The East Bay’s most dangerous mile

The AC Transit bus line 376 through Richmond is one of the most dangerous in the East Bay. Flickr photo by juicyrai.

Whether you’re going to the library or the laundromat, in Richmond, a lot of people get around using AC Transit. The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District is the third-largest public bus system in California.

And as any public transportation system, its mission is to provide safe and reliable transit to its riders. Usually safety concerns revolve around traffic laws and dodging pedestrians. But on one bus in Richmond, passengers and bus drivers are dodging bullets and acts of violence.

AC Transit’s line 376 runs through a dangerous stretch of North Richmond, and so far this year, it has experienced at least five violent incidents, including shot-out windows and assaulted passengers. Things got so bad that in late February, Contra Costa sheriff’s deputies started shadowing the bus, escorting it once it enters North Richmond until it leaves that neighborhood. It’s only about a mile stretch. For a while the deputies were following the bus every day; now, it’s only when they can spare an officer. So most of the time, drivers are on their own.

KALW’s Casey Miner took a ride on a recent Friday night to find out what its like to drive this line.

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UNIDENTIFIED PASSENGER: Is this the 76, going up Cutting?

BILL MOHAMMED: No, this is the 376…

Mostly it’s what you see right now, people coming home from a long day and whatnot. During the late hours it kind of slows down, you don’t get too many people, most of the people you get is people going to work late night, or people get up in the wee hours to go to work.

CASEY MINER: Bill Mohammed’s just started his shift driving the 376 bus through Richmond.  It’s a little after 9pm, and he’s only got a few passengers. The 376 only runs at night, from about 8:30pm to 3:30am in the morning. It starts at the Richmond BART and loops around the city, stopping every half hour.

Sometimes, when it gets to 7th and Pennsylvania Streets, a cruiser from the Contra Costa Sheriff’s department starts to follow it. When it reaches Market and Rumrill, about a mile later, the cruiser departs.

MOHAMMED: For the most part it’s quiet. But the most action you’ll see is in North Richmond. It can get rough – that’s the word I’d use, is rough. 

North Richmond isn’t technically part of the city of Richmond – it’s an unincorporated part of Contra Costa County, only about a mile square. North Richmond has a bad reputation – in 2009, its homicide rate was five times the city of Richmond’s, even though only a few thousand people live in the neighborhood. But while the city’s crime rate has actually gone down over the past year, the bus line has seen more violence: of six assaults reported on Contra Costa buses so far this year, three have been on the 376. Overall, the bus line accounts for a fifth of all incidents reported in the county this year. Since he started driving the 376 last year, Bill Mohammed says he’s seen a few bad things happen.

MOHAMMED: I was going through one night, during the summer, it was just kids with nothing to do. Kids on the corner, next thing you knew they just took off. I looked back, just happened to notice a few of my windows were smashed out.

Mohammed says this kind of thing doesn’t bother him much.

MOHAMMED: I think it’s just part of the job from time to time. You gotta put up with that.

But other drivers are more worried. JB Bryant is driving another bus on the line tonight. He’s only been on this route a few months, and he’s not happy about it.

JB BRYANT: I don’t like it. And I feel that this route right here puts the drivers in serious jeopardy of their lives or whatever. To drive through a war zone like this place is, they shouldn’t even have no buses going there. It’s like we’re expendable.

Riding the bus tonight, it’s hard to imagine anything bad happening. The city streets are almost deserted, and only a few people get on and off the bus. They’re quiet. But just a few days before, Bryant drove by an area covered with police tape – there’d just been a shooting, the neighborhood’s third in three days.

BRYANT: Me, I wish they’d take and reroute it. I hope it doesn’t take for a driver to get shot or get killed before they take it out of here. That’s me, that’s the way I think. I realize people have to get to they destination or whatever, but it’s not, not worth the driver’s life, maybe having being maimed for the rest of their life, not worth it.

AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson says there’s no way for the bus agency to avoid confronting those kinds of issues.

CLARENCE JOHNSON: The bus is not the problem, the bus is not per se targeted for violence. There are some issues in the community that need to be addressed.

Last summer, AC Transit’s board of directors discussed what might happen if they cut the line, after drivers said they were worried about their safety. But residents protested, and Johnson says there are no plans to stop service: the line will stay open as long as it’s safe. Still he says, the agency will continue to keep a close eye on it.

JOHNSON: It would be nice if all we had to do was drive the bus, but things have changed. So now we have to have other concerns as well.

Johnson says the agency would like to start talks with local officials and nonprofits about strategies to stabilize the area, but nothing’s happened yet. In the meantime, all the buses on the 376 line are having cameras installed, and AC Transit supervisors are shadowing them – when they can.

In Richmond, I’m Casey Miner for Crosscurrents.

Do you ride the 376? Tell us what it’s like at 415-264-7106, or on our Facebook page.