How San Francisco Commuters Consume Media on Their Way to Work on BART

Sunrise BART

This morning I decided to conduct a very unscientific survey of BART riders from Oakland to San Francisco to see how they consume media on their morning commute. I boarded my usual 9 car BART train at MacArthur BART station in Oakland and exited at Embarcadero Station in San Francisco. During my commute I started at the back of the train and walked through about six full cars of the train and documented what each passenger was doing on the train.

I wanted to do this survey to get a rough idea of how much old media vs. new media was being consumed on my morning commute.

All in I surveyed 239 passengers in six cars. Most all of the passengers were sitting down in seats.

Below is a breakdown on how these 239 passengers were spending their time on BART this morning.

Doing Nothing 112 = 47%
Reading a newspaper 31 = 13%
Reading a book 31 = 13%
Using a mobile device 30 = 12%
Other 16 = 7%
Reading a Magazine 12 = 5%
Using a laptop computer 4 = 2%
Using a Kindle 2 = 1%

Personally I was surprised that so many of the people on BART were simply doing nothing (this included sleeping as well). In the other category was just random stuff generally not associated with consuming media. This included people doing paperwork, a few women putting on makeup, and one woman knitting. I suspect you’d find less people sleeping on an evening train home than in the morning train on the way to work.

I was also surprised at how few people were using laptops. I use a laptop almost every single day on the commute to process photos if I can get a seat. I was also surprised to only see 2 passengers using Kindles, given all of the hype that seems to be built around that device. In total, in fact, only 15% of passengers were using “new media” devices. This makes me think that old media publishing may in fact have a longer lifespan left than we’ve given them.

It should be noted that although a paid wifi service has been announced for BART, at present it is not in operation. In general I’m able to get an AT&T signal on my own iPhone on this commute about a third of the time while the commute is above ground. When the commute is in the tunnels below Oakland and below the San Francisco Bay there is no signal. I suspect new media devices could possibly go up if/when wifi is introduced. Then again, as it stands now, BARTs wifi plan seems really expensive and this may prohibit use.

One of the 30 people using a mobile device in my numbers was me as I was using my iPhone to tabulate what people were doing as I walked through the train.

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  1. Carlos Guerrera says:

    Did you mean to say “exited at Embarcadero” instead of excited?

  2. Cory O'Brien says:

    I read through my RSS feeds on my iPhone on BART, but I’m always surprised by how I seem to be in the minority, and how many people either consume old media, or do nothing. In my informal ‘looking around during the commute’ poll, I’d say that your numbers are pretty spot on, and about what I see on an average day. I guess even in San Fran we’ve got a long way to go till tech takes over the world.

  3. I have a feeling your numbers will rise exponentially if you take the BART from Fremont to San Francisco. The number of mobile device and laptop users on a morning trip seem pretty high to me.

  4. Thomas Hawk says:

    Good point Carlos! Haha, I corrected that. Although sometimes I am excited to be getting off at Embarcadero if it’s a crowded train.

    Lionel, yes, different commute lines could be quite different in composition. This commute line was the Pittsburg/Baypoint line so most of the passengers were coming from Contra Costa County (Orinda, Lafayette, Walnut Creek, etc.) in addition to Oakland (Rockridge, MacArthur, downtown Oakland, etc.).

  5. I suspect that once the Wi-Fi system starts to be turned on, especially because it will be free and discounted in various places before the system is complete, people who otherwise would have done nothing will wind up doing something. (Although I have seen studies that show the average adult American sleeps under 5 hours a night, which is horrifying, and means that a lot of people *should be sleeping on BART*.)

    Apple’s recent release of iPod touch sales numbers also show that with Wi-Fi in place, there’s a large audience of folks without smartphones but with Wi-Fi devices that they could make use of.

  6. TVHarmony says:

    Just eyeballing it, that seems about the same as coming up the peninsula side going into SF on BART. The only difference I see, which may very well be in your definition of “consuming media”, is the number of people wearing headphones listening to an MP3 player or radio, which I would judge to be higher if they are considered “Using a mobile device”.

    It seems like there is a cultural shift where people wear headphones in public spaces as a “talking stranger avoidance” mechanism as opposed to simply “rocking out”, so perhaps that shouldn’t be counted anyways.

  7. Thomas Hawk says:

    TVHarmony, yes, a lot of people, in fact most, who were using a mobile device had headphones on. Some people had headphones on but were sleeping or not looking at their mobile device and I counted them as doing nothing, so certainly listening to things might be slightly higher.

    Personally I go back and forth about wearing headphones. A lot of times I just want to be by myself and shoot and not interact with people and I wear them. They are just that, a personal interaction avoidance system. i also really love music.

    On the other hand, I’ve been wearing headphones much less when I shoot lately. Part of it is I’ll be shooting in some higher crime areas and I want to have more control over my senses and not appear as a target and also I genuinely seem to want to interact with strangers more these days. Especially since starting my $2 portrait project I’m much more interested in actually engaging people that exist in the spaces that I’m shooting when appropriate.

  8. […] photographer Thomas Hawk made a very interesting post on his website today, reporting his “unscientific survey” of what commuters were doing on his 9 a.m. BART […]

  9. John Wright says:

    I think it would be interesting if you repeated your survey on some regular basis, say quarterly, and see how the numbers change over time. It would also be interesting to see if the introduction of wifi service really changes the numbers. I wouldn’t expect it to make much difference if it isn’t free.

  10. […] Thomas Hawk hat in der U-Bahn von San Francisco (BART) Pendler (nicht repräsentativ) beobachtet und wurde überrascht: Zeitungen und ganz normale Bücher haben immer noch einen hohen Stellenwert, selbst im Herzen des Silicon Valley. Immerhin 31 % der Pendler lasen auf Papier, gegenüber nur 15 %, die elektronische Medien nutzten. […]

  11. […] Thomas Hawk hat in der U-Bahn von San Francisco (BART) Pendler (nicht repräsentativ) beobachtet und wurde überrascht: Zeitungen und ganz normale Bücher haben immer noch einen hohen Stellenwert, selbst im Herzen des Silicon Valley. Immerhin 31 % der Pendler lasen auf Papier, gegenüber nur 15 %, die elektronische Medien nutzten. […]