If you’ve seen an AC Transit bus with a holiday-themed paint job driving around Oakland this month, you might have thought it was just an ad to cheer you up. But if you’ve gotten on, you’ll find a festive atmosphere. Maybe the best feature is one any rider can appreciate: a free ride. 

For years, the transit agency has provided a free fare on its holiday bus for December. East Bay residents have made a game out of trying to find it in the past since the bus secretly changes its route every day. 

For some riders and their families, the free ride combined with the holiday cheer makes them feel good. 

Oakland resident Cat Ervin said she has taken the holiday bus in the past and that it is always welcome because every cent counts. 

“The bus can be expensive over time. It was just good to know that they do care about us during the holidays. With people trying to buy gifts, having one less expense was nice,” she said.

AC Transit started the holiday bus in December 1963. Back then, a large new GMC 300 model was painted white and red into a “Candy Cane Express.” That edition featured a Santa Claus passing out candy to kids and adults at line stops. St. Nick was played by then-AC Transit superintendent Nicholas Alevizos, a Greek immigrant who continued in the role of Santa for years. An AC Transit newsletter at the time described a ride aboard Alevizos’s Santa Claus bus as “the nicest thing that’s happened.”

AC Transit’s superintendent Nicholas Alevizos greets a child. Credit: Courtesy of AC Transit.

Over the years, the bus featured different themed paint jobs and involved AC transit workers or community members in different character roles, including as “candy cane girls,” elves, and Christmas figures. In 1966, in a nod to the diverse traditions of Bay Area residents, the bus was decorated with “Happy Holidays” in different languages.

Sometimes, a couple of riders told The Oaklandside, they let other buses pass in order to take the holiday bus. This year, with ridership still down because of the pandemic, AC Transit has notified followers on its social media accounts on some days which route the holiday bus is running. And for the first time, there’s also an app that can help you find it. 

Daniel Levy’s Schedules – AC Transit application was updated a few weeks ago with real-time information on the exact location of the holiday bus. Levy, an Oakland resident who grew up in Glenview, added a push-button for the bus on the app’s home page.

The app also has visual indicators, such as a vehicle locator that accurately predicts when a bus will arrive at a location—including the holiday bus—barring bad traffic or other unforeseen conditions. Levy said he can place the moving bus on his app because the public agency’s own real-time, publicly available data has improved significantly in the last few years.

Levy told The Oaklandside he got his passion for transit from his parents and his own experience riding AC Transit and BART every day from Oakland to San Francisco to attend high school. He was such an avid fan of the system that his first working internship was at AC Transit, digitizing Transit Times newsletters that went back to 1960. Several of those newsletters feature covers of the holiday bus.

The cover of AC Transit’s December 1970 newsletter featured the district’s holiday bus. Credit: Courtesy of AC Transit

AC Transit provided free fares during the first few months of the pandemic, and has traditionally also eliminated fares during back-to-school in September, on New Year’s Eve, and for special sports celebrations like Golden State Warriors championship parades. 

And while it’s not surprising people have sought out a free fare, it’s notable it can lead to higher usage of public transportation overall, according to some studies.

AC Transit is one of many agencies in the U.S. that operates holiday-themed public transport. The Maryland Department of Transportation has a bus that plays holiday music, for example, while Chicago and Philadelphia get corporate sponsors to outfit bigger fleets and feature well-known pop culture characters like Spongebob

While riders enjoy a free ride and some holiday cheer in the brief time they ride the bus, the people driving them, like Christina Almodobar, might end up getting the most out of it. 

Almodobar, who has been with AC Transit for nearly seven years, said driving the holiday bus this year has been an especially nice way to end what has been a hard two years worrying about COVID-19. She said that for people that don’t have a lot in their lives, including the homeless, being able to drive them in a joyful bus warms her heart. 

“When they get on that bus, I feel we’re doing something for our community,” she said. “We deal with a lot of people with mental illness out there. When they get a free ride, I think it makes an impact on them. And if it brings them a little comfort, makes their day better, I’m happy.”

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.