I tried again on Tuesday night, as a test, for this article. Sure enough… headache. Hope you guys appreciate it!

Researching the plastic in BART for this post, I came across a fascinating article all about the decisions BART made on the flooring, why the first type of flooring didn’t work out (took too long to install) and the new option — a sprayed on coating — that they switched to. It’s a PDF and will take a while to load, but I found it really interesting: http://www.flanagancorp.com/Coatings_Pro_Magazine_Mar2008.pdf [5]

What interests me in particular is that the article states that the coating is made from polyurea [6] and is Zero-VOC (volatile organic compounds — the chemicals you breath in as they offgas.) But I want to know how this can be true when the floor smells so strong. Our sense of smell comes from particles entering our noses. No particles, no smell, right? Can a floor whose smell gives me a headache really be Zero-VOC? And have any of you other Bay Area readers noticed this or is it just me?

Once I finish this post, I intend to start a survey to find out if other people notice the floor smell and then to share this information with BART and get to the bottom of it. In the mean time, I can still find cars without that particular flooring to ride in.

Another plastics issue to consider while riding transit: most tickets are made from plastic. BART throws away 600 pounds of disposable, non-recyclable plastic tickets per day, according to Bob Frankin, BART director, in an email to me last year. Switching to an option like the EZ-Rider card [7], which I wrote about in April, can help save some of this plastic. Or wait until this summer to get a Translink [8] card, which will allow you to pay for not only BART but also Muni, AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit, and eventually two dozen Bay Area transit systems. I didn’t know about Translink when I wrote my original post. Thanks to Jennconspiracy [9] for setting me straight.

My solution to the pros and cons of riding transit? Opt for walking or biking instead whenever possible. I try to limit my stay inside the plastic box to times when it’s absolutely essential. In fact, I’m thinking of trying out riding my bike to a station further along the route to cut my BART time even more. Bikes are allowed on BART, subject to certain rules, which I will cover tomorrow.

How many of you ride transit? What do you like/disklike about it? Those who haven’t tried it, would you be willing to give it a shot for one week?

Article printed from My Plastic-free Life: http://myplasticfreelife.com

URL to article: http://myplasticfreelife.com/2009/05/buses-trains-going-on-power-trip/

URLs in this post:

[1] Quick Trip Planner: http://www.bart.gov/index.aspx

[2] saves 18 pounds of CO2: http://www.bart.gov/schedules/quickplanner.aspx?orig=ROCK&addr1=&dest=DALY&addr2=&type=departure&date=5%2F5%2F2009&time=11%3A00+AM

[3] commuter check program: http://www.commutercheck.com/

[4] SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association: http://www.plasticsindustry.org/AboutPlastics/content.cfm?ItemNumber=637&navItemNumber=1118

[5] http://www.flanagancorp.com/Coatings_Pro_Magazine_Mar2008.pdf: http://www.flanagancorp.com/files/QuickSiteImages/Coatings_Pro_Magazine_Mar2008.pdf

[6] polyurea: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyurea

[7] EZ-Rider card: http://myplasticfreelife.com/2009/04/dear-bart-ez-rider-program/

[8] Translink: https://www.translink.org/TranslinkWeb/index.do

[9] Jennconspiracy: http://www.livegreenwearblack.com/

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