This bus is not in service: the shrinking routes of AC Transit

Photo by Casey Miner

We’re going to take you on a bus ride now... if it ever comes, that is.

For the past week some AC Transit buses have been taking longer than usual to show up. Much longer. More than 200 drivers have called in sick every day for over a week. They’re protesting a new contract the bus agency imposed on their union. As a result, some passengers waited more than an hour for their buses, even on the busiest lines. Yesterday, twelve transbay runs were canceled altogether, leaving evening commuters scrambling for a way to get home.

So this last week has been bad, but things have been getting worse for AC Transit passengers for months. In March, the agency cut about eight percent of its service – shortening hours, switching and combining some lines, and cutting some routes altogether. They’re doing it to save money, but the budget situation hasn’t gotten any better, so they’re making another round of cuts next month.

So what happens when a bus line disappears? KALW’s Casey Miner followed a dead line to find out.

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CASEY MINER: The roads that run through the Oakland Army Base are wide. They’re hot, and dusty – just a few trees here and there. The Army’s not here anymore. The land belongs to the city and the Port of Oakland. Eventually the area might be developed, but right now it’s the territory of a whole lot of trucks, spewing exhaust.  No one really walks up and down the sidewalk. A handful of people are clustered around a few taco trucks parked along the road. It’s the kind of place you don’t really feel like you should be walking.

BILL ABOUDI: If you walk out here you’ve gotta be very careful.

Bill Aboudi runs a trucking company on the base.

ABOUDI: There’s a lot of big trucks that are going up and down the street with containers. It’s not maintained very well, just because there’s nobody here. They don’t expect a lot of people to walk on sidewalks.

Most of Aboudi’s employees have cars, but several don’t. Until a few months ago, they could take AC Transit’s number 13 bus to get to work. It was the only line that ran all the way through the base. But in late March, AC Transit eliminated the 13, to cut costs. Some parts of the line were replaced by other buses. But the stretch that goes out through the Port is just gone.

ABOUDI: It was replaced by the NL line. Which is a more frequent bus line, but it only goes through West Grand onto the Bay Bridge. So they do a pit stop on the corner of West Grand and Maritime; they drop people off.

MINER: What’s the difference between that drop-off point and where people used to get dropped off?

ABOUDI: Well, it’s not close to anything. The large majority of seasonal workers that work just before Christmas and peak seasons, they actually work in the center of the port near 7th and Maritime. It’s probably about a mile-and-a-half walk.

That’s a mile and a half on some of the least pedestrian-friendly streets in Oakland, often at unusual hours. Aboudi says in that sense, the service wasn’t so great to begin with.

ABOUDI: This type of operation that is run out here, transportation, things run 24 hours a day. They need to start early, they need to leave late, you know, real flexible hours. It’s not like an 8 to 5 where you can follow the commute, where the buses are tailored for you and things like that. It’s difficult out here to begin with, and when you take services away it gets a little bit more difficult.

One person things have gotten harder for is Ron Dacus, a trucker who works at Aboudi’s company. He used to take the 13 bus a lot, and he definitely noticed when it disappeared.

RON DACUS: There was not a consistent public transit means to get to work. I’d have to catch it at a certain point and walk the rest of the way. Some days I walk all the way from 45th all the way down here. It’s about three miles. The good thing is I lost about 20 pounds doing all that walking. [laughs] But on days when the weather is, you know, not that good, it would be nicer to have a bus than having to deal with the rain.

CLARENCE JOHNSON: The thing about urban bus service is that people who ride it typically need to ride it.

Clarence Johnson is the spokesman for AC Transit.

JOHNSON: And that’s the good news and the bad news in a sense, because you really don’t want to alter service for people who truly need it if you don’t have to.

But Johnson says AC Transit has to. Like many public transit agencies around the state, AC Transit took a huge hit from the financial crisis. Property tax revenues, which make up 30 percent of the agency’s budget, are way down. So are sales tax revenues, which make up another 30 percent. 

JOHNSON: The idea was to make compassionate cuts so that the least amount of pain as possible could be felt. This was all done with the mind that we at this point have reached kind of our bare bones, in that we really can’t cut much further and still have a really viable service.

Here’s the thing about disappearing buses. It’s not like the local economy collapses, or the city falls apart. Things just get a little harder for people. They take a little longer, they’re a little more tiring, a little more stressful. It’s hard to see these changes happening. You can’t watch for a bus that never goes by, and you can’t see the people who aren’t going where they used to go. But there are some people who do notice the differences: the drivers.

SHANTEL YOUNG: We had a very good understanding, a very good relationship.

Shantel Young used to drive the 18, the bus that runs from the hills in Montclair all the way down to Solano Avenue in Albany. She knew her passengers, and she says that made the ride better for everyone.

YOUNG: I knew which ones wanted the bus, which ones didn’t want the bus who were standing at the lines. Who needed a lift, when I saw them I immediately set my bus up for that. It’s nice to have passengers that you’re comfortable with, that’s comfortable with you. It makes it a better situation.

Young told me that because of all the changes she hardly ever drives the 18 anymore, so she doesn’t see those passengers. But she can imagine what it’s like for them: they have to walk further, wait longer, take a more crowded bus.

YOUNG: They’re being hurt all the way around the board with the changes of routes, the changes of the drivers, and right now with the service delays. It’s the passengers.

AC Transit is still in really bad shape financially. Next month, they’re going to make another round of cuts. Buses are going to come less frequently, and they’re not going to run for as many hours. And depending on how the labor dispute shakes out, there may be even more cuts down the road. Last month, the AC Transit board resolved not to make more cuts until 2012, but now they say if they can’t reduce labor costs they might have to go back on that promise. Again, AC Transit’s Clarence Johnson.

JOHNSON: We are a public agency. This is not “AC Private Company” trying to survive. So it’s a public issue. The public needs to understand what our funding dilemmas are, the public needs to, I think, demand that they have transit service. The way you do that is go to lawmakers, go to the state capitol, go to various other legislators and demand that public transit, again, not just AC Transit, but that public transit be funded because it is a lifeline, it is a necessity for so very many people.

In other words, if people want really good bus service, they’re going to have to ask for it.

In Oakland, I’m Casey Miner for Crosscurrents.