To:  The AC Transit Board of Directors

From: John Seal, Oakland

I am writing again to express my displeasure with AC Transit’s decision to discontinue the 51 Line.

Upon reviewing the Revised Service Adjustments Plan released to the public on November 18, I find the section concerning the 51 most discouraging and not terribly enlightening. The Plan emphasizes that this is the most heavily used and most productive line in the system, but then refers to “crippling on-time performance issues that result in serious reliability issues and… (an) inefficient operations profile” to justify its elimination and replacement with Lines 3 and 4.

The precise meaning of the term “inefficient operations profile” is unclear to me, but as one who has ridden the 51 daily for more than 25 years I can, indeed, attest that the line does not always operate strictly to schedule. However, if your concern is to get passengers from point A to point B in the most timely and efficient manner, splitting the line will only exacerbate the problem.

Currently the 51 runs every 8-10 minutes during peak hours, so even when buses are not strictly on schedule, they still come quite frequently. In a perfect world, of course, the answer would be to add service, not split the line, but I realize this is not an option in the current budgetary and economic environment. However, the current service — flawed as it is — is still superior to what will be provided by two replacement lines requiring a layover and a transfer for a significant number of passengers.

The RSAP also refers to three stages of service improvement for riders along the current 51 corridor. If the medium and long-range goals are serious ones, however, what is to be gained (other than unhappy commuters) by the hurried implementation of the short-term solution?

In the medium term, the RSAP suggests that AC Transit “implement the recommendations identified within the 51 Report”, and says staff will submit a final report outlining this plan of implementation in January 2010.  Unless this report will simply rubberstamp the Board’s apparent decision to eliminate the 51, would it not make more sense to hold off on making drastic changes until after it has been submitted?

In short, why the urgency? If 51 passengers have been putting up with an inefficient operations profile for the last quarter century (or more), surely they can wait another few months for a plan that may be better and less disruptive than the one currently on the table.

However, if you are hell-bent on splitting the line, let me offer two alternatives.

If, as currently proposed, you split the line with the terminus point at Rockridge BART, the current bottleneck around the University of California will still remain. As you know, UC Berkeley students have the privilege of unlimited free rides, and treat the 51 as a glorified shuttle service. Anyone who commutes on the 51 while school is in session knows that Cal students frequently ride the bus for as few as two or three stops. The enticement of completely free service coupled with the ‘just in time’ mentality of college students is an irresistible temptation! The result is slow and badly overcrowded buses in both directions between Downtown Berkeley and Ashby Avenue.

While I believe the agreement with the University to encourage student ridership is a good idea, I also believe Cal students should be required to pay something — perhaps as little as 25 cents —  to discourage these ‘hop on, hop off’ rides. Otherwise service will still come to a crawl along the College to University portion of the route, regardless of whether you number the bus 51 or 4.

Secondly, the RSAP suggests that the transfer point between new Lines 3 and 4 at Rockridge BART will further slow the commute of at least 13% of passengers, the vast majority of whom are full-fare paying customers. If the transfer point were somewhere closer to the University, however, fewer riders would be inconvenienced and Cal students would be discouraged from taking a three-block ride in order to get to class five minutes earlier than they would if they walked.

I suggest this would offer considerable time savings in both directions, thus improving the 51’s overall reliability. This transfer point could be at Telegraph and Bancroft (northbound) and Telegraph and Durant (southbound), or other points of the Board’s choosing.

I hope you will seriously reconsider your options regarding this critical route. As I noted in my previous letter in October, the 51 is one of the crown jewels of the AC system, and it would be a tragedy to lose it.

Berkeleyside contributor John Seal lives in Oakland and has ridden the 51 bus to Berkeley every day for more than 25 years.

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  1. I get on the bus a total of 6 times a day, 5 days a week (3 hours a day, for a total of 15 hours a week on the bus – not counting wait time). Two of those hours per day (10 hours a week), I spend on the 51. To split the 51 line into two lines would mean getting on a bus 8 times per day, 40 times per week.

    Luckily for me, I’m a UCB student and employee, so my fare is a flat rate I pay every semester. To decouple the deal made between AC transit and UCB would devastate me (I don’t remember how much the fare costs for an adult, but to pay that amount 40 times a week is something I cannot do – since there are no BART along the paths I travel, it would be necessary for me to drive).

  2. I am a daily rider from Alameda to Berkeley. I was happy to read John Seal’s open letter and the activism of regular riders of route 51. Before reading this, I wasn’t even aware that the 51 would be cut (or cut up, more precisely), and I consider myself a relatively aware public consumer (though admitedly I’m usually reading, head-down on the bus). AC Transit should probably keep in mind that for every person expressing dissatisfaction with the impending end of the traditional 51 route line (myself included), there are likely a dozen or so currently UNINFORMED regular riders who will be outraged when they suddenly find the 51 cut in the near future. For instance, every morning, a high percentage of passengers from the Alameda portion of the line consist of often elderly Chinese-speaking passengers, many of whom have difficulty speaking English, who rely on the 51 very heavily. If I was utterly unaware of these impending changes, are passengers like them aware? So, perhaps, a bit more “outreach” from AC Transit would be nice.

    Secondly, while I haven’t read all the comments in excruciating detail, it appears that the discussion has become more and more complex, with more and more variables considered, including how AC transit calculates costs and the most efficient ways of running a public bus system. While this is interesting, if conjectural, I think our brainpower is better spent not on assisting AC Transit calculate what is undoubtedly a complex formula for efficiency, but to focus on how to improve the Revised Service Adjustment Plan in the interest of all parties and to provide AC Transit with “on the ground” observations which we, the passengers, likely know more about than AC Transit. For instance, I think John Seal’s suggestion of not disturbing the line in the short term until a truly better medium to long term plan can be determined is pragmatic and sensible. By contrast, the issue surrounding Cal students is a medium/long term issue since these are signed contracts bet Cal and AC Transit and any changes would have to await the next round. In a word, the Cal student issue adds a layer of complexity that can’t be resolved so easily in the time frame of change on the 51, so why muddy the waters unnecessarily? The Cal issue isn’t just a 51 issue; it is much broader and more complex than just the 51, involving many more variables and interests. Are there other more modest and pragmatic proposals like the former which might be more pragmatic than trying to speculate on the abstruse cost-efficiency-service calculations which few of us are likely able to enlighten the public about? As the dialogue unfolds, perhaps John or others could periodically try to summarize the debates on this discussion board so discussion is more fruitful and focused, rather than haphazard and random. Finally, by way of improving “outreach” is there any way AC Transit could devote a spokesperson to lend commentary on this discussion board, correct public misinformation and misunderstandings, and even raise issues which AC Transit might want public input on? For instance, am I right in saying that there might be information that passengers have which AC Transit lacks, or do they really know exactly how many people get on and off, where and when via the various paying machines? What sort of information might we provide AC? Some dialogue directly with AC Transit would be nice. While a couple of “one-shot” open public forums is nice to vent individual interests, I think an on-going and online dialogue over time is much more fruitful.

  3. “AC Transit will lose revenue on their better routes, and end up the only operator on the marginal routes.”

    Not necessarily. In a public/private partnership it isn’t a foregone conclusion that we have to be laissez faire about routes. We could require that private operators either meet certain access guarantees or pay a tax.

    Also, making a (cross-vendor) demand-driven system could conceivably wind up being a better solution for unpopular routes because you don’t have to run empty vehicles on a route if vehicles only appear in response to calls for them. (Demand-driven solutions seem to have proved out in some jurisdictions for the limited purposes of things like senior and disabled access – I wonder if the concept can’t be further developed for more general purpose use.)

    Here’s some old numbers that are hard to make perfect sense of (comparing apples and oranges) but AC Transit doesn’t come out looking so hot:


    I wouldn’t think it all that crazy to plan as if we knew they were mostly going to wind up going out of business.

  4. The problem with competitive fleets is that new entrants will only want the most profitable routes. So AC Transit will lose revenue on their better routes, and end up the only operator on the marginal routes.

    That was the experience when local bus services were privatized in the UK.

  5. dto510: You say: “Smaller buses essentially increase the ratio of labor costs to passenger trips, without saving much in fuel or maintenance.”

    Can you say more about the methodology of the AC studies? It seems to me that the labor costs relative to trips has to be a function of utilization and that AC runs a heck of a lot of mostly empty buses. It seems like that shouldn’t be hard to beat with more convenient routes and schedules, intra-city – perhaps with some demand-driven scheduling.

    I’m also a bit skeptical of anything AC has to say about fleet costs: their regulatory constraints, heavyweight purchase procedures, and N-year-planning cycles would seem, like any large-scale civil engineering project, to really raise their cost structures through the roof compared to what a competitive field of more nimble, smaller players might do. For example, their cost estimates must be based on the assumption of having to provide certain specific target levels of capacity and availability of service – they have to *guarantee* those targets as a condition of funding. Where the planning fails to correctly anticipate need and demand, that means (mostly) that AC will be over-built, running mostly empty buses on mostly un-used routes. It also means that they can’t respond effectively to dynamically changing demand. I think that means that each paid-for passenger trip (plus taxes, etc.) winds up subsidizing a huge amount of waste.

    A small intra-city fleet run by ACT would, I have no trouble believing, be less efficient than what ACT is offering – but I’m suggesting a competitive fleet in private-public partnership, exploiting technology that the ACT bureaucracy could not possibly develop, acquire, and deploy nimbly.

  6. While it seems intuitive that smaller buses would be more efficient, in fact that’s not the case. Smaller buses essentially increase the ratio of labor costs to passenger trips, without saving much in fuel or maintenance.

    AC Transit did a lot of outreach and study on how people use bus lines as part of the service changes, and their planners would be happy to explain the reasoning behind some of their weirder routes. With the 51 line split, service will be more frequent and more reliable on both sides of the split while saving AC Transit some money. Ultimately, something has to be done about College Ave, and ACT can’t just keeping running more and more buses in response to increased car traffic, not passenger demand.

  7. Becca: Yup. Also, I remember reading a few weeks back that the mayor was telling AC Transit to either get with the program or he would start exploring local options, perhaps working with Cal and LBL to expand the shuttles they already run. (I think that’s a good idea no matter what AC does.)

    What’s really tragic (with 20/20 hindsight) is the dismantling of the Key system tracks. Check out this gem of a ride up Hearst St. in 1906, complete with fisticuffs and a fine lady to break them up:


  8. The Emery-Go-Round might be a model of short-route, shuttle-type services to look at. I’m no expert: I’ve ridden AC Transit maybe twice in the 16 years I’ve lived in Berkeley.

  9. re the number 9, it’s funny that Lance is mystified over the path through N. Berkeley because until I read that my thought was how messed up it is as a “scenic tour” of west berkeley. And, well, there it is: the number 9 is a *fractal* of inexplicable route design – equally absurd no matter where you look along the curve or at what scale.

  10. John Seal,

    People who commute by public transit from the City of Alameda to downtown Berkeley or the UC Berkeley campus have faster alternatives to the 51 bus route.

    If they are a little bit more flush with money, they can transfer to BART in downtown Oakland. If they want to take AC transit all the way, they can transfer to the Telegraph Avenue line (1R or even the 1).

    The 51 line is a local bus which is very slow.

    The main problem that doesn’t make sense about the 51 line is that a bus that gets terminally delayed in Alameda ends up resulting in a missed run between downtown Berkeley and West Berkeley an hour later. The current line links a problem in Alameda to reliability problems in West Berkeley.

  11. TN, I think your suggestion has some merit. Perhaps run the 51 from downtown Oakland to downtown Berkeley. That would make more sense than what’s currently on the table. Of course, it wouldn’t make Alameda residents who commute to Berkeley any happier…

  12. The 9’s route is absolutely mystifying. We once made the mistake of going to the Marina on the 9. Would have been faster by getting off halfway (at the westerly end of Dwight) and walking, rather than the magical mystery tour through north Berkeley before it doubles back.

  13. One of the things that has always puzzled me about AC Transit compared to other transit systems is AC’s seeming obsession with lines that either meander every which way like the current 9 line or very long routes which appear to be serving too many markets and also meander quite a bit.

    AC’ 51 line originates in the furthest reaches of the City of Alameda and ends up at the Amtrak rail station on University Avenue in Berkeley. Yes I’m sure that there is an occasional rider who rides from the far end of Alameda to West Berkeley, but I don’t think it is many. I doubt that many people ride from Alameda past downtown Oakland. The 51 serves as one of the main local routes on the island of Alameda AND as the main east/west route within the City of Berkeley.

    Long routes pose issues for local bus service. The longer the route, the higher probability there is that any one bus will fall behind its schedule, some due to randomness of traffic and more due to the randomness of boardings and deboardings. The delays tend to be cumulative. This causes busses to become bunched. Since it is a cardinal sin for busses which run on schedules to run ahead of schedule, the only way for route planners to alleviate the accumulation of random delays is to build in extra time on route. This of course slows the scheduled service.

    Shortening the routes is one way of limiting the delays. But it is unclear why breaking the 51 at Rockridge BART would be the first place AC would look to restructure the route. It makes more sense to me to consider separating the tail ends of the 51 route. Take the part of the route between Alameda and downtown Oakland and make it separate. Take the route between downtown Berkeley and the Amtrak station and make it separate.

  14. Cal students are, of course, hopeless brats most of whom smell bad. Well, ok, not really. Here is a real suggestion:

    Berkeley should look for ways to cool down its relationship with and reliance upon AC Transit by building up independent, intra-city public transportation. A larger number of smaller – shuttle-bus size – busses operating on the main corridors, perhaps with some kind of hybrid scheduled / on-demand service, *intuitively* seems like the efficient way to go, to me. I emphasize “*intuitively*” to make clear that the smaller bus, intra-city idea is just a personal guess – not something well informed by public transportation science.

    Making short-hops within town easier and more convenient would (wouldn’t it?) increase ridership. At the same time, such lines could connect with AC’s BRT lines at the periphery, in areas of wider streets and lower traffic density.

    Designing such a system, and its business models, would seem to me to be (a) a “small matter of engineering” (famous last words, up there with “hey, watch this!”); (b) a small matter of engineering that could greatly benefit from the latest in wireless communications, GPS, etc. For those reasons, I would think that some departments at Cal and LBL would welcome the chance to use Berkeley as a laboratory, designing an effective and affordable intra-city system incrementally, by experimentation.

  15. I wonder how many students pay the AC Transit fee and never ride a bus. If you were to think of the bus fees levied by the University as a “transportation insurance” policy provided to students, then there are some students who frequently draw on the system for transportation, and some others who continue to pay in but never receive a dime of value. On net, AC Transit might be the one getting the deal, and the student body as a whole might be subsidizing your rides.

    If you were to make the students pay on a per-ride basis, obviously you would lose the income from the fee-paying students who never get on a bus. I suspect that you would achieve your goal of seeing less ridership in general around campus, but I sincerely doubt that it would be good for the system.

    This is wholly unsubstantiated supposition, as I have no numbers to back it up. But I strongly urge you to separate your argument about student ridership from your argument about the location of the split, as they do not appear to be strongly linked from my perspective.

  16. Ashby and College is certainly a contributory factor to the slowness of the line; so is Claremont and College. Splitting the line is not going to have the slightest impact on that-the traffic will be just as bad whether you are on a 51 or a 4.

    And there IS a bottleneck around campus: it’s on the buses themselves, so full of students rushing to class that there frequently is neither standing nor sitting room for passengers, including senior citizens and those in wheelchairs.

    Obviously, the answer is MORE service. But that’s not going to happen, at least not now. My concern is that the line split is going to make overall service worse and more expensive for many of us whilst doing nothing to alleviate the current overcrowding around campus.

  17. The fee the University assesses for students is $68 per semester, a remarkable deal when you consider a full-fee paying daily commuter on the 51 pays almost $90 a month for two rides a day. (I assume the fee is bundled with all the other fees the University charges, though please correct me if I’m wrong.) Not only do Cal students get unlimited rides, they’re getting them at a pro-rated monthly rate of approximately $13-$14. Local seniors and youth pay more than that: at $1 a ride, they’re spending over $40 a month (assuming they are only riding the bus twice a day). I think we would all love it if the bus were less expensive, but is it really fair that local residents–many of them poor or working class–have to pay three times as much for their bus service as University students? I would suggest, Matt, that perhaps that is a battle that YOU might not wish to fight, but it’s a pertinent question to ask!

  18. The bottleneck is Ashby at College, not the Cal campus. Ashby-induced backups on College stretch all the way to the Oakland border during commute hour. ACT is splitting the line pretty close to the choke point.

    I am one of the 13% of 51 riders who continue on past the Rockridge BART station, and I don’t see many trips beginning and ending at the BART station, so I am less than thrilled with the line split. But to blame fellow passengers for the 51’s problems, when in fact it’s car traffic that’s slowing the system down, is extremely unhelpful.

  19. I haven’t ridden the 51, but I believe it can be frustrating to ride through congested areas with frequent embarkations and disembarkations. However much they are inconveniencing you, though, Berkeley students are not second class citizens. You paid your fare, and they have paid their fares, although through different channels.

    This does not mean that your counterproposal about where to split the line is flawed, but your hostility towards paying customers seems at odds with your desire to see continued AC Transit service. Although your grievance against the students might resonate with some of the other people who ride the 51 every day, your evident frustration directed at the students doesn’t advance your argument.

    In the future when making this argument, I think you would be better served by emphasizing the logic of splitting the line nearer the bottleneck point, and not the villainous nature of your fellow passengers. The students are just trying to get from A to B like you. You might wish to argue that AC Transit should discontinue its agreement with the University, but that argument would require quite a bit more thought, and it might not be a battle you wish to fight.

  20. I would just like to point out, for the record, that all UC Berkeley students do in fact pay for our AC Transit passes; it’s included as part of our student fees as per the agreement made between the school and AC transit a few years ago.

    cheers, and GO BEARS!