I’ve been living in SF for several years now. Muni and BART get me everywhere I need to go, and it’s been reliable enough that I don’t even have to consider other modes of transportation. No matter where I go or what time or day of the week it is, I’ve got a good idea of several ways to get there, and I’m generally not worried about making connections or waiting for a long time (except, perhaps, between 1 and 5 AM). This provides me with a certain peace of mind and feeling of freedom—the city is fully available to me at the low price of $94 per month, and I never feel stranded anywhere.
I suppose this has spoiled me to an extent. I’ve been spending a good deal of time in the East Bay recently, and have been taking AC Transit around. Most of the time, it works well for me, but my use case is probably very different from most actual residents of Oakland. I usually take AC Transit buses to get from BART stations to some location and back. BART stations are usually served by many bus lines, and the sheer number of options can paper over the problems with frequency and ease of making transfers. On the occasions I have taken AC Transit buses between areas of Oakland not served by BART, I’ve had a vastly different experience.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that Oakland is a city with a lot of great neighborhoods and interesting places to go. It deserves a bus network that lives up to this.
Oakland can support high all-purpose ridership
One of the main determinants of the quality of the bus network is density. When you have more people in an area, you can have more riders. These areas are also more likely to have commercial districts or other amenities that attract people from outside of the neighborhood. Oakland nominally has a density of 7,514 people per square mile, but this is too reductive. Here’s a map of population density by census block group from the 2016 American Community Survey:
The reason Oakland has such low density when taken as a whole is that it includes a lot of more or less suburban space. The hills drag down this aggregate population density quite a bit. On the other hand, East Oakland has many areas with over 20,000 people per square mile, which puts it on par with lots of neighborhoods in SF which have much better transit. There’s even quite a bit of space in the dense area taken up by freeways and interchanges. If the I-980 spur is taken down, Downtown Oakland will likely densify as well.
If we look at Oakland without all the hilly bits and industrial area around the port, it has around 15,128 people per square mile.
What’s surprising about this is that even though East Oakland contributes a lot to this density figure, the people who live there don’t seem to take a lot of buses, and rely heavily on cars. This should be our first sign that something is up and AC Transit isn’t providing a great service.
In most of the census blocks in East Oakland, people driving alone make up the majority of commuters, where bus riders end up in the single digits. Neighborhoods like Temescal have a much lower share of drivers, owing to some combination of better bus service and easy access to BART. Residents of downtown almost certainly take BART to work if they commute into SF, or walk if they stay in Oakland. BART is an important part of the transportation situation in downtown and northern Oakland, but the odd alignment and station spacing in East Oakland wastes a lot of its catchment area there. This means good bus service is all the more important unless BART is planning to fill in the gaps. (No serious proposal for East Oakland infill stations is in the works at the moment.)
So what’s the problem with Oakland bus service, then? There are plenty of high-ridership, frequent lines in the system. AC transit trunk lines can run at pretty high frequency. Line 1 runs at 10 minute frequency or better for most of the day. The 72, 72M and 72R put together achieve headways as low as 6-7 minutes if you’re at a stop served all three. But high frequencies among commute-focused routes during commute hours don’t make a good bus network by themselves. We have to consider lots of other things if we want people to use the bus network to get around in their daily lives—ability to make transfers, ease of understanding the network, frequency at non-peak hours and on weekends, and so on.
Understanding AC Transit’s decision framework
A lot of transit agencies divide their customers into two camps, the “choice” and “captive” groups of riders. Agencies that use this distinction are unlikely to improve service in areas where car ownership is comparatively low, because those areas are said to have a higher number of “captive” riders which will take transit no matter how poor the service is. “Choice” riders, by contrast, have other means of getting around and will only take transit when it’s more convenient or better for them. Plenty of articles and reports have been written about why this split is wrong-headed, such as this one. The short version is that this mode of thinking completely denies that incremental improvements in speed or frequency can have significant effects on ridership, and this leads agencies to send their money towards other “features” such as Wi-Fi which few riders actually care about.
I don’t think this is the framework AC Transit is operating under, because they tend to serve areas with lower car ownership better. Despite being denser and having more riders that might be considered “choice”, East Oakland does not see the same level of service as downtown and the north. San Pablo, Telegraph, Broadway, and College are all served well by AC Transit. Not all of this can be attributed to pressure from the university, either, though it surely supplies many regular riders.
I think the issue is more that AC Transit sees itself as a provider of transportation for commuting, and its responsibility largely ends there. Because the dense area of Oakland is fairly long and skinny, this means that a commute network can still provide service to a lot of the city. At the same time, it can’t serve most people for all-purpose trips which may not end downtown. This is apparent when we see the lack of frequent crosstown lines.
There are essentially two buses that function as frequent crosstown lines: the 57, which runs from 5am to midnight every day at 15 minute frequency, and the 80/81, which combined give a reasonably frequent crosstown line on Ashby, as long as it’s not a weekend or nighttime. The next major crosstown line is the 51B on University Ave in Berkeley. It’s over a mile from downtown to 40th St and around a mile and a half to Ashby from there, so a lot of people in between end up underserved. Frequent crosstown lines in East Oakland are basically nonexistent. The 20/21 combine to provide decent frequency on Fruitvale Ave until the 21 stops running at 10pm, and that’s about all there is. This poses a problem because BART stays close to the water, as does the frequent 1 for a good portion of its route. A lot of people between the water and MacArthur Blvd are left with few options outside of the weird buses that have complicated routes, mostly exist to take you to BART, and run at low frequencies outside of weekday commute hours.
This means that the bus network doesn’t function that well as a whole—as a way of getting people between arbitrary places. If you’re at San Pablo and Stanford, getting downtown is pretty easy. If instead you’re trying to get to 51st and Telegraph, your journey will probably take longer than you would expect. This ability to move well in one dimension but not in the other is often a problem even in good transit systems; my friends in Manhattan often tell me that they’d rather travel dozens of streets than, say, four avenues. In San Francisco, it is still generally easiest to get downtown from somewhere, but there are many more frequent crosstown lines, which makes this less of an issue.
Complicated lines, weird service hours, downright bad maps
Instead, we get bus routes like the 14.
This is a bus which cuts right through some of Oakland’s densest areas near Lake Merritt. Car ownership rates in these neighborhoods are comparatively low. The bus has one terminus downtown and a BART station at the other, so it’s well-anchored. But it meanders around in between so the actual route is difficult to remember. If you don’t live or work in its immediate service area, I wouldn’t expect you to know where it goes. The line makes a U shape and the “middle” is anchored by the Laurel commercial district on MacArthur, but it doesn’t spend enough time on MacArthur to really serve that corridor, or any other. At best, this is emblematic of the direct service example from the Human Transit post about transfers I linked above. This bus also runs at 30 minute frequencies after 8pm on weekdays and at all times on weekends, and there’s no service after 10pm.
The 14 has about 3,000 weekday boardings. This is lower than the number of boardings on Muni’s 18-46th Avenue, despite the latter being one of its system’s most far-flung crosstown routes. It primarily goes through areas of lower density and high car ownership, the overwhelming majority of which is purely residential area. A good deal of its potential catchment area eaten by the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Park. It has worse weekday midday frequency than AC Transit’s 14. Why is this?
The 18 is a well-designed route. It is simple and most of it occurs on or close to the street for which it is named, so it’s easy to find and figure out where you can go with it. It runs on the same hours as just about every other bus in the Muni system (5am to midnight, every day) despite having relatively low ridership, serving a lower-density area, and having its ridership mostly concentrated between the AM and PM peak hours. It does not closely duplicate service found on more frequent lines. Most importantly, it connects riders to several very frequent east-west or downtown-oriented routes. This means it is a critical component of the entire network and benefits from good network design as well as good line design. So, the 18 is simple, reliable, and useful.
As we mentioned before, the 14 is complicated. It can’t be easily boiled down to one major street. Its service hours are relatively narrow and it has poor frequency at times when people may still even be using it to commute. In the densest areas of the its route, it is 2 blocks from the 40 and 4 blocks from the 1, both of which are among the most frequent lines in the entire system, and which I would be more likely to take once I knew they had better service.
It’s harder to get information about AC Transit routes compared to Muni routes because of the way the maps and schedules are made. For example, the route map for the 14 can be found here. This map is not very helpful if you are trying to figure out how it can get you around Oakland as a whole, because the map displays very little context outside of the streets themselves. It shows connecting routes, but does not show where they go and instead simply identifies them by number. It also does not distinguish which of the connections are frequent and important routes. Some of the connections listed will never happen in practice, such as with the 800 (owl) routes, which run at disjoint hours with the 14. (Depending on where you are going, such a transfer could happen at around 7am on a Saturday or Sunday morning, but it is impossible at all other times.) I would also argue that it’s easier to remember when Muni routes are around as they have a short name which describes where it goes. AC Transit buses are often described by the route number and every street they use; on the signage they often just display the terminal. I find myself having to check the maps anyway to make sure they go where I’m trying to go.
Some maps will just make your head spin. Try making sense of this route map, which lays out the 40 (one of the most important lines in the system) in an incredibly confusing way.
The system map has similar problems. For Muni, the system map uses progressively darker and bolder lines for more frequent routes, so you can tell how much service an area receives just by looking at the map and don’t have to inspect in too much detail. Express services and other routes that are not usable all day, while few, are marked to appear less important. AC Transit’s system map uses all manner of colors and symbols to draw routes. It does a poor job of teaching general characteristics of the network at a glance. One symbol is used for “all-day service,” but this does not describe a consistent set of service hours, and the map legend tells you to look at the timetables anyway. In addition, Muni lists frequencies for each route on the maps at bus stops. AC Transit prefers to lay things out in terms of schedules. Certainly, at least some of their routes are frequent enough that they could be listed in terms of frequencies as well, but the choice of using timetables makes it difficult for people to decide whether or not using or connecting to a particular route will result in them waiting a while. Transbay buses other than the F, NL, and O only run during commute hours in the commute direction (assuming your job is in SF), so they are not useful for all-purpose transit and so I think they should be kept to a different map to avoid clutter.
All-purpose trips require uses at all hours
Suppose we could wave a wand and fix the network design, such that we have high-frequency crosstown routes at regular intervals. The network as a whole might have higher ridership than it does now, but maybe not by much. The new routes mainly see a lot of riders at commute hours and are underused at other times of the day. AC Transit might consider this experiment to be a loser as it spends a lot of money on what it considers to be overservice, and it would be hard to blame them for that. What’s the whole point of doing this, then?
Well-designed crosstown routes may still mostly be used to get to other bus lines, which will actually take riders somewhere interesting. This will provide them some level of service even after commute hours, and does make the network more useful for everyone. But they are most effective when they are useful in and of themselves—that is, when they are used for other purposes than just getting people to and from their houses. This is part of the reason why a crosstown route like the 24-Divisadero is able to support such high ridership throughout the day. Other than being useful for getting around, it goes directly through mixed use areas of Divisadero and Cortland.
This means some of our network design should be supplemented by zoning changes. We shouldn’t take this too lightly, though; zoning changes without strong renter protections could lead to displacement of the very communities we are trying to serve by improving the transit network.
Oakland has a general plan which guides its decisions around zoning and transportation, among other things. The last general plan was adopted in 1998, and its high-level strategy separated neighborhoods or corridors into two categories: “maintain and enhance” (meaning little change in style or intensity of land use) and “grow and change” (meaning upzoning, mixed-use development, or the like). A map can be found early in this section of the plan. Some major crosstown corridors did fall into the latter category but it’s not clear how much they have affected zoning decisions since. For example, MacArthur Blvd, West Grand, and 14th Ave are all labeled as “grow and change” areas. These are prime corridors for major crosstown bus routes and AC Transit has, to some extent, paid attention: MacArthur is close to the 57, and Grand is served by the NL.
Obviously, high density around the corridor can be a key component of high ridership, but more important is having a mixture of uses along the corridor itself. This opens up the potential base of users for the route from just those who live near it to everyone who’s served by the network, and if that allows us to turn the frequency up on those routes, then the people who live there end up with better service as well. So if MacArthur is the corridor that the city of Oakland wants to “grow and change” in the direction of more mixed use, then one appropriate change might move the 57 to MacArthur from 40th St. Another option could be to zone 40th St for mixed use instead. High frequencies will make sense on these corridors even without big changes to residential density; SF achieves some of its highest ridership numbers on routes which are surrounded by 3-story buildings.
Transfers and fare structure
A few years ago, AC Transit made some significant changes to their fare structure. They creating a day pass, but removed discounted transfers. This was done in the name of speed and preventing “transfer fraud.” While the day pass automatically activates if you board 3 buses in a day and are using a Clipper card, the people who are most likely to be affected by this change are also the least likely to have Clipper cards, so they might be paying double the normal fare if they are using cash. Even with the day pass, there ends up being a slight surcharge for transfers if you take a round trip. This is a problem—if we are trying to reconfigure the network so it uses transfers to make it easier to get around, people should not have to think about taking a transfer. Transfers should always be free.
AC Transit attempted to enforce a number of rules around transfers, namely that they could only be used for a certain amount of time (which is reasonable) and only in “one direction” (which is not reasonable, let alone clear). Fare evasion also captures an outsize amount of attention from transit agencies. If we accept that there will be some level of fare evasion and we actually want to speed up buses, there are better ways to do it. Muni has implemented some of these, such as all-door boarding on all buses at all stops. If Clipper users are allowed to board through the rear doors, then the bus does not have to wait for everyone to file in through the front, which significantly reduces dwell times. AC Transit’s fare structure makes this somewhat more difficult, since it also has a concept of local vs. Transbay fares on Transbay buses. I suppose you could board through the rear if you are paying the full Transbay fare, but if you are taking the bus locally, you could still board in the front to tell the driver. You would also have to pay 25 cents when using a (local bus to local bus) transfer, forcing you to go in the front and stop while you put change into the farebox. If transfers were free and used a proof-of-payment system, then people with paper transfers could still board in the rear. In some sense, it seems like their speed problem was self-inflicted.
Fare evasion is definitely not a big enough deal to justify punishing people who need to transfer, or who don’t have Clipper cards. This fare structure may also inform some of their network design decisions, such as having duplicated and branching service (like the 20/21, 80/81 or 72/72M) to avoid transfers, or why so many lines go well out of their way to terminate at BART or downtown. If AC Transit adopted policies similar to Muni, they would be able to fix several of these problems at once.
Improving the grid
One of the first areas I’d like to explore is how to take the area in inner East Oakland and give it better connections to the rest of the network. We’ve already gone over the 14 and why it’s not a very useful bus. The 62 has a similarly odd route and falls off in frequency after commute hours. The 96 acts sort of like a true grid line, but is never frequent enough to be useful at 30 minute midday headways during the week.
First, I’d like to separate the 40 and the 1 a bit. Their catchment areas overlap almost completely in this area, and since they are both trunk lines this seems to be a wasteful decision. (If we do need this extra capacity in the area, we should run more 1 buses, perhaps with a short-turn during peak hours.) I chose to stick to E 21st St because that seems to give a good middle point between the 1 on International and the 57 up on MacArthur. Also, most buses in this area go around the south side of Lake Merritt; I chose to route around the north side, and use 20th St (for the transit center/BART connection) and Grand downtown.
We can also think about some crosstown lines. First, we should identify important crosstown corridors. In East Oakland, this is probably Lakeshore or 5th Ave, then 14th Ave, 23rd Ave, Fruitvale, 35th, and High St, to start out. North of downtown, we could have 27th, MacArthur/40th, something in the 51st-55th area, perhaps Alcatraz, and then Ashby Ave. To the west, we have Market/Sacramento, then Adeline, then Peralta St or Mandela Pkwy. We might be able to stitch some of these together into a nicer layout.
Generally, I’d like to do the following:
- Make a frequent grid, with the spacing between adjacent in the neighborhood of half a mile, or maybe closer together in denser areas.
- Avoid moving existing high-ridership corridors, especially ones that get lots of people downtown
- Lay out gridlines on mixed-use streets where possible
- Keep lines simple; that is, avoid unnecessary detours and try to make lines straight and stick to as few streets as possible
- Avoid streets that are too narrow or otherwise adverse for buses (i.e. lots of speed bumps)
- Simplify duplicated service, especially if it’s duplicated across more than 2 buses
- Simplify branching service (which usually dovetails with #6)
My hope is that this will produce a grid where people can travel all over Oakland with at most one transfer. For this to work really well, we need high frequencies on all of the grid lines. I think that we can get some extra frequency without making huge capital and operational investments through line simplification—buses that don’t have to travel out of their way will have shorter routes that the same number of buses can cover more frequently.
This map is taking some time to put together, as it involves shuffling around a lot of currently existing lines. Changes made in one place often require cascading changes in other places. While working on it, I also realized that I would like to be able to explain some of my decisions, rather than just finish up this post with a map with a lot of lines and no justification for any specific part of it.
I’ll finish this up with maps and rationale in a follow-up post.