The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

May 7, 2009

Buses and Trains – Going on a power trip

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 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. 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, 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:

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:

What interests me in particular is that the article states that the coating is made from polyurea 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, which I wrote about in April, can help save some of this plastic. Or wait until this summer to get a Clipper 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 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?

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13 years ago

Beth, you inspired me to use my camera to make a short (2 min) narrated video about Chicago’s rapid transit rail system so readers can see and compare to their own rides.

13 years ago

Thanks for the very interesting post about pros and cons of transit! You are setting a great example. Here at BART we are working to minimize the "con" areas that you mentioned and to create even more "pros." Regarding noise, new rail grinding equipment should help to reduce the noise. You can find out more about that in this story on our website:
Regarding the flooring material, here's a story with more info behind that:
Our customer service department also notes that our flooring meets the most stringent requirements of any transit agency in North America for areas such as toxicity, VOC emissions and lifecycle sustainability. By the way, if you are interested in giving input on what materials are used in the next generation of BART rail cars, there is a new section of our website at where you can fill out a comment form and learn more about that long-range project. Finally, on the ticket issue, we are encouraging "smart card" technologies as you mentioned, such as the EZ Rider and upcoming Translink cards, to cut down on ticket waste. You might also check out this video about a technology from a recent trial that would allow riders to pay by cellphone — one day it might even save having to have the smart card itself!
Thank you again for taking the time to write about transit. We will continue to update the website whenever we have news or features that might be of interest to those concerned about sustainabilty issues.
Melissa Jordan
BART/Senior web producer

13 years ago

Marc, here in Chicago there are similar routes for the rapid transit that run in the middle of the expressways. The good part about it is that slow-moving or stopped auto traffic can watch as the trains go rushing by and drivers might be influenced to take the train. Other reasons for that routing are it removes the noisy trains from neighborhoods, placing them in an already noisy environment and it makes use of a limited access route that is already in place, avoiding the need to create crossings and viaducts (saving money in construction and ongoing maintenance).

13 years ago

BART also abuses its passengers’ ears by placing stations in the middle of 8 lane freeways (e.g., Rockridge, MacArthur, ones in Contra Costa) without any decent shielding. It wouldn’t be so difficult for BART to install some soundwalls so that people on the platform don’t have to be abused by freeway noise, but the agency has other priorities, I guess.

13 years ago

One thing I’m surprised no one has mentioned is the health risk of spending so much time in an enclosed space with so many other people. I used to use the DC Metro system to commute, but after having bronchitis three times in one year, I switched to a carpool and working from home part-time. I went about 5 years without getting sick once after that switch, so for my immune system, at least, public transit just isn’t clean enough.

13 years ago

I don’t commute daily but when I have city errands I often take the bus at the same time as my kids. I almost always have to stand the whole way.

Things that I love about riding a city bus in the Maghreb – Seeing the old ladies asking teenage boys to give them their seat and being respectfully obliged. Meeting interesting people who want to practice their English on me. Hearing a random sampling of the latest ringtones.

Things that I don’t love about riding a city bus in the Maghreb. The occasional mentally ill bus rider (the language barrier makes this situation more difficult). Being squished together with strangers. Missing a paper bus ticket in a pocket when I’m doing laundry.

13 years ago

I used public transportation in San Francisco for 12 years. For seven of those years I complained about the lousy bus service because I didn’t know that buses ran on a schedule. Once a MUNI representative pointed out this valuable information, I was crazy about pub trans for the next five years until I, uh, bought a car and discovered that drivers of cars and drivers of public transportation are equally crazy, rude, moody, kind and courteous.

What Rosa wrote about feeling like a princess when the bus pulls up is lovely.

Riding on Bart, especially while it’s under the bay, hurts my ears something fierce.

The Green Cat
13 years ago

I live in NYC so I ride the subway daily. I live at the end of a line and the cars are frequently mopped out at my station. I cannot STAND the smell of whatever they use to mop the floors. It stinks of chemicals to me. Some mornings I will be lucky enough to find a car that has not been freshly mopped only to have one of the conscientious workers swab the floor quickly just before the doors close. *sigh*

13 years ago

Beth — I didn’t link through to the pdf but here are some thoughts about the smell:
“No VOC’s”– the standard commercial definition includes a defined as less than x/y caveat. And there are things that outgas and smell that aren’t volatile organic compounds (VOC’s).
Also a lot descriptions say no outgasing during application, but that doesn’t mean that under extreme conditions the product might not degrade and the degraded product somehow smell.
Most descriptions of polyurea coatings that I’ve seen say “low odor” and include a caveat about don’t apply during high humidity to limit outgassing. Do they say “no outgassing” or just “no VOC’s”
You may be sensitive to the smell.
As others have mentioned, it may be something they used to prep the surface.
And while I don’t know about this product, didn’t look at the pdf, and haven’t worked in the chemical industry for a while, I am skeptical about many claims made about no outgasing from products made by isocynate or diisonycate catalyzation. The product we made, a urethane, supposedly had no outgasing in its inert state and that turned out to be b.s.

13 years ago

There is simply no way I would trade my 22 minute commute for a 45 to more than an hour public transit ride.

I happen to live closer to the city and work farther out from the city. This puts me against rush hour (more or less) and actually makes the commute fairly problem free. If I was to work in the city, I imagine that public transit would actually be far more desirable as I live near the metro.

13 years ago

I’m a student now, getting around town by bike and long distance by train. However, I used to live west of London and commute into London by bike (to the station), train and then bike again (to my work). It was horrendous. The trains were way too small for the number of passengers (3 carriages? On an 8am commuter train? Hello, reality calling). I enjoyed the cycling part though. I can’t drive, so I had no choice, but if I’d been able to, my 1 hour 20 mins of hell would have been a 30 minute drive door-to-door. The temptation would have been huge.

13 years ago

I live in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg – a rather small country in Europe. The bus system isn’t too bad but I have to admit it is hard to justify 30 minutes on the bus including 1 change instead of 10 minutes in the car. And like Carrick, I will almost always choose the extra sleep!
In Luxembourg, company cars are the norm – not just for management but for everyone. I seriously think the government should give the tax breaks to those companies that provide transit passes instead of tax breaks for company cars. And of course, the traffic is incredible what with the size of the city doubling everyday with commuters from the neighbouring countries: France, Germany, Belgium.
I really have to work on leaving the car at home … however, whenever one wants to go out at lunch time (which is the norm here), there just isn’t enough time with the bus!

13 years ago

I love the bus. When it’s not winter (about six months of the year, here in Minnesota) I ride my bike because it’s faster, and on my schedule, and cheaper. But I miss the bus.

Something about standing on a corner (often by myself) and having the bus pull over for me just makes me feel like a princess. Especially on a cold winter day – wait outside in the dark in the -15 weather for a couple minutes and the next bus driver is like a knight in shining armor. I love the time to read or catch up on neighborhood gossip, and the way I run into people other places and know they live by me because I see them on the bus.

When I first moved here, bus passes were paper. Now they’re plastic. I switched to a rechargeable bus credit card, but I’m not sure it uses less plastic because it weighs a *lot* more than a single-use pass and I broke the first one after about a year and had to replace it.

13 years ago

i lived in LA long enough to be car-sick; now I do have a car, but I take BART. It’s quite a walk from my place but I’m really spoiled since I get to go round lake Meritt which is really beautiful. Lately I’ve been trying the carpooling; the pick up place is way closer from my home than BART, which I take on the way back. I’m not sure if it’s better or worst, I’m just saving $2.90 a day. I’ve never smelled the BART floor, sorry, maybe because I take it during crowded hours? Usually I write in the BART, I have a small book with hard cover that I don’t need to be seated to write on it.

13 years ago

I grew up in the Inland Empire of Southern California where car culture is king. I lived 4 blocks form my high school and drove everyday- cuz that’s what you did.
When I moved to san Francisco- It was a big change to use public transit and to walk- something never done in the land of LA LA. Did I have to adjust- yes. Riding SF MUNI in all forms means carving out an extra time of at least 15- 20 minutes to get anywhere. When I lived near a BART station it was a dream- BART has a better ontime record. But as I say to all my siblings still in the SoCAL area-“Can you operate your car for $45 a month?” (cost of SF transit fast pass)You just make the adjustments in your life and go with the flow. And if I need to get a car- I call Beth and she can help me out with a Zip Car. I’ve been vehicle free for 22 years now. No regrets at all.

13 years ago

As a resident of Los Angeles, my ambivalence about transit is the bane of my wanna-be-green existence. I happen to live very close to an extremely convenient bus that takes 20-30 minutes to get to work without any transfers, and I’ve been trying to get myself to take this thing for THREE MONTHS.

It’s all well and good for me to say right now, in my rational, conscious state, that I fully intend to take the bus, but right after waking up at 7:30am? Forget it. Every time, I sacrifice the bus to an extra 15 minutes of sleep. Meanwhile, I’m collecting my shower water for reuse, shopping at farmer’s markets, using handkerchiefs, while driving remains my final, relentless vice…. Although I do use it on the weekend to go to the movies, which is really convenient.

I’m thinking of taking preventative measures against this and leaving my car at work and taking the bus home, so that my ONLY OPTION in the morning is taking the bus. The threat of getting fired for being late: that’ll get me up.

I’d actually be willing to get rid of my car completely if public transportation in LA weren’t so bad. Or non-existent, I should say. And I swear I’m not being spoiled in this regard–trust me, if there were a way to save myself from having to pay upwards of 1000 a year on that bloody ton of metal and plastic, I would–but I’ve seriously looked into it and it would mean seriously altering my lifestyle. For instance, I’m a member of a couple clubs that meet all over the city, so I’d have to quit those. I’m actually considering that, but it would also have to move to a location with consideration about access to transit as well as trying out a car-free lifestyle to see if getting around town would be practical at all.

13 years ago

I ride transit! But not in the Bay Area (usually). I ride the Amtrak Capitol Corridor from Davis to Sacramento, and I love it. It is on time 95% of the time, and only 5-10 minutes late the other 5%. Plus if I miss a train for some reason (overslept or stayed in Sacramento for dinner), I can catch a later train.

I do occasionally take the Yolobus commuter, but honestly, it sucks. It’s MUCH slower, suffers from the same traffic issues that I experienced when I used to drive, tends to be cold on cold days and hot and stuffy on warm days, and is often crowded to the point that I have to stand. It’s a nice back-up option, but for my first choice Amtrak is great.

13 years ago

I don’t live in big city: there’s no train or subway.

But I use to take the buses and your statement: “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.” really get me to think.

The buses system used to be so bad ( I don’t really know for now) that I bought a car. I have only “push” on the drivers. When I think of it, maybe it was not the good people to talk about it.

Now I live within 2 miles of my work and I take my bicycle.

13 years ago

I’m not making any claims for BART’s flooring, but surely VOCs aren’t the only things that cause odor? I mean, I can smell vodka and roses, and I believe they’re both VOC-free. I did buy some white, supposedly completely VOC-free paint; it didn’t have anything like the smell of ordinary paint, but there was definitely an odor.

13 years ago

Transit here means Metro. and while I have always enjoyed riding a bus, they do not make the best schedules in the world to get places-(I know that Metro Transit here in King County is better than a lot of city/metro areas) But it would be nice if I didn’t have to plan on an hour to two hour bus ride to take the 15 minute drive to work. And then have to leave 20 minutes early to catch the last bus for home! Politcians, amongst others who decide these routes, time tables always seem to forget that there is a population st work after 5pm.

13 years ago

Washington DC METRO is heaven to me, wide cars that easily take bicycles and allow folks to move freely, three doors per car, quiet rubber-tired ride, smooth too.

Speaking of sound, years ago the Chicago El(evated) had windows that opened. You can imagine the noise level when these steel-wheeled trains went into the subway. But most amazing to me was that some riders would leave the windows open in the subway. Earplugs were a must for anyone who cared about their hearing. So I’m surprised that a system like BART would be loud.

As for the plastic – it’s light and durable, cheap to make and easy to replace. If we forget about the environment, it’s a miracle substance. Chicago’s trains are largely plastic too, but no smells that I’ve noticed.

13 years ago

In Chicago we have a bus tracking system that runs with GPS. Not all the buses are on it just yet, but all the ones I use are and I’m told that all of them should be on the tracker in the near future.

Perhaps something to consider lobbying for in places with less reliable transit routes? At least you’ll know that you have an hour to wait for three buses, right?

Anarres Natural Health
13 years ago

What adhesive might they add to the coating?
Is there an undercoat of something easting away ant something nasty?

Does the coating itself eat through the floor?

As a former property manager, the only no VOC flooring I knew of and ADORED was marmoleum – made from recycled stuff, beautiful patterns, washes up with water, glues on with a brown odourless paste. WICKED!!!

Everything else stinks. Except for maybe vinyl composite tile.

Carpet is NASTY!!!

13 years ago

I ride the Boston transit system all the time. I live in a suburb and have to drive to a station due to the train times/my work schedule I can’t get the train closest to me.
I am glad that your system doesn’t seem to have the delays that ours does. We have a commuter train and we have the subway and I have to ride both. The subway gets backed up and delayed all the time, but the trains run close enough together during rush hour that I don’t have a problem. The commuter trains, on the other hand are awful. Especially in the winter. There is much i could complain about (the schedule, refund process, rude conductors, etc), but i deal with it a) because driving in traffic makes me nervous b)my car insurance rates went down because I don’t drive to work and c) because it really is the environmentally conscious thing to do. It isn’t perfect from a “green” standpoint but it is better than driving my car to and from work every day

13 years ago

Oh yes… I ride the DC Metro from time to time, and we have terrific smelly orange carpet on many of the cars. I think in our area the biggest challenge is trying to expand metro further into the suburbs… there are just so many opponents.

Sounds like our bus systems, though, have all the same issues here…

13 years ago

I ride BART occasionally to get into the city (I live in Berkeley) and am always very happy with the convenience over buses as I don’t have a car. The transbay buses take at least twice as long. For travel in Berkeley, I mostly rely on the AC transit buses, which vary a LOT in reliability. Some lines are very reliable (i.e. I can count on them to arrive in a general 5 minute window), while for other lines the schedules don’t seem to have any influence on when the buses arrive. My biggest issue with the buses are the drivers. While some are fine, others are extremely rude. I have had drivers pass me by at bus stops before, for no apparent reason (i.e. the bus was not full)! This needs to be fixed. :( But, overall, the buses are pretty good and I’m happy that I don’t need to own a car.