How to save AC Transit

Illustration of four AC Transit buses driving around Telegraph, with two of the buses bearing the labels "COVID SAFE" and "ZERO EMISSION".
Jason Yen/File

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Recently, I was talking with a third-generation resident of Berkeley and former AC Transit rider. He’d been stranded twice by bus cuts on his way to work this summer, so he bought a used car. He could hardly afford the car, but he could afford to lose his job even less. He is one of the thousands of riders who have been impacted by COVID-19-related delays and cuts and is a reminder of why we must make our buses reliable, safe and environmentally friendly — for all of us.

We all know the experience of waiting for a bus that doesn’t arrive, not knowing that it won’t show up until it’s already too late. We cannot afford to leave a single rider stranded. To prevent people from experiencing this common dilemma, we must think of ways to optimize our city streets and transit corridors to better serve those who use these corridors the most.

Our first priority as a city should be to improve coordination between the AC Transit board and local city governments to ensure that delays and temporary cuts to service are better communicated to riders. To do this, AC Transit can implement an emergency alert system that would deal with temporary bus service cuts, earthquakes and wildfires. AC Transit should look into emergency notification systems, such as WarnMe and Nixle, to inform the community of emergency notifications. We must also ensure that we have emergency personnel on call on weekends and after-hours to ensure community members aren’t stranded without means of reaching their destinations.

To further prevent miscommunication, we should improve bus signage at bus stops, including timetables and maps. Investing in digital displays that show arrival times for major bus lines could help provide accurate, real-time information, as would a hub of crowdsourced data that can pinpoint the location of nearby buses. AC Transit should work with its technical team to allow riders to opt in to allow their location data to be used in improving arrival time data.

But COVID-19 is not only upending the logistics of public transit; it’s also decimating AC Transit revenue. To save AC Transit from the proposed 15% to 30% service cuts, we need to get people back on buses as quickly as possible while maintaining public safety. As a health officer at the U.S. Department of State who helped combat the Ebola outbreak in 2014, I have many ideas on how we can make our buses safer.

First, we must scrutinize air circulation on buses to reduce our risk of transmission of the coronavirus. AC Transit recently made the decision to keep bus windows closed, citing that the Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning system “pulls fresh air inside the bus and forces old air outside the bus,” and that opening the windows “creates onboard turbulence that either slows or prevents air from entering the HVAC system.” The World Health Organization and Environmental Protection Agency both suggest that in certain situations, opening windows can reduce transmission risk. This is one of many difficult and important decisions that AC Transit makes, and it should be one that is focused first and foremost on how best to keep riders safe.

Keeping surfaces clean is also important. This means looking into antiviral and antimicrobial coatings we can apply to frequently used surfaces, like the farebox, poles and handrails. AC Transit is cleaning surfaces daily, but there are more efficient ways to prevent transmission of germs. We should also evaluate ultraviolet ray sanitization technology similar to what is being used in the New York City subway system. Let’s make AC Transit a leader in COVID-19 bus safety.

And of course, AC Transit exists beyond COVID-19. If we are truly going to reimagine our public transit system in the East Bay, we must also make sure this transit reduces our environmental impact. Transportation is the largest source of emissions in the Bay Area. Today, we are literally choking on fumes — not just on wildfire smoke, but on decades of carbon dioxide emissions that have contributed toward statewide wildfires. My experience as an environmental officer at the U.S. Department of State has taught me that combating climate change must occur first at the local level.

Making buses accessible is more urgent than ever because, as one of the most environmentally friendly forms of transportation, they are key to reaching our goal of combating climate change. We can’t wait 10 years to realize this goal. We need to accelerate our transition to a zero-emissions bus fleet from a target year of 2040 to 2030. We need to coordinate with the other 22 Metropolitan Transportation Commission-recognized transit agencies in the Bay Area to buy emission-free vehicles in bulk, streamline bus charging stations, simplify charging processes and look at data to know where best to place charging stations. In addition to meeting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s climate change plan, we must also ensure that sustainable vehicles work in concert with protected bike lanes and pedestrian walkways.

AC Transit is facing unprecedented challenges today, as we all are. We are facing a crisis of epic proportions — environmentally, economically and epidemiologically — and we must rise to the challenge. We must help folks who rely on the bus system. We have the opportunity to rebuild a bus system that looks beyond 2020. Buses are something that don’t often get much attention, but they are the linchpin to ensuring that we stop global warming, stop rising inequality and get people where they need to go safely. There has never been a more critical and impactful time to invest in reliable, safe and environmentally friendly transportation.

Ben Fong is a former Berkeley planning commissioner and was a diplomat in former president Barack Obama’s administration with postings in Mexico and India. He is a candidate for AC Transit board Ward 1.