Public Comment

Commentary: Fix Van Hool Busses and Improve Service, Too

By Steve Geller
Friday March 02, 2007

The AC Transit General Manager says the Van Hools are the best bus we’ve ever had. But some riders are calling these nice new buses “Van Hell.” 

What’s the problem? 

AC Transit has been trying hard to make bus riding more attractive, so more people will ride transit—especially to and from work—instead of driving alone in a car. Because Europeans ride buses far more than we do, AC Transit decided to get “European style” buses. They couldn’t get the right kind from any U.S. bus manufacturer, not even from Gillig in nearby Hayward. So AC Transit bought Van Hool buses in Europe. 

Van Hool of Belgium has a fine reputation world-wide; they have been making buses since 1947, and they have sold city buses all over Europe, Asia and Africa. Van Hool tour buses can be seen at Fisherman’s Wharf. In local politics, however, it really looks bad that AC Transit bought buses from Belgium, while cutting service in Berkeley. Riders resent the money spent on management and staff trips to Belgium instead of improving our bus service. It turns out finally that the interior layout of our Van Hools was not designed by a specialist at Van Hool but by somebody on the AC Transit staff. Van Hool could have given AC Transit plenty of excellent ideas for seat layouts, drawing on their world-wide experience. I’m sure there are seniors in Europe, Asia and Africa who have just as much trouble climbing into those high seats as our seniors do here. 

AC Transit also required three doors on the new buses. US bus designs generally have only the front and rear doors, so the extra door became a custom item, which drove up the cost and effectively prevented any U.S. manufacturer from making a successful bid.  

Originally, the purpose of the three doors was to speed up boarding. AC Transit was going to implement POP fare collection, where people obtain proof-of-payment (POP) before they ride the buses instead of fumbling for their fare as they board. This system vastly speeds up boarding because people can enter and exit through all the doors; the buses can make faster trips. POP is used on Muni streetcars, on Caltrain, on buses in Oregon, Canada, Europe and Brazil. But according to AC Transit management, POP is too expensive for the East Bay, because of the salaries of the fare inspectors needed to keep East Bay riders honest. Well OK, but if POP wasn’t an option, why were the three doors required? This looks very bad. 

Personally, I started off rather liking the Van Hools. They do cut a fine figure as they go by, and their clean diesel is quiet. I’m a big guy, so I find it relatively easy to negotiate the high seats. But as I’ve aged, I’ve gotten a little unsteady on my feet, so I find it frightening when I have to stand, and there’s no place to grab hold while the bus swerves and lurches about Berkeley. This kind of thing can make a bus ride a “Van Hell” for a senior. The grab-bar problem is worst in the front of the bus, next to the first set of facing seats. I hope AC Transit will install some traditional hanging straps in that part of the bus, if they can’t put in more grab-bars.  

Speaking of tradition, I think we should go back to pull-cords for signaling when we want to get off, instead of those push-buttons. On a 40-foot Van Hool, if you’re sitting in the right front seat next to the window, and there’s someone seated next to you in the aisle seat, there is no way to reach the push-button, which is across the aisle, without flopping over your neighbor. Pull-cords and strap-hangers were invented over 100 years ago, and are still a good idea. 

The Van Hools should have more bench seating—the traditional seats facing the aisle from the wall of the bus, not just those folding jump-seats. A good use for the hump over the wheel is a platform to store packages, as on the NABIs and the new 30-foot Van Hools. Berkeley needs to catch up with other cities and deploy Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The plan is for the BRT vehicle to be the same 60-foot articulated Van Hool bus now in regular service on the 40L route (where the BRT will run). I want to see more people traveling about Berkeley on buses, not continually clogging the streets with cars and spewing greenhouse gases.  

It would be great to have the big Van Hool operating as a BRT, delivering people to their jobs along Telegraph, Bancroft and Shattuck. We need more transit action, less controversy. Employers should strongly support the Commuter Check program. Employees should stop taking parking spaces away from shoppers and visitors. People working in Berkeley should be using the bus, not feeding parking meters. The Van Hools could be fixed so that riders are happy. Then we could concentrate on making sure our buses provide fast and frequent service. We need to implement BRT, POP and bus-only lanes. We need to stop being so negative. 


Steve Geller is a Berkeley resident.