Despite having a sophisticated, multibillion-dollar transportation network, the Bay Area has surprisingly few options when part of its most choked commute corridor is suddenly shut down as it was Thursday.
"We just have to be frank and honest with folks: We do not have the kind of capacity lying around to recover from BART not being available on short notice," said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area transportation planning agency. "We just don't."
With 460,000 travelers driving across the Bay Bridge and riding through BART's transbay tube every day, figuring out what to do in an emergency shutdown remains a major dilemma two decades after the Loma Prieta earthquake closed the bridge.
The focus has been primarily on safety, highlighted by a $6.3 billion replacement span to improve the bridge's seismic stability. Should an earthquake, terrorist attack or other calamity knock out transportation between San Francisco and the East Bay, ferries are dedicated to shuttling emergency workers -- not commuters -- across the Bay.
But what about the scenarios that don't pose a safety threat but still leave commuters fuming? There's no definitive plan.
On Thursday, hours after an early-morning fire damaged BART lines in West Oakland, BART and AC Transit scrambled to reroute service at 5 a.m.
They added more than 30 extra buses and three additional ferries, most free to riders.
Rentschler said officials could have allowed buses to drive on the freeway shoulder and bypass the standstill on the Bay Bridge approach and other backups, but decided they would only do that if BART was shut down systemwide.
Despite the efforts to unclog the commute, traffic was simply grueling. The worst backup usually lasts an hour or so on the Bay Bridge; instead, it lasted a whopping nine hours. Traffic on the San Mateo Bridge increased up to 80 percent.
BART General Manager Grace Crunican said she and other transit officials in the Bay Area would discuss Thursday's service disruption to determine if their efforts could be improved.
Around the United States, the strategy to combat sudden, massive congestion is to build in what transportation planners call "redundancies," or multiple routes that go to the same place. New York City, for example, has more than a dozen points to cross the rivers into Manhattan through bridges and subways.
"There is usually more than one option for folks" when one bridge or subway is shut down, said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the MTA in New York. This helps spread out traffic during emergencies, he says.
That approach is followed in some parts of the Bay Area. In coming years, during rare crashes that shut down Highway 101 between San Francisco and San Jose, officials intend to basically turn adjacent El Camino Real into a highway by keeping traffic signals green most of the time.
Neither of those options is feasible with the transbay commute, however -- a new bridge or train tube is out of the question -- so the next best idea is to chip around the edges of the problem. The Bay Area's main strategy is to use communication in hopes that people avoid the madness altogether as they often do during highly publicized, planned bridge shutdowns. That strategy worked last year during a freeway shutdown in Los Angeles, avoiding what many billed as Carmageddon.
Transit riders say more can be done during emergencies, with faster and more direct real-time alerts to all commuters through text messages, phone calls and emails.
"We're living in information technology central; we need to be able to do much better to alert people just like airlines make it easy," said Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, a Bay Area transit advocacy nonprofit. "Most people's plans are more flexible than they think."
Cohen posed the idea of using cones to dedicate one lane on the bridge for buses only during BART closures, since they can carry so many more people.
Still, those options are far from a magic potion.
"They don't begin to cover the loss," said Berkeley professor Robert Cervero, director of the UC Transportation Center. "These are such huge carriers, there is nothing (more) we can do to compensate for that lost capacity within a crisis."
Staff writer Denis Cuff contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenberg17.