Column: The Public Eye: I’m Trying to Get On the Bus

By Zelda Bronstein
Friday August 10, 2007

I had my transit-oriented epiphany one morning in late May as I was making my way to a conference at the UC Student Union. I live in north Berkeley near the intersection of Solano and Colusa. Loathe to pay $20 to leave my car for six to eight hours in the city-owned Telegraph-Channing garage, I decided to look for a free space on a Northside street and walk from there to the conference. But as I motored through neighborhoods north of Cedar above Shattuck, my fantasized unregulated spot failed to materialize. Everywhere I looked, I saw two-hour parking signs. Time was wasting, and I was getting further and further from my final destination. I returned home, left my car in the driveway and, feeling both chastened and virtuous, caught the bus.  

Negative reinforcement works. Trouble is, it can work against virtue as well as for it. After my revelatory May experience, I resolved to take the bus whenever possible. Unfortunately, AC Transit makes it so hard to get information about routes and schedules that I’ve ended up driving even when I’d rather ride. 

I recently wanted to go to a 5:10 late matinee at a movie theater in downtown Berkeley. Not long ago, I would have just walked to the familiar bus stop at Solano and Colusa and waited for the 43 bus. But on June 24, AC Transit changed many of its routes, schedules and bus numbers. The 43 was no more. What, I wondered, had taken its place, and when did it stop on Solano? In this era of climate change campaigns, you’d think those questions would be easy to answer. Guess again.  

If you Google the AC Transit website and click on “Maps and Schedules” you get a list of dozens of bus numbers with no up-front indication of where the buses go or how their routes relate to the discontinued lines. You also get a “Maps” option with links to specific cities. I clicked on “Richmond-Berkeley.” Up came a map so small as to be illegible, but it was accompanied by a table of signs that could be used to home in on specific areas and to enlarge or diminish the map at those points. I began to click and to move the cursor. Transit corridors come into focus, with bus lines shown in color. But I could only see a tiny part of any line at once. Again, too much trouble. 

What I wanted was an old-fashioned schedule that listed the street name of the route (alongside the bus number) and the times that the bus made its major stops. In fact, just such a schedule is posted on the AC Transit website but to get to it, first you have to know the number of the bus line. 

I decided to abandon the website and to call for help. Under “AC Transit,” the phone book gives two numbers for “Bus Information,” 511 and 817-1717. Ditto for the website: Click on “Contact Us,” and under “Travel Information,” you’ll see: “Phone: Dial 817-1717 or 511 and say, ‘AC Transit,’ to speak with person about route information including time points, destinations, or trip planning.” 

I dialed 511 but didn’t get a person, at least not a live one. Instead, I heard music with a technobeat followed by an unctuous taped male voice that said: “Welcome to the Bay Area’s 511. Main Menu. I can give you information on traffic…” When I interrupted with “AC Transit,” the Voice said in a resigned tone, “OK, AC Transit.” But instead of connecting me to a live operator, it continued: “You can ask for information on cash fares, prepaid passes, lost and found or damaged passes. In addition, for complaints, commendations….” When I repeatedly said, “AC Transit,” the Voice would say: “I’m sorry, I missed that” or “You can interrupt me at any time” or “To hear a complete list of what’s available, say: ‘What are my choices?’” It was maddening.  

I hung up, went back to the website, rummaged through various drop-down menus, found a phone number for District Secretary Linda Nemeroff, (891-7284) and called it. I doubted that the secretary’s official duties included dispensing basic travel information, but I thought I might reach a helpful live person. Happily, Ms. Nemeroff was at her desk and indeed did her best to help me. First she tried to find the information herself on the AC Transit website. She encountered the challenges I’d just described to her. Then she put me on hold while she searched for someone who could tell me what bus to take from Solano and Colusa to downtown Berkeley. When, after five or so minutes, nobody turned up, she asked if she could relay my concerns to somebody at AC Transit who could address them. By then, it was nearly 4:30, and I was worried that I was going to miss my show. I told her I’d call her back, said goodbye and drove to downtown Berkeley, where I was lucky enough to find an on-street parking place near the movie theater just in time to make my show. 

Subsequently I did speak to Ms. Nemeroff. She called me—several times, in fact—and said she’d forward my questions to the appropriate party. The next working day, I got a call from Latonya Smith, who works in AC Transit’s Customer Services department. Ms. Smith was also quite helpful; she’s sending me information about the changed bus lines. She also told me that earlier in the summer, such information had been posted on the website as well as handed out at BART stations and elsewhere; and that the agency was soliciting feedback on the recent changes from focus groups of riders.  

That all sounds good. But would-be patrons shouldn’t have to call Customer Service to get information about bus schedules and routes. Here are a few suggestions for making AC Transit more user-friendly: Cut the crazy-making, voice-prompted taped responses that force callers to contemplate irrelevant, time-consuming “menus.” Have phone inquiries answered by well-informed staff who know the new routes and schedules and how they relate to the old ones. Post those routes on the AC Transit website in easy-to-access formats. Put the information about the June schedule changes back on the website. Stock each bus with ample hard copy versions of its current route and timetable. When I was in New York City in July, I greatly appreciated the signs posted on a pole near each bus stop listing the routes and timetables for each line that stopped there. I understand that it could take awhile to achieve that coverage in the East Bay (Ms. Smith told me that AC Transit has 6500 bus stops); I can only say: Go for it.  

AC Transit wants to spend $400 million on Bus Rapid Transit. How about funding a Bus Rapid Info project that offers effective, low-tech aids that make it easier to get on the bus—any bus—in the first place?