In 2019 AC Transit operated 158 separate bus lines. Some run only during peak periods. Others run just at night. And that might be ok if most lines were running full. Some lines are… but many aren’t. Not even close.
If you find this hard to believe go out and observe the passing buses. As noted, some are carrying a respectable numbers of riders. But in almost every part of the East Bay you will see buses, including articulated buses with 60 seats, carrying anywhere from one to four persons including the bus driver. This dismal sight, which was evident even before COVID, can be seen at almost any hour of the day almost everywhere, from Fremont to Pinole and beyond.
Why is this?
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It’s true that COVID has materially cut into bus use. But that’s not all. Does AC Transit operate efficiently? No. Its on-time operating performance has been subpar for years. This is in part because AC regards it as a “success” if just 72% of its buses remain on schedule, a rather sub-standard, standard to begin with. Even so, AC fails all too often to meet even that low bar. Getting AC’s ridership up to a productive level would require much better on-time performance; direct routes; shorter routes when necessary to ensure schedule adherence; safe, clean and comfortable travel, well designed and well maintained bus stops, and the separation of buses from mixed flow traffic congestion, at least during the peak driving periods.
This is not to say that AC doesn’t have some strong points….such as generally clean, well maintained buses, and safe, professional drivers. But when it comes to ridership AC just doesn’t measure up.
In 2019 (before COVID), AC’s 158 lines were carrying a total of just 179,000 riders per weekday, more than 100,000 riders a day fewer than used to ride the AC buses. COVID took ridership down another peg. In its website AC puts its total 2020-2021 ridership at just 63,000 per weekday.
AC’s transbay service, which it likes to call a “money-maker” is in equally dire straits. Even before COVID AC’s twenty seven transbay bus lines were carrying a dismally low 13,000 one-way weekday riders to and from San Francisco. Compare that figure to the more than 250,000 car trips across the Bay Bridge a day or BART’s pre-COVID transbay ridership of 150,000 one-way riders a day. Since then the number of transbay bus lines has been cut to sixteen, only three of which (the F, NL and OX) run all day. No one at AC was willing to talk to us about today’s transbay ridership; but it is for sure drastically below where it was pre-COVID.
In recent decades, successive AC Boards have appeared content with serving mostly those who had no other way of travel, an important public service. But the fact remains that it has been years since the AC system has been put to its fullest and most effective use. Could AC ridership increase? Yes but it will take determination, persistence, new and innovative thinking, capital funding and in some cases the courage to make controversial changes. With three recently appointed new Board members there is reason to hope that things will now begin to change.