The Public Eye: The View from One Bus Driver’s Seat

By Zelda Bronstein
Thursday September 04, 2008 - 09:28:00 AM

Anthony Rodgers has been an AC Transit bus driver for 18 years. I met Rodgers a few weeks ago when I boarded his westbound No. 18 bus in downtown Berkeley.  

Our initial exchange was not promising: He wouldn’t accept the stub of the BART to Bus/Bus to BART transfer that I’d plucked out of the machine at the downtown Berkeley BART station earlier in the day. I’d used the other half to board an eastbound No. 18 for $1.50 (25 cents under the regular bus fare). I told Rodgers that the eastbound driver had assured me that I could use the stub to transfer to another bus. Not so, he said. You have to pay the full fare of $1.75. You should have skipped the BART to Bus ticket, paid the full fare on the first bus and asked for an AC transfer to use on the second.  

This news was disconcerting—I’d just returned from Vancouver, British Columbia, where a single TransLink ticket allows you to go from the bus to the Skytrain to the Seabus. But I paid the full fare, sat down near the front and struck up a conversation with Rodgers about the sometimes baffling ways of public transit in our part of the world. By the time I got off on Solano Avenue, he’d agreed to an off-the-bus interview. 

“What my passengers want,” he told me, when I’d reached him on the phone, “is an uneventful ride. The greatest compliment I can have is when someone who isn’t drunk falls asleep on my bus.” For that to happen, riders have to feel confident that a bus driver is going to get them to their destinations on time. “The bottom line is that passengers want schedule adherence.” 

Certainly that’s my top priority. When I’ve timed a walk to the bus-stop after consulting the official AC Transit schedule, it’s annoying and, depending on where I’m headed, even anxiety-making, to find myself waiting (and waiting) for a bus that’s late. Before talking to Rodgers, I couldn’t see much farther than the vacant bus lane. Now my perspective has broadened to include the view from the driver’s seat. 

Punctuality, Rogers said, has a lot to do with a driver’s relationship to the particular bus line he’s driving. One source of delay is a poorly laid-out route. Take the 51 bus, which “carries more people than any other on the property.” It has a very long run: It begins at Broadway and Blanding in Alameda, goes up Broadway in Oakland to Rockridge BART, traverses College to Bancroft, goes down Bancroft to downtown Berkeley BART and then down University to San Pablo and ends up at Third and University. The line is both long and varied, heavily patronized on congested College Avenue but used by fewer passengers in other areas.  

The unevenness creates challenges for bus operators. Driving on the 51, “you sometimes find yourself ahead of schedule,” but in the heavily trafficked parts of the route, “you have to put your foot on it: You have to drive as fast as is commensurate with safety.” Rodgers would like to see the 51 line divided in half, split at Rockridge BART, since the passenger load considerably lightens going toward Alameda. 

A driver’s performance is also affected by his familiarity with a line. “There’s a certain groove you get into driving a bus,” said Rodgers. When you’re driving a familiar route, “you know when to slow down, when to speed up. It’s the same when you’re driving your own car. As a bus driver, you also know where you’re likely to get a lot of passengers, and where you’re likely to get less.” That sort of local knowledge helps a driver to stick to the schedule.  

Rodgers thinks that kind of familiarity can be hard for an AC Transit bus operator to achieve, because assignments are likely to change. Every three months, drivers sign up for routes. The more seniority you have, the greater your options. There’s no guarantee you’re going to get the same assignment you got in the past. “In the ’70s the lines didn’t change very much.” In those days, an operator would drive the same line for 10 or 15 years. “That person would know how to keep the line on time.”  

Besides facilitating an intimate aquaintance with a route, the consistent assignments fostered a sense of community between drivers and their passengers. Rodgers recalled a colleague who drove the O line from Alameda to San Franciso every morning. “If he called in sick for more than one day, his passengers would call AC Transit to find out if he was okay. There was a community that doesn’t exist anymore. I’d like to build that up again.” One way to do so, he said, is “to freeze the schedules,” so that operators can drive the same route longer than three months at a time. 

I wonder if AC Transit shares Rodgers’ interest in promoting camaraderie between bus drivers and riders, given the lively grassroots campaigns now being waged against the agency’s Van Hool buses, as well as its plans for a $400,000 Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] line with two bus-only lanes going down Telegraph Avenue. This fall the Berkeley electorate will weigh in on a citizens’ initiative requiring BRT to be subject to a popular vote. Also on the November ballot is the AC Transit Board election, featuring a reform slate consisting of at-large challenger Joyce Roy and Ward 2 incumbent Greg Harper, that seeks greater agency accountability toward both bus operators and passengers. 

“My passengers aren’t asking for Bus Rapid Transit,” Rodgers told me. Nor are they fans of the Van Hool buses. His older passengers find the raised seats hard to negotiate. And with their lack of air conditioning and “tons of glass,” the Van Hools are unpleasant for everyone on hot days. They’re particularly onerous for bus operators, who are forbidden by AC Transit management to drink water while they’re driving, even at a stop sign.  

Rodgers belongs to the Transit Workers Action Caucus, which is working on heat-related stress on buses. “We do need to be able to drink water out there on the line,” he says. He noted that AC Transit is appealing the citation it’s received from the California Divison of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) for inadequately protecting drivers from heat-related illness. 

But for Rodgers, the buck doesn’t stop with the transit agency. “The problems of AC Transit are in the final analysis our problems. Mencken said Americans get the government they deserve. There are a lot of people who are not paying attention to AC Transit. They don’t like what they see, but they’re not working for solutions. I urge people to get out and vote. Pay attention to the AC Transit Board of Directors and who voted for what.” “Joyce Roy,” he added, “is one of the solutions.” 

I was already planning to vote for Roy and the BRT initiative; talking with Rodgers reconfirmed those choices. I can’t vote for Harper, because I don’t live in his ward. Anyone who does should support both of these candidates. Their victories plus the passage of the BRT measure would greatly improve the likelihood that we—meaning bus riders and operators—will get the accountability from AC Transit that we really do deserve. 


Note: According to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission website,TransLink is currently accepted by AC Transit and Golden Gate Transit and Ferry. BART, Muni and Caltrain will start accepting TransLink in 2008, followed by SamTrans and VTA in 2009.