Infinite Wishes 🏳️‍⚧️🚀

Is a weblog by Emma Humphries

24 Jul 2023 » Tunnel Vision: A BART documentary

A still from 'Tunnel Vision' showing the view from the front of a BART train traversing the transbay tube; an inset at the lower right shows the portion of the BART system map the train is on: between Embarcadero and West Oakland stations.
Credit: Vincent Woo

BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, carries hundreds of thousands of people within and between the cities of the sprawling region: from San José to Richmond, SFO to far eastern Contra Costa County, and the City into Pleasanton and Dublin.

Vincent Woo’s gorgeous documentary, shot on GoPro cameras attached to the front of BART trains traveling from SFO to Pittsburg in eastern Contra Costa County, gives us a view of the transit system’s infrastructure most of us don’t see when we ride it.

Despite going guerilla and attaching the cameras without BART’s permission, Woo must have made his case for making the movie as it features interviews with former BART leadership, a train operator, transit advocate and California State Senator Scott Weiner, and the text-to-speech software which makes announcements on the train and at the stations.

We never see the interviewees. The film is a series of long cuts filmed from the front of the train edited together, with a schematic of where the yellow line train is on its journey. There’s also breathing room between the interviews where the view and the ambient soundtrack have no trouble carrying the film along.

Besides showing off the system from a train operator’s point of view, Woo captures the uniqueness of the system: the first major US public transit project in the 20th century and one brought into being after the post-war destruction of private transit systems in favor of Federal and state subsidized highways and freeways for autos. BART was intended to influence how the Bay Area developed (the opposition to which is why it never went to the North Bay and Marin County, and only reached SFO and San José in the 21st Century.)

BARTs existence is precarious, more dependent than other transit systems on fare revenue instead of public support, and in danger again as the white collar professional ridership switched to remote work and took away a large part of the core ridership. But if BART’s funding collapses it will hurt working class people and others who still have to travel to their jobs. And traffic on our freeways and bridges will become even worse. State Senator Weiner, in his comments, makes it clear that BART is essential and a better funding model is needed.

Despite the shade of precarity running through the movie, this is a celebration of transit, a gorgeous travelog through the bay, and a lot of history.

One thing I believe was missing from the documentary was how BART didn’t do right by West Oakland and how the combination of the elevated section between downtown Oakland and just before the Transbay Tube, alongside the Cypress Freeway (which collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake) and the massive USPS distribution center changed the predominantly Black and immigrant community there. My wife Cynthia’s grandfather had a bar on 7th Street, a neighborhood which used to rival Harlem for music and other culture, now both the bar and the nightlife are gone.

Now that I live in Oakland, instead of Silicon Valley, I take BART (as well as AC Transit and SF Muni) frequently. I love that I can walk a few short blocks, and board a train that’ll take me to the City, two airports, and across at least a dozen microclimates. Despite the glitches, I love BART. If public transit is part of your everyday life, you’ll get this movie. If not, I hope it gives you an appreciation for what we have in the Bay Area.

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