A day with AC Transit
on July 8, 2009
Ever since I moved to Berkeley from Japan a year ago, my friend, Josh Allen keeps asking. “How can you survive without a car?” Allen, an associate movie producer, who drives his three-year old Mercedes convertible everywhere he goes, will never understand.
But those who ride the buses and need the buses do.
AC Transit serves more than 230,000 of us a day. When Privately owned Key System started its streetcar and bus services in East Bay in 1903, the bus fare between San Francisco and Oakland was only 10 cent. AC Transit took over in 1960, and has been increasing fares ever since.
On July 1, that fare jumped to $2,00 and I decided to find out why others ride public transit and what a 25 cent hike means to them. So for 11 hours on July 1, I rode Line 1, which runs from the Downtown Berkeley BART to the Bay Fair BART Station down Telegraph Avenue and International Boulevard. I chose it because Line 1 has the biggest ridership of 30,000 to 40,000 combined with Rapid Line 11R among other lines.
Downtown BART Station at 6 a.m.
I ‘m surprised to find an elderly woman waiting for the bus at 6 a.m. Mary Norman, a Berkeley resident, says she’s going to Downtown Oakland for some business.
“I have not ridden on a bus since the last time they raised its fare,” says 68-year old Norman, referring to the 25 cent hike in 2005. “It is ironic that my car broke down on the day they raised the fare.”
I get on a Line 1 bus at 6:06 a.m. heading toward downtown Oakland. Usually the bus is packed with Cal students, Berkeley High students and workers. However, early in the morning, two elderly men and two young men board with me as I pick up the bus at the Downtown Berkeley BART . Everybody looks tired and grumpy. I try to speak with one of the elderly men. He glares. “Go away, I am tired.”
We ride quietly and all I can hear is the uncomfortable cadence of the bus shaking as it rides over bumps. I start wondering where all the federal stimulus money went.
A decline in ridership and government funding has made AC Transit chronically strapped for cash since the early 1970s. However, this year’s shortfall is unprecedented and offered the perfect storm for a fare increase: large cuts in state funding and a decline in sales-tax revenue.
The fare hike is expected to raise $5.7 million for AC Transit, not enough to overcome its shortfall even with the $26 million federal stimulus money that it is receiving.
The two men get off at MacArthur while I was doing the math. I too get off to try another bus.
While I wait, I meet Juan Parla. He’s going to see a relative who will refer Parla for a job at a company in San Francisco “I do not have to go there this early, but I am nervous,” says Parla, who lost his job as a construction worker. He looks surprised when I ask him about the fare increase.
“I do not read papers, nor have computer,” says Juan. “It is outrageous, I only have $10 to get by today, and 50 cents is a big difference for me.” He says he will have to give up his coffee.
I get on the bus again at 7 a.m. Still riders are grumpy. I manage to talk to one rider, who says he is going to the RAI Care Center for dialysis.
“It is outrageous,” says Moore Reynolds, who was diagnosed with kidney disease 10 years ago. “My medical bill is going up and I do not know if I can manage financially.”
He says he fails to understand why he has to pay another 25 cents when service isn’t improving. He gets off the bus on 28th Street and Telegraph near the RAI Care Center. “I hate it,” he says when the back door closes in front of him.
The AC Transit is not alone in its troubles. Public transportation is floundering across the country. The Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York has a $1.2 billion deficit and raised bus fare to $2.25 from $2.00 in May. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has a $160 million deficit and plans its hike for the fall.
Some Oakland riders understand this predicament. “If they have to raise the fare, they have to,” says Heather Bailey, who works at a non-profit organization in downtown Oakland. But she says that she might consider biking to her office, because the non profit cut her salary by 20 percent. “Biking is a healthier solution, too,” Bailey says and gets off at 12th Street and Broadway.
As the bus runs between 20th to 34th Street on Telegraph Avenue, more Korean passengers board leaving the Korean restaurants and stores. African ethnic stores and Middle Eastern markets also line Telegraph Avenue.
After the bus makes a left at 12th Street and goes by Lake Merritt, it enters Little Saigon, where business signs for beauty salons, accounting services and international phone cards are all in Vietnamese.
Inside the bus, Chinese and Vietnamese riders talk on their cell phones in Chinese, but they stop talking to me as soon as they discover I don’t speak Chinese.
“It does no matter to me. I just keep working hard,” says Brigitte Tran, who works at a nail salon on Fruitvale Avenue, says in curt English.
The bus becomes more Latino as it moves toward Fruitvale Avenue along International Boulevard’s rows of taco trucks and Latino grocers.
It ‘s almost 8 a.m., and I ‘m getting hungry.
I smell guacamole and burritos on the bus and I discover Carlos Lopez, a rider, is eating a breakfast burrito. Not even that makes him happy.
“Why another fare hike? I am getting paid less than before,” says Lopez, who has four children. “The poor people like us are the victims.” Lopez adds that he’ll have to give up his membership to Costco, which costs at least $50 a year.
San Leandro BART station at 9:20 a.m.
On the way back from San Leandro, I meet Walter Delgado, a construction worker who lives in Hayward. He has been dependent on public transportation since he lost his driver’s license three months ago.
“It’s s nice. I get to see the things that I did not pay attention to when I was driving myself,” says Delgado. However, the economy makes him nervous about his job.
“I understand AC Transit has to raise the fare because of all the budget crisis. Even 25 cents makes a big difference if I ever become jobless,” says Delgado.
After 9:30 a.m., the bus gets livelier with more passengers. A child starts to cry. She doesn’t want her mother to work. Joyce Robertson decided to go back to work after her husband lost his job at a hotel kitchen two months ago. “So, my mother is going to take care of Alisha while I am working,” says Robertson, who found a job at her friend’s grocery store.
Suddenly, after the bus passes Fruitvale, Line 1 one gets noisy. A young teenager starts playing her music really loud, and young man boy hums the hip-hop music he’s listening to. A couple riding together are trying out different ring tones. The options resound through the entire bus., No one seems to care, which really surprises me because in Japan riders would be giving all of these passengers dirty looks.
I get off at Downtown Oakland city center around 10 a.m. It’s time for a break.
Downtown Oakland 11th Street at 11:30
I like Oakland because I never get bored people watching. I see a man with a limp at the bus station asking a well-dressed man what kind of leather his shoes are made of.
“This is snake,” says the man, with a dismissive tone.
The other guy persists. “Is it almost the same as alligator?”
The man patiently answers. “No, snake is snake, alligator is alligator.”
The inquisitor changes the subject. “I have a nice house on International Boulevard, but I just don’t have enough money for the bus, can you spare me some change?” The well-dressed man leaves, shaking his head.
When the gentleman who needs spare change and I get on a bus, we hear a recording announcing the fare hike. “Damn it,” says the man. “I didn’t know nothing about the fare hike.” With a resigned look, the driver waves his hand and lets the man on board.
“Where are you going?? I ask. He screams at me. “It is none of your business, I have a bad leg, I ain’t got no money, or can you give me a quarter for me talking to you”
Feeling sheepish and tired, I go to the back of the bus.. A lady sitting next has watched the scene. “Honey, everybody is stressed out because of the economy. He just took out on you, because he did not know about the hike and did not have money,” says Sharisha Wilson, a dental assistant in San Leandro. “I am lucky just to have job now.”
23rd Street and International Boulevard at 2:30 p.m.
As I wait for next bus, a person starts to talk to me. “Are you Japanese,” asks Selena Diaz. She says that her father was stationed in Yokota, Japan. Diaz is a palm reader, but she’s getting fewer customers these days.
“People would rather spend money on food than fortune telling, which makes sense to me,” says Diaz with a sad face. “I do not complain about the fare hike, because I know Oakland is broke. But I might have to find other job, and will give up smoking.” She smokes at least a pack a day, and adds that giving it up may be good for her health.
A teenager gets on at the bus at the rear door. I notice him because he’s listening to hip-hop music at the maximum volume. Five minutes later, the driver yells. “You, with black and red shirt, come here.”
The youth ignores him. The driver yells again. “Come here.”
He has to pay and when he returns, he’s cursing. I’m surprised how many riders try to outwit the driver by getting on the bus from the back. I’ve rarely witnessed anyone trying to ride for free in Japan. There, paying the fare is a non-negotiable. A man sitting next me whispers o himself. “The driver did not realize that that kid was trying to ride on a bus for free for five minutes. That is why the Transit is broke.”
Downtown Oakland 12th Street and Broadway at 5 p.m.
Time to go home. As the bus crosses onto College Avenue, more Cal students came on board. They look overly carefree compared to the riders I’ve talked to all day. Cal students get free passes so the fare hike means nothing to them. Their innocence confuses me. I’ve heard so many stories of Oakland residents who are struggling.
However, the privilege that Cal students enjoy now might not last because UC Berkeley is facing a $70 million deficit.
I get off the bus where I started– at the downtown Berkeley BART. There, I hear a female student laughing cheerfully. I’m tired. She annoys me.
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