AC Transit’s 51 bus: an open letter


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.