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As a result of the economic crisis and a huge drop in tax revenue a few years ago, a lot of transit agencies were forced to cut back and reviewed its operations. The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission took leadership and created an incentive program to award agencies that are able to reduce costs (after factoring in inflation) and make transit routes more efficient and productive.

AC Transit is one of the transit agencies identified to improve productivity because it is the largest local transit provider in the East Bay. It provides main line service along key corridors, local and community service connecting with BART, as well as Transbay bus service to San Francisco.

In a report that came out late last year, the planners recommended AC Transit can increase ridership by speeding up service and increase frequency along “trunk” corridors. The trunk corridors are the most productive component of the AC Transit system. The buses are well loaded and the per-rider subsidy is comparatively lower. The same report also identified much of the Transbay services to be low performing. These routes carry 9% of the AC Transit riders but uses 29% of the peak hour buses in the afternoon.

Unlike most transit agencies, AC Transit operates a large network of buses from the East Bay to San Francisco. The operation was inherited from the Key System, a private company that once ran interurban trains across the Bay on the Bay Bridge. For more than 50 years, AC Transit kept the same lettering scheme from the Key system. Although AC Transit provided more and longer Transbay routes than the Key system, lines like B, C, E, and F continue to serve the same communities as Key rail cars.

1967 AC Transit Map

AC Transit had the largest Transbay operation in the 60s before the opening of BART (as shown in map above), and the network was largely maintained after the opening of BART’s Transbay Tube in 1974. However, there were criticisms that AC Transit’s Transbay routes duplicated BART, which began even before the Key System abandoned rail service on the bridge (Check out this report for detailed history) and BART was still in conceptual planning stage. AC Transit did not want to abandon its profitable Transbay operation to BART and accept the secondary role of being a feeder system to BART.

Of course things have changed over the decades. AC Transit’s Transbay operation is no longer profitable, and according to the analysis, it is using more resources than the ridership demand. On the other hand, we no longer believe that there should be a single transit mode to get people across the Bay. Also because of BART’s Transbay Tube capacity is also getting closer to the limit, rethinking and reinvesting the Transbay bus service could open up new transit market and increase transit ridership beyond BART’s capacity.

Route analysis

AC Transit traditionally focused on providing a one-seat ride service from the neighborhoods to San Francisco, to differentiate from the BART system of limited stops. Although by itself a single seat ride is favorable, doing so from low density areas requires long local stop segments. Such segments result in long travel times which turn riders away and increase operating cost.

According to the route-by-route analysis (here), the most productive routes and segments cover areas that have sufficient density, far from BART stations, or have easy park and ride access. Those areas include Solano Avenue in Albany, Park Blvd/Glen View in Oakland, Gilman Street in Berkeley, Downtown Emeryville, MacArthur Blvd, City of Alameda, and the City of Newark. The formerly Key System routes like B, C, and E are considered less productive because of the close distance to nearby BART stations.

AC Transit operates three all-day Transbay routes: F, NL, and O. These routes are different than the commute routes because local fares and charged for local trips, and thus they carry significantly more local riders than the commute routes. Over 60% of the ridership for lines F and NL is local ridership. Less than 30% of line O ridership is local.

Some of the routes have a significantly more afternoon ridership than morning ridership. Such difference most likely is the result of casual carpooling, where drivers and passengers are more likely to meet up in the morning to get through the toll plaza faster and save money on tolls, but unlikely to do the same on the return trip.

Future of Transbay Bus

Unlike a new rail line, bus systems often plan based on reactions, like adding trips due to crowded buses and reducing service because of low ridership. With new information, this is an opportunity for AC Transit to start planning a new network clean slate. If AC Transit chooses that path, routes that are direct descendants of the Key System would likely be discontinued or modified to be a BART feeder.

This is also an opportunity to consider infrastructure improvements to make highways like I-580 more transit friendly. Since we most likely won’t have enough funding for a second Transbay Tube, highways present the best chance to add transit capacity. Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix have developed some good infrastructure for a highway based bus system.