The Ongoing Story Of The Growing "Partnership" Between The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District And The Belgian Manufacturing Company




Berkeley Daily Planet
August 21, 2007
By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

With the consolidation of AC Transit Telegraph Avenue and International Boulevard lines into the 1 and the 1R earlier this summer, North Oakland and Berkeley riders are discovering a secret that has been known to East Oakland riders for years: the Van Hool 60 footers are one of the most thrilling rides in California, the $1.75 entrance price a considerable bargain against what you might pay at Great America or Magic Mountain or on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, with the added bonus that while the amusement park rides are all pre-programmed and, therefore, can become boring after several repeats, you never know what to expect on the bus.

We’re not talking, here, about the single-body 40’s, which are a kiddy ride, with no more excitement than you’d get out of your average merry-go-round. We mean those big, articulated, two-part suckers, with the distinctive accordion wing in the center.

It’s the two-part construction that gives the 60-foot Van Hools their special kick, and unlike a roller coaster, its those who ride in the back half who get the best of it. The average, one-part vehicle bounces up and down on its shocks, which is only fun if your idea of adventure is a plastic children’s bumper seat. Both parts of the 60-foot Van Hool not only give an up-and-down bounce that puts any other ride to shame (something like old-time East Bay residents might remember experiencing on the old Cypress Expressway), but the back part simultaneously exhibits the feeling that you are moving forward while you are bouncing up and down, independent of the front part, to the point where you actually believe that contrary to all physics, the two parts will collide and buckle up into pieces, throwing passengers throughout the bus and out the various windows (something like more recent East Bay residents remember what eventually happened when the old Cypress Expressway was introduced to Loma Prieta). Mind you, the back part of the 60-foot Van Hools does not crash into the front part, no more than the bungee jump sends you head-first into the ground at the end of the chord, or the roller coaster will miss its next sharp turn and send the cars hurtling out over the beach. The thrill, in all cases, is the feeling that it might.

For those who wish to get special excitement, comparable to what you see in an amusement park Fun House, the people at Van Hool have provided standing platforms in the area between the two parts. These are padded braces surrounding the metal swivel on which the two bus parts pivot. Standing with your feet on the swivel you can feel all of the motions of the bus at once as you go—forward, backward, up-and-down, and turning. Youngsters for whom standing no longer provides the proper thrill sometimes jump up to sit on the top of the padded braces, which then become something like the mechanical bull at Gilley’s and try their best to throw the kids off.

But whether you’re lucky enough to get in the back, or can only find space in the front half, there are several special seat constructions in either half of the Van Hools that provide particular electricity.

First and foremost of these is the “flying blind” seats, the first two seats behind the solid metal partition that divides them from the driver. Looking out the side window only tells you where you have been, not where you are going, and not even that in areas where locals have thoughtfully taken down the street signs for added uncertaintly. The “flying blind” seats are particularly breathtaking when you do not know the route, and so take the entire ride with the feeling that you have already missed your stop, and are barreling miles away from your destination into parts unknown, where there be dragons and other monsters.

Almost as desireable as the “flying blind” seats are the several backwards seats placed strategically on either side of the bus. While some sense of location can be had by looking out the side windows (see “flying blind” seats, above), the preferred method of travel in the backwards seats is to swivel your head and upper body around and lean out towards the center aisle to try to look through the front windshield, trying not to unduly jostle the strange person who is sitting in the aisle seat next to you (note: jostling strange persons in certain parts of the East Bay can sometimes be adventure above and beyond the level of excitement we would recommend, though liberal use of “excuse me”’s and “my bad”’s can sometimes mitigate the potential damage). That directive aside, the backwards seats are good for those who wish to practice yoga or low impact aerobics while riding.

Amusement park rides require the rider to be seated and strapped down before the ride can began, an excitement-dampening procedure that is thankfully (for thrill-seekers) non-operable throughout the AC Transit system. The 60-foot Van Hools provide a bonus, however, with several seats set up higher than floor level that require step-ups and step-downs while the bus is in motion (one step for the mid-level adventurer, two steps for those who throw caution to the winds). An added bonus is a sudden braking, accelleration, or taking off while you are still walking down the aisle trying to find your seat, but this option is only available with certain drivers, and not to be expected on all trips.

With AC Transit being a disability-conscious agency, special attention has been made to the needs and desires of the elderly and the disabled to have a thrill ride. These are provided by the pull-down seats that face inward rather than to the front of the back. The pull-down seats normally lie flat against the side of the bus—held in place by spring action—to leave space for wheelchair passengers, but can be manually pulled down to accommodate the elderly and ambulatory disabled who, presumably, don’t want to brave the one or two-step hops and want their seats on the bus floor. Because these seats face inward rather than front or back, there is no way for the passengers sitting in them to brace themselves with their knees or hands on the seat in front. Sitting in the pull-down seats without being propelled out from either side can only be done by the passenger firmly planting their feet on the floor and exerting pressure, downward, from the thighs. Since the elderly and the ambulatory disabled are often notoriously weak in these lower extremity areas, the anxiety that ensues makes up for the lack of these passengers’ ability to make their way to other parts of the bus.

And, finally, any one of the Van Hool seats are designed to give that special and sudden vibration in the area of your buttocks when the bus passes over one of the East Bay’s many potholes, as if you have entered the realm of virtual reality where all padding has been stripped from the seat, both yours and the bus’s, and the point of your buttocks have been transformed into the end of a jackhammer breaking concrete in the street.

All in all, dollar for dollar, there is no better value for thrills and excitement in the East Bay than riding on the 60 foot Van Hools.