Saturday afternoon, Berkeley resident Manish Goregaokar did his best Paul Revere impression.
Goregaokar rode a bike, not a horse. And instead of crying out something like “the British are coming!” Goregaokar’s warning was more about what wasn’t arriving — AC Transit buses.
One by one, stop by stop, he told roughly 30 different AC Transit riders on Saturday afternoon their bus route was experiencing a major service disruption. Many stood waiting for the 51B bus in Berkeley and were surprised to hear the news.
AC Transit did in fact inform riders online about major service delays to the 51B, by 2:43 p.m., on its Twitter account. Its website also posted a notice about a service disruption that afternoon.
But that was too little, too late, said a relatively new group of public transportation activists, which criticized AC Transit on Twitter for leaving riders stranded.
Goregaokar, a software engineer, belongs to the group, the East Bay Transit Riders Union.
“There was no service notice during the initial delays for the 51B,” he said. “I was just really angry at how this was handled.”
But the 51B, which runs from Rockridge BART to the Berkeley Marina via College and University avenues, was far from the only bus line affected.
Today @rideact unexpectedly cancelled a lot of important Berkeley lines, including 51B, the backbone of Berkeley. I'm biking up and down telling people waiting for the bus that it isn't coming and most of them are completely stranded (some aren't carrying phones!)
— Manish (@ManishEarth) August 29, 2020
AC Transit had suspended more than a dozen of its North Oakland and Berkeley lines on Thursday — a step the agency took after more than one staffer from its Emeryville bus yard contracted COVID-19, forcing the facility’s closure for deep cleaning.
That closure, expected to last until today, was planned. It was noticed online.
“We establish protocols that say we’re taking these very advanced steps and are conducting a top-to-bottom cleaning of the facility,” AC Transit spokesperson Robert Lyles said.
But the Emeryville yard’s closure may have rippled out and affected service on other routes that were still supposed to run, Lyles added.
That included the 57, NL and the line Goregaokar uses, the 51B, which is one of AC Transit’s primary trunk lines. While in pre-pandemic times it serves 8,700 daily riders, on Saturday the 51B saw such infrequent service, riders equated it to a full cancellation.
The East Bay Transit Riders skewered AC Transit on Twitter and said the agency needed to do a better job of telling the riding public about service disruptions.
While the agency did eventually advise riders about its problems online, those notices fell short of what transit agencies like BART and Muni in San Francisco typically do to spread the word about major service problems.
Muni often sends staffers in fluorescent-yellow vests to spread the word about major service disruptions, and direct riders to other routes. They place laminated notices on poles by bus stops and feature a robust digital noticing system that includes text-message alerts.
“We did advise in our earlier e-news notices that 51B would be operating and there would be a great potential for delays,” Lyles said. And he said that yes, if the agency knows there will be a route cancellation in advance, it is usual practice to place placards warning people at bus stops.
But when asked if they placed placards for the currently suspended and disrupted lines, Lyles answered “no.”
AC Transit's API system is broken or in such low-use state that the directions will often not generate anything. The only reliable way to know if a bus is coming is to look at where usually 1 or 2 buses are on the map.
Right now the 57 has one bus waiting in Eastmont pic.twitter.com/iokW69oha8
— East Bay Transit Riders Union (@TransitRidersEB) August 30, 2020
That leads us back to Goregaokar and his bike ride. He said he found many people waiting for buses they had no idea weren’t running.
Riding his bike up and down the route of the 51B he says he told between 20 and 30 people, mostly people of color, that their bus would never come. All were surprised. Many had been waiting for quite a while.
One woman he met on College Avenue had a large suitcase — too big to walk with for any distance, he said. What did she do instead?
“She was trying to hitchhike,” Goregaokar said. “It was just very striking. You never see hitchhikers in cities, right?”
All these people are waiting for a 51B @rideact that isnt coming. They were not told it was canceled.
— Darrell Owens (@IDoTheThinking) August 29, 2020
Yvonne Williams, president of AC Transit’s operators’ union, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192, lauded the agency’s COVID-19 efforts, including shutting down the Emeryville facility for cleaning.
But she said she agrees with the critique that the agency did not do enough to alert riders about service delays.
Williams, a 35-year AC Transit employee, said instead of hearing news of the delays from the agency itself, “I’m hearing it from you, which is not acceptable. What you’re saying to me right now causes me a great amount of distress. We’re here for the transit riders.”
And as for Goregaokar, she said, “I’d like to personally call him and thank him.”
Making a play on the term “essential workers,” she added, “now that’s an essential person, right?”