Election Section

AC Transit’s Van Hools Hated by Riders, Drivers By JOYCE ROY

Tuesday April 12, 2005

Jaimie Levin’s letter praising the Van Hool buses (DAILY PLANET, March 8-10) shows how totally out of touch AC Transit is with its riders. When these buses were first introduced, riders’ complaints were so loud and clear, that one could assume they would not continue to order them. But no, they plugged their ears and didn’t even listen to their own Riders Advisory Committee (RAC) which gave the buses their thumbs down. The board then eliminated the RAC to avoid listening to riders’ pesky demands. And soon Van Hools will be invading all the bus lines—AC Transit plans to replace ALL their buses with them. 

I am a very active senior and do not own a car so I am a frequent rider and I can tell you the overwhelming majority of riders and operators hate them. I hear seniors, in particular, saying, “We pray for an old bus.” They are better because once you get up a couple of steps (and the bus is not going to start moving as you are getting up the steps) you are home free. You can sit down quickly in a nearby seat or any other seat without having to negotiate steps while the bus is moving. 

I was on a Van Hool bus with the AC Transit boardmember who has been the chief advocate for these buses, when a passenger with two canes had to get to one of the few no-step seats that are not near the door. It took some time as it was crowded and people had to help him while shouting at the driver to not start moving before he got seated. In talking to the boardmember afterwards, I pointed out this example of how cumbersome they are and he replied, “but you see people do manage.” 

Yes, “people do manage” to overcome many obstacles. But why should they have to because of bad design. But since AC Transit primarily has a captive audience, people who have no other choices, they have to keep on riding buses that ignore their comfort and safety. 

These buses are built in Belgium, but Belgium is not to be blamed for the interior configuration. That very awkward, cumbersome, if not hazardous, seating arrangement was dreamed up in AC Transit’s ivory tower without any consumer testing. 

Here is the Van Hool experience as designed by AC Transit: You enter through a narrow door that cannot accommodate passengers getting on and off simultaneously. Then you encounter a bottleneck that will not accommodate baby carriages or shopping carts. This narrow aisle between seats with a 12” high step is often crowded with people. You look for one of the few seats that will not be too difficult to navigate. If you want to get to seats in the rear, you have to negotiate an area between these seats and the front bottleneck with nothing to hang onto with the bus moving. And if you want to sit looking forward you may be out of luck because almost half of the seats face to the rear. These are very disorienting since, unlike on BART, you have to watch the passing scene to know when to push the stop button, a button that you may not be able to reach easily. 

Then there is the rarely used third door. The whole rationale for going to Belgium for these low-floor buses instead of continuing with the two-door low-floor NABI buses assembled in Alabama (the green #72 buses on San Pablo Ave.) is that third door. It was thought to be absolutely necessary to enable people to get off and on Rapid Transit buses quickly without presenting a ticket —a system called proof of payment (POP). It is an honor system backed up by a lot of inspectors randomly checking tickets. It works for some train systems but when an AC Transit staff person was asked if it has worked for buses anyplace in America, he replied, “they tried it in Paris but gave it up because they were losing too much money.” So it is not going to happen anytime soon, certainly not within the lifetime of the buses that have been purchased to implement POP. So the whole rational for them is out the window. But that doesn’t keep AC Transit from continuing to purchase them for every line. 

And even the new 30-foot buses with only two doors that have been ordered, will have the same awkward seating.  

In fact, there are four ways that Van Hool buses make bus operation less efficient than the low-floor NABI buses:  

1) Drivers are not supposed to start moving until everyone is seated and it takes people longer to get seated. 2) People cannot enter at the same time people are exiting from the front door. 3) With wheelchair accessibility in the middle of the bus instead of at the front door it takes time to maneuver the bus to an accessible location. 4) Riders who face backwards are apt to push the stop button for the wrong stop. 

If you want to know what I am talking about ride one of the Rapid Transit Van Hool buses on San Pablo then get off and transfer to one of the green buses on the same route. Some low-floor NABIs are on other routes. You can spot them because their windows are low in front of the exit door and higher behind it because the seats are on a higher level.  

AC Transit is the nation’s only bus agency with an elected board. Years ago when AC Transit took over from the Key System, it was decided that the board should be elected so it would be more responsive to the needs of riders. Well, it didn’t work. Riders feel they have no say and probably not enough are loud mouths. You would not be able to foist these buses on cities like San Francisco that have a large number of articulate middle and upper class riders.  

Seniors were used in ads promoting Measure BB, the parcel tax for AC Transit, before last November’s election. They were shown getting onto a Van Hool bus but their struggle to get into one of the high-step seats reserved for them, once inside, was not shown. The design of these buses belies AC Transit’s concern for the needs of seniors and the mobility impaired. 

The Van Hool buses violate the spirit, and perhaps, the letter, of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). The seats near doors are supposed to be reserved for seniors and people with disabilities and words to that affect are placed over the front seats with the 12” high steps that make them virtually inaccessible to those with mobility problems. They are only suitable for the young and agile who like a physical challenge or those who have passed Rock Climbing 101. 

By the way, I have said practically everything I have said in this letter in person to the Board of AC Transit to no avail.