Following the Moscow subway bombing last week, BART was on high alert. Police patrolled the system with bomb-sniffing German shepherd dogs, and some bathrooms were closed to the public. Of course, the bathroom closures were nothing new. BART first put its toilets off-limits following the 9/11 attacks. Nearly a decade later, the public still can't use the bathrooms at BART's busiest underground stations. Why?
"They are still closed because there are still terrorists trying to kill people," spokesman Linton Johnson wrote in an e-mail. It's not a "cost-saving measure," he wrote — it's a "life-saving measure."
BART board member Tom Radulovich doesn't buy it. He says that frustration about the closed bathrooms is the single most frequent complaint he hears from passengers. "I suspect, as most of the customers do, that they just don't want to keep those bathrooms clean," he says. "It's been a way, in essence, of cost-cutting and blaming it on Osama [bin Laden]."
As long as San Francisco is on a terrorism alert level of yellow or higher, the bathrooms at the downtown BART stations, as well as those at 16th Street and 24th Street, will stay closed, Radulovich says.
"It's ridiculous," says Nolan Mecham, a frequent rider and San Francisco resident. "People need a place to pee." Fremont resident Cesar Blanco was unconvinced that toilets would be a target, rather than a train full of passengers. "It's the last place they would put a bomb," he says. "They're not that dumb."
The deadliest mass transit attacks in recent years — in Madrid, London, and now Moscow — involved bombs on trains or buses, not bombs left in stations. Terrorists did leave hydrogen cyanide bombs in bathrooms in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, though they never went off.
While there's nothing to stop a suicide bomber from walking onto a BART train with a backpack full of explosives, transportation security experts say that having public bathrooms in underground stations adds another level of risk. Frannie Edwards and Dan Goodrich from the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University say a terrorist could leave a bomb in a toilet stall and walk out, or use the bathroom to ready an explosive device before getting on a train.
"Having a bathroom in a mass-transit station is a relatively new amenity," Edwards says. "While it's certainly a positive development from a rider's perspective, the amenity can't be allowed to turn into a threat."
If the risk of terrorism is too serious for all of BART's bathrooms to reopen, Radulovich says, the city needs to make sure there are public toilets available directly outside each station, and staff should give passengers free tokens on request.
"Currently, we encourage passengers to go to the bathroom before they arrive at BART," Johnson wrote. "Or they can ride the train from San Francisco to the West Oakland station and use the restroom there."
That's right, BART passengers: It's a matter of national security. Just stay on yellow alert.