David Vartanoff: A brief history of Oakland transit

28 Jan

This guest post was written by David Vartanoff, a transit historian and advocate–train, streetcar, subway (prefer rail, accept buses), fan since childhood.  Long ago he learned to use transit to get around.  As a kid visiting Chicago, he rode most of the L and what was left of Chicago streetcar lines.  Later on he was out on the final night of streetcar service in DC.  In the late 60’s in NYC he rode most of the subway system. Years later, he was on BART for Day One (and subsequent opening days for each segment).

As with most American cities, Oakland and the surrounding areas had a web of electric street railways both for intra city travel and via connecting ferries commuting to San Francisco by the early years of the 20th century.  When the Bay Bridge was built there were tracks on the lower level to bring trains into the Transbay Terminal.  However, the very same bridge severely decreased ridership. So despite the WWII spike, in the early 50s the rail system was decrepit and slowly being abandoned.  By the time the last rail operations of the Key System died to be reborn as AC Transit buses, plans were already underway to build BART.

BART pioneered late 20th century US transit style–carpets, cushy seats, discriminatory fares, and cost overruns worthy of Defense Department vendors (no surprise, some of them were)  So the promised $792 million system came in over $1.6 billion, opened late and was very unreliable the first decade. While all this was happening, AC Transit was running two different networks–the traditional Transbay routes mimicking the bridge trains and East Bay buses, not only locals, but a network of expresses linking longer distance riders to the central business districts and Cal.

AC responded to the 1970’s energy crisis/gas lines by putting many more buses out to move the sudden increase in riders.  When BART was under construction the assumption was that they would attract many users of existing transit so a deal was struck wherein any employee of a “legacy agency” could transfer to BART with no loss of wages and retain seniority.  Prior to Prop 13, AC had a percentage real estate funding base, was cheap, and fairly reliable.  As the funding evaporated (the con at the time was that Sacramento would make up the loss w/state transit assistance), BART finally worked out enough bugs to became useful rather than just a novelty around the same time and AC began to bleed riders.

Adding to AC’s losses, the carpool free bridge toll savaged transbay ridership but AC compounded the issue by ticketing cars picking up riders at bus stops, alienating riders. Express routes were trimmed, then axed and at the same time AC began a bad habit of bleeding edge bus purchases.  They bought 1st generation digital route signs which were illegible and lifts which failed more often than they performed. Service quality dropped, fares rose, and more riders bailed either to BART or their cars.

As the nineties came, AC was broke and essentially abandoned all neighborhood evening service, abolished overnight service from SF, and slashed weekend runs. At the same time they began the planning exercise (as if there would ever be any operating funds) that brought us the 72 and 1 Rapids. In the mid nineties BART “took” a strike and although AC could not put out enough buses to carry everyone, they did gain significant transbay riders.  In this milieu, AC began to acquire the intercity buses we now see on some transbay routes.

In the wake of this increased transbay ridership, recent AC management strategies have tended toward attracting “choice” riders, while periodically cutting more and more local service.  Today AC has a regular monthly outreach meeting for transbay riders.  This is part of the background of the Belgian buses which AC has bought despite vociferous rider complaints.

After several years of state transit assistance/spillover funding being embezzled to plug general fund gaps, and sales tax proceeds tanking, AC, like every other transit agency in the state (and nation) faces deficits as far as anyone can see. Once again MTC has raised the issue of “transit Balkanization” as if merging agencies would save significant money without destroying local accountability (read service).

The MTC sponsored presentations on transit issues for the future make clear that without serious changes ALL transit is in trouble. Remarkably MUNI’s chief gave a presentation on how to improve transit.

So what future is there for public transit around Oakland?  Without a permanent and reliable funding stream AC (and even BART) will stumble into insolvency.  The death spiral of raised fares and lowered service  accelerates as more areas are abandoned.

As a side note, in the recent AC Service Adjustment hearings/community outreach, Oakland as a city government was mostly MIA whereas Berkeley apparently engaged seriously to actually improve service.  This is not new since Dellums; Brown, Harris, Wilson, equally ignored AC in times of crisis.


2 Responses to “David Vartanoff: A brief history of Oakland transit”

  1. newoaktown January 28, 2010 at 12:26 pm #

    Becks thanks for posting this insightful short history.
    Sounds like we’re inching closer to political collapse every year that goes by.

    I know that HSR will never be built and operational in CA.

    BRT is implementable short-term but prop13 must be repealed.

    We’ll end up with black market/underground transport solutions, and ultimately more reliance on bicycles and SHOES.

  2. newoaktown January 28, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    i meant to say prop13 must be repealed in order to fund BRT and basic transit properly.

    there is NO free lunch.

    unions, rich pensions will go away within ten years at the outside.

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