San Francisco BART strike snarls traffic, drains $73 million a day

As the San Francisco transit strike goes into its second day, BART says it's restarting talks with unions. In the face of delays and economic costs to the Bay Area, one industry is prospering because of the BART strike: ride-share companies. 

Robert Galbraith/Reuters
A protester is surrounded by signs in front of a bus as striking Oakland city workers and 2,400 employees of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) commuter rail system go on strike in Oakland, Calif., on July 1, 2013. Commuter rail workers went on strike on Monday in the San Francisco area for the first time in more than 15 years, triggering gridlock on highways and problems for thousands trying to get to work.

The San Francisco transit strike that has stranded 400,000 commuters, snarled traffic, and all but crippled remaining public transport systems this week is costing the Bay Area at least $73 million a day in lost worker productivity, economists say.

It all started on Monday, when talks broke down and more than 2,000 workers representing two of the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s (BART) largest unions went on strike. The train operators, station workers, and mechanics – who service America's fifth-largest rail system – are demanding a 5 percent annual raise for each of the next three years, arguing that management has failed to meet their demands on health care, safety, and pensions.

Despite BART providing additional ferries and buses to try to blunt the strike's impact, workers say that traffic has choked roads and ground Bay Area commutes to a halt. Commutes were three times as long as usual on Monday. With some workers having given up getting to work altogether, the Bay Area Council Economic Institute estimates that $73 million is a “conservative” estimate of the strike’s economic impact.

The Bay Area is “reel[ing] from the loss of its most critical mass transit system,” the institute said in a statement Monday. “There is an additional hit to economic activity that we know is happening but which we can’t easily quantify … which could add tens of millions of dollars to the total.”

One glimmer of hope came Tuesday when BART management said it would meet with union officials and mediators to restart talks later in the day.

While BART unions say they sympathize with those who have been inconvenienced by the strike, they insist that they must press on.

“Our members aren’t interested in disrupting the Bay Area, but management has put us in a position where we have no choice,” Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, told the AP.

Amid the transit system’s shutdown, however, at least a handful of technology-driven rideshare startups have been thriving.

Just hours after the strike began, Avego, the creator of an app that allows iPhone and Android users to find carpoolers, launched a massive campaign – complete with a “BARTSTRIKE” website, 10,000 handout cards, and TV appearances – encouraging commuters to download its app.

The cherry on top: Each day, the company said, it will fly three Avego users to work by helicopter.

As the strike continued, other ride-share start-ups began receiving attention from stranded commuters. Uber Technologies Inc., a venture-funded start-up that lets passengers reserve luxury rides through a mobile app, saw up to 50 percent more cars in use on Monday than it did a week earlier, Bloomberg Businessweek reported.

Even more traditional transportation companies have had a particularly good week. Intelligent Transportation, which provides companies corporate buses, shuttles, and limousines for $800 a day, gave about 30 companies’ employees rides to work on Monday, Bloomberg reported.

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