East Bay residents attended Wednesday night's AC Transit Board of Directors meeting to review the new line realignment proposals. Credit: Jose Fermoso

The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District is gearing up to change its bus routes and schedules through a process called “realignment.” 

According to AC Transit, the changes will be the most significant since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

At a special meeting of the AC Transit Board of Directors Wednesday evening, planners presented several options for the board to choose from next year. Each plan took over a year and a half of work to complete, which included two rounds of public outreach and staff research on bus rider travel patterns.

The public, however, still has an opportunity to weigh in.

The first of the three proposals is called the “balanced coverage scenario.” Under this plan, AC Transit would change routes and schedules in an effort to expand ridership to more neighborhoods compared to its current coverage.

The second option is called the “frequent service scenario.” This plan focuses on speeding up service on several key bus routes. 

The third proposal is called the “unconstrained vision scenario.” It would both expand service and make run times more frequent. 

The balanced coverage and frequent service proposals, according to AC Transit Service Planning Manager Michael Eshelman, are “cost-neutral,” meaning there would be no need to raise additional money through fare increases or state grants to make them happen. This is especially important, the planner said, as AC Transit is still facing budget constraints due to drops in ridership since the pandemic began in 2020. 

Since the bus realignment will impact people all over the East Bay, the public will be able to have their voices heard in more than 30 public hearings over the next six weeks before one of the options is chosen. This month, AC Transit planners will attend City Council meetings in Hayward, San Pablo, and Berkeley and several school board meetings. The Oakland City Council will hear the plans on December 5, at 4 pm. AC Transit will also run advertisements on buses and distribute flyers at service centers and libraries explaining the proposed changes and how to get involved. 

The last day planners will be able to hear from residents during this phase will be December 13. People can also check out the proposals and give feedback on AC Transit’s Realignment website.

Consolidation of lines and a focus on reliability and equity

AC Transit bus operator Sultana Adams and street safety public advocates speak to planner David Berman at the AC Transit realignment workshop. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Last night’s gathering at AC Transit’s Oakland headquarters included an hour-long workshop for residents. Attendees were most interested in which lines the district might expand, cut, or combine. 

Both of the main proposals, the planners said, would cut the 72R line, which is currently the fastest route on San Pablo Avenue, running between downtown Oakland and San Pablo through Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany, and Richmond. A planner said the other lines on San Pablo, 72M and 72, will run staggered every 15 minutes, for a bus frequency of every 7.5 minutes or about a 2-3 minute improvement on current bus waiting times. Twice as many buses from the 72 and 72M lines will run to pick up the extra riders who would have been taking the 72R. 

A planner also told The Oaklandside that they’ve found that riders are confused by the three lines, and because each of the bus stops where the different 72 lines pick up and let off riders along San Pablo Avenue have a lot of spacing between them, riders sometimes end up in different places where they expect to be. But AC Transit staffers said that if enough people who take the 72R want the line to stay, they will consider keeping it. 

Eschelmen said an additional reason for removing the 72R is to prepare the San Pablo Avenue corridor for the massive street redesign and rebuild over the next 15 years. Once the project is completed, AC transit anticipates faster service on San Pablo because the rebuild includes a bus-rapid transit lane, making the need for multiple bus routes unnecessary. 

Another major line affected by the balanced and frequent service scenarios would be the 6, which currently runs from downtown Oakland to downtown Berkeley. The 6 would be extended from downtown Berkeley down University Avenue, taking up part of the 51B line’s service area.  Under both options, the 6 would run more frequently, arriving every ten minutes instead of the 12 minutes it takes right now. 

The 51A and 51B lines will also be combined into one long route because, AC Transit staff said, it will help people get around faster and save them a transfer ticket. The 51A currently connects Fruitvale BART to Rockridge BART, running through the Alameda and up Broadway. The 51B continues from Rockridge BART through Berkeley, down University Avenue to the marina.

AC Transit planner Michael Eshleman presented the realignment plans to the Board of Directors on Wednesday. Credit: Jose Fermoso

AC Transit planners said one of their overriding goals with all these changes is to reflect the current travel patterns of riders, which they said are different than in years past. Demand for service in low-income neighborhoods, for example, has grown, while fewer people overall are taking the bus to get to and from major job centers like downtown San Francisco. 

“Demand ridership has changed with ridership being more diffuse [and] outside of traditional commute times,” Eshelman said. 

As of yesterday, AC Transit is 75% of pre-pandemic ridership, he said. 

“We make assumptions [based on the combined knowledge] of what we see in the field, and sometimes we don’t know how exactly it will work until we actually run the line,” said David Berman, one of the AC Transit senior planners.

Berman said both the “balanced coverage” and “frequent service” scenarios take into account the needs of people with disabilities, and communities of color, and they prioritize access to important social services and resources like hospitals and grocery stores.

“With the way the Bay Area is gentrifying, we can’t focus just on [wealthy] communities. There will not be a significant restoration of the Transbay service because of its demographics, which, from pre-pandemic survey data, had riders in the six-figure income bracket,” Berman said. The Transbay routes connected various parts of Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda and other cities to downtown San Francisco and were most used by commuters.

Routes that serve lower-income communities could be boosted with more frequent service, like the new Line B61, which will connect Fruitvale BART to Leona Drive with a loop through Maxwell Park. 

“Both of the constrained scenarios place an emphasis on local service and making connections to regional service providers to make [local] trips and other regional trips. This allows the district to provide equitable, frequent service to our poor riders and frees up resources for more reliable service for all,” Eshelman said.  

Some have concerns about the pace of the realignment process and specific changes that could be made

AC Transit Board Director Sarah Syed said yesterday that she is concerned the district is rushing the public outreach process and not giving some particular groups enough time in advance to weigh in. 

“I’m concerned about the aggressiveness of the timeline. I’m deeply concerned based on the feedback I’ve been getting, that if we do proceed, we will be leaving [some people] out of this process, [including] the Alameda disability commission, will first be hearing this after we’ve already gone to their City Council, for example,” she said. 

Syed also said she is disappointed the proposals haven’t been presented with reliability schedules so people can compare the proposed new routes against the current system. A civil engineer and former planner, Syed said not having these could lead to confusion and impact the agency and the board’s credibility in their decision-making. She suggested the board consider moving back the realignment decision by six months “at least.” 

“We still don’t have a map of what areas are losing access to service in both scenarios,” Syed also noted. People can find out which lines are proposed to be cut if they click through the dozens of lines on AC Transit’s AC Transit Realign Network Options interactive map.

A concern shared by street safety advocate Kuan Butts is that the proposed changes are only improving upon current low service levels. There isn’t a discussion to return to the levels from a year ago, much less from before the pandemic. 

Butts said AC Transit has also not released data that would allow members of the public to independently compare the coverage from five years ago to AC Transit’s new proposals. This level of transparency is especially important, he said, because in August AC Transit made wait times longer by about four or five minutes on the two buses near his house in the Oakland flatlands. 

“The August 6 bus schedule reduced service headways by 15% and 20%, respectively,” Butts said. “The claim at that time was that on-time performance would improve. [But it] hasn’t noticeably changed since the adjustment to the schedule.”

Laurel Paget-Seekins, a policy advocate with Public Advocates, a nonprofit civil rights law firm, asked the AC Transit board to take more time to get “realignment right.”

Others at the meeting were concerned about some of the lines that will be cut.

AC Transit bus operator Sultana Adams told the board that removing the 72R line will be hard because many people currently skip the other 72 lines to get the fastest possible bus. If they take it away, Adams expects bus drivers will bear the brunt of people’s frustration. She also recommended planners determine how to add more service during peak traffic hours. 

“No one feels more pressure than the bus operators,” Adams said. 

Brandi Donaldson, who drives the 72 Line and has previously spoken to The Oaklandside about the physical difficulties drivers face, also said the current run times are unrealistic.

AC Transit Board Director Christian Peeples said he also would “hate” to lose the 72R because of its current popularity. But a bigger worry of his was the potential consolidation of the 51 lines, which he said could further slow down coverage in Oakland and Alameda just like 51B buses already are slowed down in Berkeley because of “radical anarchists” who constantly “triple-park” on streets without getting ticketed. 

“How will you keep that [longer line] on time?” he asked.  

Members of the union ATU Local 192, which represents drivers, provided feedback about realignment in a letter submitted to the AC Transit board before the meeting. Their big concerns included making sure drivers get enough breaks, which can improve reliability times. 

They also asked the agency to limit operator shifts to 8.5 hours and a 9-hour max. 

“Long driving times are unhealthy and reduce retention, exacerbating the problem of not enough operators,” the union wrote.

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.