A year ago last spring I attended Transportation Camp in San Francisco. This was a gathering of transportation wonks and users who came together to come up with new ideas and solutions to improve transportation. I mostly participated in the public transportation discussions, where the professionals and the schmucks like me mostly talked past each other on ideas to improve public transportation.
This morning, I’m watching the tweets from everybody caught up in today’s Transbay quagmire, and I’m reminded of my frustration with that conference. But things are different for me today. Now I am informed because I have Read A Book on the topic of public transportation.
First a bit of catch-up for those outside of the San Francisco Bay Area: A large structure fire closed off all BART service between Oakland and San Francisco this morning. About 60,000 people normally travel across the Bay each morning on BART.
With BART out of action, a few thousand people tried the AC Transit Transbay buses. AC Transit’s website has been down most of the morning because of heavy Internet traffic, so I saw a lot of desperate tweets from people searching for route information. AC Transit is the public transportation service for Alameda County and part of Contra Costa County, i.e. the East Bay.
The thing is buses can only handle maybe 5% of BART’s load, and many of these buses are already full, plus they’re forced onto the same bridges the auto traffic uses. Here’s what the AC Transit bus stops look like as of about 10 AM. At MacArther BART, the queue for AC Transit snakes all the way around the block and then some.
Oh yeah, the bridges. More than a few of those 60,000 displaced BART riders probably drove their cars across the Oakland Bay Bridge for their Plan B. 70,000 vehicles already move across the Bay Bridge each morning. Try to add 20,000 more cars to the mix, and the Bay Bridge and all of the freeways and surface streets approaching it have been parking lots since 6 AM today.
People are, understandably, a little bit frustrated.
Today, anybody with a BART ticket gets a free ride on AC Transit Transbay routes, and AC Transit has scrambled more drivers and whatever buses they can. Commuters are learning that large public transportation providers already use about every bus they own during peak travel times, so AC Transit don’t have many spares they can use for emergencies like this. They’ve called in extra drivers, but it takes time for these drivers to get to the bus barn. Remember, these bus operators are stuck on the same roads the rest of us are on.
Some frustrated commuters are taking their ire out on BART and AC Transit for poor contingency planning. Because AC Transit have apparently pulled some old buses back into service just for today, others are using the opportunity to snipe at the crappy quality of the buses (the usual Transbay buses are nearly brand new with nice seating and interiors, free WiFi, etc). I think this will blow over after business returns to usual tomorrow, but there might be public hearings in the near future with citizens demanding an alternate route when BART breaks down.
Why can’t AC Transit Provide Service for 60,000 BART customers?
Last week, I attended a talk by Human Transit author and transportation consultant Jarrett Walker. He covered a lot of ground in his 45 minute talk, talking about the purpose of transit and whether things like symbolic transit and “premium” transit services help or hinder the purpose of public transportation. I also bought the book, and the scales have fallen from my eyes. Transit planners aren’t perfect, and they only hear the complaints so the people at many agencies can tend to be a little bit on the defensive side, but Walker provides the tools in his book to help you understand the decisions you as a citizen make about public transportation when you attend board meetings and public hearings.
AC Transit’s mission is to provide transportation in and around the East Bay. With the funding they have, AC Transit runs a bus every 10 to 15 minutes from 5 AM to midnight on their busiest local routes. A fleet of buses and drivers on standby just in case something bad happens for BART’s Transbay riders takes that equipment and those drivers from their main business of getting people around between Berkeley and Oakland in the north to Fremont and Union City in the south part of Alameda County. They have a few spares on hand because a part of their fleet is down for repairs at any given time, but too many spare buses costs money, parking space, and maintenance time. The spares they pull into service for emergencies might be the older models with no air conditioning and damaged seats.
Demanding spares buses and drivers like I’ve seen some do on Twitter is about like expecting Caltrans to have a spare highway on standby in case a wreck completely closes something down. If the state builds the highway, you expect it to be open and usable all the time. If you’re paying for buses and drivers to sit around, that’s a waste of money — you might as well send them out on revenue service.
This Transbay mess is also a perfect example of choosing the equipment after you decide you need a route. Many transit advocates, for example, believe rail is inherently just a better form of transit, with some saying buses aren’t even worth running except for, maybe, welfare transportation. Walker believes equipment selection should be a little more informed than that. For Transbay transportation, BART almost always works well to get 60,000 people from one side of the Bay to the other. You need a fleet of at least 1200 buses (and drivers) to get that many people across, which is more than double AC Transit’s current roster of 520 buses. A 10-car BART train operated by a single driver can carry 2000 passengers per trip, while an AC Transit driver can carry 50 to 60 passengers on his bus.
Everybody is expressing their frustration today, but Bay Area transit riders tend to be a savvy lot so I think we’ll see common sense prevail. Still, if you have any interest in transit policy and how things like routes and even equipment selection are decided, read this book and read Jarrett Walker’s blog.
This might also be the perfect chance to read up on Alameda County’s Measure B to increase and extend Alameda County’s transportation sales tax.