Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




October 2 , 2008

Every once in a while, you happen on an experience that serves to put in perspective a complicated situation. I cover AC Transit from time to time as a journalist, but this one came to me as a bus rider.

Early afternoon on a weekday, I caught the 1R going east at the 14th and Broadway stop. The driver was rushing the passengers on, saying, more than once, that he was behind on schedule, and that the next 1R was coming up immediately. And in fact, during the trip down International, the bus I was on and the bus coming afterwards made virtually each stop one behind the other.

Just past Hegenberger, the 1R that was behind ours—presumably the one that was running on schedule—pulled ahead, passing the stop at 82nd Avenue, where a number of passengers were waiting. I am assuming that the bus driver on the 1R now in front had no passengers to let out at 82nd, and presumed that the waiting passengers would be picked up by the bus I was on, which was supposed to be the lead bus, by the schedule, but was now behind.

But that’s not what happened.

I was getting off at 82nd, along with a couple of other passengers. The driver didn’t stop directly at the bus stop but continued to the corner of 82nd and International, several feet away, letting us out there. The passengers waiting to get on the bus began hurrying up the street to the bus, many of them shouting and waving transfers in the air, but before they could reach it, the driver shut the door and pulled away, leaving them short, standing at the empty corner looking at the taillights of the bus and wondering what had happened. The 82nd Avenue stop is directly in front of one of Allen Temple’s senior citizen homes, and so several of the stranded passengers were elderly.

The incident doesn’t quite square at all with the recent barrage of AC Transit television ads that have been running in recent weeks, featuring smiling drivers beckoning us to stop driving and leave the hassle to the professionals, and smiling passengers in the midst of their AC Transit rides. Neither the bus driver nor the passengers at 82nd Avenue were smiling. But then advertising is not supposed to reflect reality, its purpose is to alter our perception to reality, a sort of a “Matrix” fitted over the real world.

It would be easy to chalk the 82nd Avenue incident up to an asshole driver—some of the left-behind passengers did so, along with some other choice descriptions—but there is a deeper explanation.

Coincidentally, about a week or so before, the subject came up at the CalOSHA/AC Transit complaint hearing at the State Building in Oakland. That complaint involves heat-mitigation issues for drivers, and so one of the items involved was how much time drivers have at the end of each run to cool off and get outside of un-airconditioned buses.

AC Transit schedules 12 minutes “recovery time” for every hour worked, one of the testifying drivers said. Because drivers can’t stop and take 12 minutes in the middle of a run, with passengers on the bus waiting to get to their destinations, those “recovery time” minutes are scheduled for the ends of the line.

“What happens if you don’t have time for recovery at the end of the run?” the Cal-OSHA attorney asked the driver referring, in other words, to times when the drivers get behind schedule.

“If you call in and tell dispatch you’re running late, sometimes they’ll take you off the run and put another driver on,” the driver responded. “Sometimes you can get a schedule readjustment, but that’s happening less and less. Most of the time you’re told to continue the run and call back when you get to the other end.”

But talking over lunch during a break in the hearings, to veteran AC Transit drivers explained to me that catching up once a driver is behind schedule is nearly impossible. They said that a driver coming late to a stop must not only pick up the passengers waiting for the late bus, they must also pick up additional passengers coming early for the following bus. That slows the late driver down even more, often causing the following bus to catch up (as happened in the incident I described above), sometimes leading to two-bus caravans running back-to-back down the line, the first one (the late one) chock full of passengers, the second one virtually empty.

This is more than just a convenience issue. Besides needing the periodic break times at the end of each line run in order to keep themselves fresh and alert for driving public buses, the end-of-the-line breaks are the only chance that drivers have to use the restrooms. That’s a fact which is most often overlooked by the public, most of whom work under far different conditions.

In any event, one of the sources of the scheduling problem, the drivers explained, is the computerization of AC Transit’s schedule some years ago.

One can imagine that bus scheduling for an inter-city and intra-city system such as AC Transit is a massive undertaking, with the largest complexity coming over the need to coordinate the transfer areas where crosstown routes intersect with the through-town lines. For that reason, the drivers said, scheduling changes were rare in the days when such changes had to be figured out by hand, since they involved enormous hours of work trying to fit all the puzzle pieces into place. Those older route schedules, drawn up in an era when AC Transit had more money and served more passengers and lines, had more flexible time built into them for drivers to have periodic—and necessary—breaks.

That difficulty got thrown out when AC Transit scheduling became computerized, as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of computer calculations can easily see. That made it more easy for the district to make schedule alterations and, according to the veteran drivers I spoke with, left a situation where bus schedules are so tightly drawn that district bus drivers are finding it increasingly difficult to meet them. That means more stress on the drivers. That means more missed schedules and frustrated, angry riders. It becomes a downward spiral.

This is a situation where one can sympathize with everybody—the bus drivers and the passengers, obviously, but also the district itself. The district—once the premiere public transit agency in the inner East Bay—long ago lost the general public’s heart, as well as its dollars, to the newcomer BART. Now the folks running AC must cobble together a balanced budget any way they can, either by speed-ups or line cuts or hustling extra revenue from the public through fare hikes or parcel tax measures. A modern economy cannot function without a well-functioning, general purpose public transportation system. In such a system, BART serves a distinct and important need. But without a healthy companion public bus system, the whole structure—including the East Bay economy—would collapse.

But in many ways, AC Transit has been its own worst enemy as it struggles to regain favor with the inner East Bay public. Because it is one of the least-monitored public agencies in the area—either by the public, the press—agency management has come to treat public scrutiny and winning public favor as something of a distasteful act, necessary, but done as quickly as possible, and with a holding of the nose. You see that in the district’s Mom-and-Pop store style of management, where the backup documents provided by upper level staff in the board agenda packet sometimes seem deliberately designed to obscure rather than to illuminate, and the district’s general manager—Rick Fernandez—often feels free to interrupt board deliberations to promote his desired direction by tossing in top-of-the-head figures and information that would seem to be necessary to the deliberation, but never made it into the packet at all.

You saw the best—if that’s the proper word for it—example of this information shortage during the complicated swap-and-buy deal in which AC Transit traded in still-usable NABI buses to FEMA for use on the Gulf Coast for new Van Hools. In the spot on the requesting memo to the board where staff normally puts the projected profit—or expense—of such a transaction or action, Mr. Fernandez simply wrote “the fiscal impact will be determined by the proceeds of the sale.” That’s signing a contract to buy a new car without finding out the actual price. The board approved the transaction.

AC Transit’s somewhat imperial attitude over the public also gets manifested in such actions as the district professing that it wants to solicit public input over the newly-refurbished 40 foot Van Hools, but then schedules an extensive public survey so that the results will not get back to the agency until well over half of the new buses have been manufactured and too late, therefore, for the district to effect any changes requested by the public. Asked about this incongruity, Mr. Fernandez replied that “we’ve already made a lot of changes in the new Van Hools based upon suggestions made by the public at board meetings. I think we’ve addressed everything [by way of changes] that we could.” If that was true, then why go through the exercise and expense of a public survey, except for being able—somewhere down the line—that the district got “input”.

All of this happens because the public exercises little oversight over either the AC Transit board or AC Transit management—either through the media or through attendance at district board meetings—and so the board exercises less oversight over the management of the district than it should. No one or two board members are responsible for this problem, neither one or two upper level staff members. The problem is the creation of a board/management culture over time fostered by a lack of public oversight, fueled and watered by board members and management officials who are scrambling to keep the district afloat in an economic atmosphere that threatens to sink it. That becomes a prescription for cutting corners, which is convenient for those doing the cutting, but not very good for the public which often ends up being the ones getting cut.

Should this imply that I’m urging a position—one way or another—on the various AC Transit election measures on the ballot next month, including the At Large Board election where incumbent Chris Peeples is being challenged by Joyce Roy, or the districtwide Measure VV parcel tax, or the Berkeley Measure KK referendum on the bus system’s plan to have bus-only dedicated street lanes? Nope. It’s far more complicated than that. While I’m urging that area citizens pay more attention to those election issues, all of us need to pay more attention to AC Transit in general. While most of us have been looking elsewhere, a once-impressive bus system has sadly deteriorated into a shell of its former self. And it will take more than a little extra tax money or some happy ads to fix that.

Safero Home | UnderCurrents Home