Bus driver Alonso Covarrubias loves his job but says Oakland's roads can also be hazardous to navigate. Credit: Amir Aziz

Anyone who has driven Oakland’s roads knows how dangerous they can be—there were 33 traffic-related deaths in 2020. And perhaps no one has more experience with the city’s poor street conditions, dangerous intersections, or reckless driving than AC Transit bus drivers. 

The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, which services every city between Richmond and Fremont with 5,400 stops, carried 175,000 people per day before the pandemic. Although ridership dropped over the past two years, the average AC Transit driver is still responsible for operating heavy machinery on streets and highways, entrusted with the lives of hundreds of people each day. 

It’s a job that comes with unique occupational hazards. AC Transit drivers can deal with trauma, injuries, and stress-related burnout. Those who have experienced a collision say it can stay with them their whole life. 

Four months ago, an AC transit driver crashed his bus into a West Oakland house after it was hit by a speeding stolen car. Even though no one was killed, people on the bus suffered injuries and the owner of the home, a disabled man, has not been able to return to his home. The driver informed The Oaklandside, through another AC Transit employee, that he is still not ready to talk about the harrowing experience. 

Drivers say their pay doesn’t reflect the realities of the job. Most AC Transit drivers make around $60,000, just above what’s considered the minimum liveable wage in the Bay Area. And throughout the pandemic, many drivers got COVID

Despite the many challenges, AC Transit drivers told us they get a sense of fulfillment from their jobs, knowing they’re helping thousands of people get to work and visit their friends and families. We spoke to several AC Transit drivers to better understand how they experience Oakland’s roads. 

Fearing speeding cars

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An AC Transit driver waits for a light to change at 98th Avenue on International Boulevard, one of Oakland’s most heavily traveled routes. Credit: Amir Aziz

Alonso Covarrubias moved to the United States from the Mexican state of Zacatecas 30 years ago and has worked a variety of service-sector jobs. He’s always loved driving, so after a stint as an Uber driver, three years ago he jumped at the opportunity to become a driver for AC Transit.

Most drivers for the agency need to have an excellent driving and personal record, like Covarrubias, to apply for the job. For example, you can’t have a reckless driving charge against you or a DUI in the last seven years, and you have to pass a criminal background check from the U.S. Department of Justice, among other conditions.

Covarrubias loves his job, but it’s been more difficult than he expected. 

The main thing he worries about is speeding cars. While driving the 72 line bus from downtown Oakland to Richmond’s Hilltop district, the 52-year-old has been nearly hit by speeding trucks and cars several times. Dedicated bus lanes don’t always work as intended.

“When I have a stop and there is traffic, cars often don’t let you back into the roadway. They don’t care whether you have a signal,” Covarrubias told The Oaklandside in his native Spanish. “If they see the bus coming into the lane, cars dangerously speed up to beat me. Sometimes I need to brake quickly.” If people aren’t sitting down, they could be thrown to the floor.

Last year, while driving on San Pablo Avenue near Gilman Street, in Berkeley, a vehicle ran a red light and came so close to hitting Covarrubias’s bus that he was eye to eye with the driver as both veered away at the last minute.

Covarrubias wasn’t hurt, but he was in shock, especially because no police showed up and the aggressive driver was able to flee the scene. When he returned to the office, he filled out a report, but the incident was not mentioned again. 

In an investigation last month, The Oaklandside found that one of the main reasons traffic laws aren’t aggressively enforced on Oakland roads is because the police department has a relatively small number of cops patrolling the city’s 80 square miles, and most officers are busy responding to more serious crimes.

Covarrubias makes a point of telling his children about tough days at work so they stay vigilant while driving, too. “I always tell them, if they see a big vehicle, let them go. They need time and space to move around,” he said. 

Jennifer Purganan-Andino, a 38-year-old driver who has been with AC Transit for six years, said it’s especially difficult for bus drivers to avoid speeding cars because of the dimensions of the buses and the time they need to accelerate or stop. 

Purganan-Andino says that it is standard for the 40-foot-long buses to start breaking at least forty feet ahead of a stop, even if they’re going lower than the speed limit.

“Swerving is usually not an option for a bus either because we already take up so much space in the lane,” Purganan-Andino said. “If we try to swerve quickly, we’re just going to cause some other problem.”

Drivers also have to know how to operate different types of buses. An electric or fuel-cell bus, driver Brandi Donaldson told us, will sway under the weight of the fuel packs or batteries on the roof. “You kind of feel like the whole bus is waddling,” she said. Articulated buses—the sort with an “accordion” joint in the middle—handle differently than classic 40-foot buses, which don’t have joints. 

Purganan-Andino said drivers have to take extra precautions when carrying elderly passengers or others who have a harder time standing and balancing. Recently, when an older couple was sitting in the front of her bus while it was stopped at 20th and Telegraph, she took her foot off the brake to start moving, but before she could even step on the gas, a car flew right through the red light in front of them and she was forced to hit the brakes, jostling her passengers forward. 

“I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness. Are you guys okay?’ And they said to me, ‘Yeah, we’re more worried about you!’”

Purganan-Andino said her passengers are often shocked to see cars blatantly ignoring and disobeying stop signs and red lights. “That happens a few times a day: speeding with no regard to any other vehicles or pedestrians, especially in Oakland on Broadway or San Pablo.” 

Purganan-Andino shares Covarrubias’ biggest fear. She worries that when she pulls up at a bus stop to take on passengers, a motorist will run through the intersection behind her at a high rate of speed, collide with her bus, and cause the bus to smash into people waiting on the sidewalk. 

“It comes so close to happening a couple of times a week,” she said. 

The physical toll on drivers is serious

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And AC Transit bus on Line 33 arrives in Montclair. Credit: Amir Aziz

Road conditions in Oakland create stress on drivers’ bodies. If they hit one of the thousands of potholes across Oakland, loose asphalt, or random objects in the road, it can lead to a rotator cuff injury, neck abrasion, or other physical harm. 

Covarrubias has started to notice that his knee, back, and hips hurt, and thinks his job is to blame. Some of it he expected, but he said turning quickly to avoid speeding cars forces him to twist his body and legs unnaturally several times a day.

Purganan-Andino said that one of the reasons drivers keep their hands firmly on the large wheels is to not only control the bus but also to stabilize their bodies as they bump up and down bad streets.

“I once hit a deep pothole and it jerked the steering wheel so hard [that] had I not been holding it the right way, it might’ve yanked my shoulder out of position. You can lose control,” she said. 

Purganan-Andino said she’s always aware of an AC Transit driver colleague who’s out on disability because of these issues. The Oaklandside asked AC Transit for the latest data on drivers out of commission due to injuries on the job, but the transit agency did not provide it.

Of course, AC Transit drivers drive on Oakland’s roads when they’re off the clock, too. Purganan-Andino was in a car accident a year ago, keeping her out of work for over a month. Her doctor told her that driving a bus likely made her injuries worse. She’s still in physical therapy.

A recent, unexpected addition to buses are plastic barriers used to protect operators from riders’ respiratory droplets. Situated behind and to the right of the driver’s seat, bus operators have to turn and move their backs every time they make a stop to slide or unlock the barrier so people can board or exit the bus. Doing so can cause further stress to their back and shoulders, drivers said. With most drivers stopping 100-plus times each way, this ends up adding hundreds of awkward movements to their arms each day. 

“There are two systems of shields, one with magnets you need to pull and another without. Neither is very effective, “ Covarrubias said. 

As if dealing with potholes, speeding drivers and a physically demanding workplace wasn’t difficult enough, AC Transit drivers also have to deal with occasionally hostile passengers.

Covarrubias said he’s had many scary interactions, including some that threatened to turn violent. Disruptive and distracting passengers can force a driver to miss a giant pothole on the road, he said, or not see a speeding car in time to avoid it. 

The bus drivers’ union, Purganan-Andino said, keeps track of all of the injuries and other physical issues that drivers suffer on the job and that helps make sure drivers are not taken advantage of. She told us that she appreciates being part of the union leadership committee that communicates workplace issues to management.  

Mental maps of potholes and other obstacles

Oakland roads are filled with potholes and other damage that makes driving hazardous. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Dealing with bad Oakland roads pushed Purganan-Andino to change her approach to driving in a perhaps unusual but logical way: she memorizes where the biggest potholes are and mentally maps out how to avoid them miles ahead. 

Sometimes, potholes have their uses. A pothole had existed for years just before a bus stop in front of Berkeley’s main library on Shattuck Avenue. A blind couple who rode Purganan-Andino’s bus to the library every day knew that when she hit the pothole, they were approaching their stop. It became a sort of signal between the driver and her riders.

Most of the time, potholes are nuisances to be scrupulously avoided. Brandi Donaldson, a driver who’s been with AC Transit for five years and frankly loved the “gorgeous” relatively empty streets of the early pandemic, has memorized all of the potholes on her routes. 

“I will swerve into a spot on the road to avoid them. I will take both lanes at times if I need to, and I will bob and weave,” she said. “On Market Street and San Pablo heading towards downtown Oakland, there’s huge potholes I do that on.”

The increase in construction around Oakland has also created hazards. In particular, the metal covers that EBMUD places over large holes in the road can be dangerous if a bus driver doesn’t go over them properly. Several buses in recent years have gotten stuck or had their undercarriages destroyed.

Driving around Oakland has revealed for many drivers just how much work needs to be done fixing Oakland’s roads, and how some neighborhoods have much worse roads and higher volumes of traffic.

Even though AC Transit drivers know the city is undertaking a major repaving project, little has changed for them. 

Donaldson tries to keep a positive outlook but is aware of the dangers she and her passengers face. 

“Thank God I’ve been a defensive enough driver to avoid any issues. But when we’re on the road nine hours a day, it’s kinda like, how much can I be a defensive driver all the time?” she said. “I do my best. But when you’re hit with this stuff every single day, over and over and over again, when is my luck going to run out?”

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.