Fast-Tracking Equity in the Northern California Megaregion

With a massive upgrade to the Bay Area's rail network in the planning phase, BART is prioritizing equity and inclusion to create a system that serves every community.

By Sadie Graham, Acting Director of Link21 | San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District

The 12 million people who live in the 21-county megaregion surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area are poised for transformative passenger rail travel as planners map out the ambitious new Link21 Program. Introduced by the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA), Link21 will revolutionize how BART and regional passenger rail systems connect, make travel easier and more efficient, improve access to jobs and affordable housing and reduce environmental impact.

A critical goal of Link21 is to ensure that the transformed system serves the needs of everyone in all communities. When BART was launched 50 years ago, its primary focus was on commuting efficiency in and out of San Francisco’s financial district. Today, as we collectively envision BART’s next 50 years, we are putting transportation equity at the forefront of the planning process by engaging a range of stakeholders on how to better serve a diverse and ever-growing population.

Some of our key strategies for making good on that commitment include:

  1. Co-creating to understand the needs of priority populations and how best to meet them

Defining equity and what it means for Link21 is a key component of the program. We are facilitating a robust community collaboration and outreach program to ensure all voices have a chance to be heard. As planners, we realize it is important to ensure everyone is part of the conversation including our most impacted communities. The Link21 approach to equity is working to engage diverse stakeholders so we identify the critical elements.

Within the Link21 context, we are calling these communities our priority populations and are partnering with them to define who should be prioritized by the program. The program involves 21 distinct counties, and local or regional agencies have various ways of assessing communities’ needs. Our team initially defined priority populations by conducting a GIS, census-based analysis of impacted communities. But we’re digging deeper into this data and other equity questions by conducting regular co-creation workshops with community-based organizations (CBOs) and their constituents across the megaregion. Co-creation brings different perspectives to the table to generate ideas and solutions. Co-creation goes beyond traditional community engagement designed to inform the public by collaborating directly with community members to co-design the project itself. We see this proactive engagement with CBOs as the beginning of an ongoing dialogue that keeps us attuned to community needs as the project advances and continues to rebuild trust with impacted communities.

  1. Building alignment with regional transit agencies through data-driven dialogue

Our team is looking at the Northern California passenger rail network as a whole. We are analyzing service needs and opportunities across a geography served by multiple agencies. There is a shared appetite for a more integrated transit network that might include a unified payment system and coordinated schedules. But each agency has its own initiatives, including some with rail projects underway or planned. With that in mind, we must work collaboratively to benefit these agencies and the communities they serve. To this end, we are conducting an extensive market analysis to identify unmet transit needs or where people could be better serviced by rail. We’re looking across different populations to identify and address potentially competing needs. Taking it a step further, we hope to understand how people want to travel, not just for their jobs but to attend college, meet their daily needs, visit family and friends, or explore the region.

Having the right data and analysis in place enables us to have focused and nuanced conversations with transit leaders about how people are currently traveling within the region across all available modes, and how those travel patterns may change in the future. Establishing relationships with our partners early will benefit everyone when we begin to identify rail station locations and work through related land use and displacement risks. Our business case framework also aims to provide rich information for stakeholders to make informed decisions and clearly understand the benefits and the burdens of those decisions.

  1. Balancing the pursuit of the long-term vision with the need to take short-term actions

The BART team has been engaged in Link21 planning for two years now, and we anticipate that it will take until 2028 to identify the program alternatives and advance the project(s) through environmental review(s), and depending on funding, into the project delivery phase. With this kind of timetable our program needs to highlight the ways BART is acting on the district’s equity commitment – right now, every day.

For example, BART recently partnered with several CBOs to address women’s safety concerns when using the BART system. Specifically, BART worked with the CBOs to engage local girls and gender-expansive youth to learn more about their personal experiences on the system. We drew upon those testimonies to create BART’s first sexual harassment prevention campaign: Not One More Girl. This multifaceted campaign, which launched in April, is designed to raise awareness of this pressing issue and to educate bystanders on how to take appropriate action when they see situations that make them uncomfortable. This important, grassroots-driven initiative shows how BART cares and is taking action about the safety and wellbeing of these young people who are poised to be our next generation of riders and advocates. The Link21 Program will work with BART to advance similar efforts in response to what we hear from other priority populations about their near-term needs, while keeping an eye on our long-term vision.

  1. Working to address inequities that expand beyond the bounds of our system

The lack of affordable housing and growing homelessness rates are major issues across the Bay Area. Homelessness represents one of BART’s biggest opportunities to respond to inequities that originate outside of our immediate jurisdiction. Unhoused people often turn to our facilities as warm and relatively secure places to be, versus being on the streets. BART, in partnership with local counties, has done exceptional work to bring resources to these individuals, whether bathroom facilities or access to community-based support. BART has supplemented the system’s police units with BART Ambassadors, who interact with and support the needs of the unhoused population, recognizing them as individuals in need of resources, instead of criminals or nuisances.

We cannot solve the homelessness issue by ourselves, but we are committed to doing our part to respond to this complex social problem that crosses the invisible boundaries of jurisdictional control. A major contributing factor to homelessness is the lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area. As the Link21 Program becomes more defined, we will work with our jurisdictional partners and local communities to prevent displacement, limit negative impacts to existing communities and ensure any transit-oriented development provides affordable housing.

One final point: although we have created a preliminary framework for pursuing equity in our work, we must remain flexible and responsive to community needs and priorities over the coming years. Having a framework that is somewhere between “set in stone” and “dry-erase board” will let us keep our minds open as we ask, analyze and iterate to learn more about our community’s needs – and to build the quality system they deserve.


Sadie Graham is Acting Director of BART’s Link21 program, which encompasses numerous large-scale rail infrastructure projects – including a new trans-bay rail crossing – that aim to improve transit service, access and efficiency across the Northern California Megaregion. Prior to this role, she led a number of planning projects for BART, including a pilot program to enhance passenger safety, development of a district-wide sustainability action plan, and station modernization. Earlier in her career, she was an urban designer for The Planning Center | DC&E. Ms. Graham holds a bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College, as well as two master’s degrees from the University of California, Berkeley: one in Landscape Architecture, and the other in City and Regional Planning, Urban Design.