AC Transit’s extensive service reduction planning process yields great results

It isn’t news for this blog’s readers (or, well, for anyone, really) that AC Transit is facing a looming (and significant) budget deficit, or that to deal with the deficit, the agency will soon be making some dramatic cuts to bus service. But what some of you might not know is that last week, they released a revised service reduction proposal that would dramatically reduce the impact of the coming cuts.

Knowing they had a budget deficit coming and accepting that service cuts were inevitable, AC Transit began seeking input from their riders about how they should go about making the necessary reductions last summer. Input was solicited from website visitors and e-mail list subscribers via an online poll, and first-person comments were taken through a series of community workshops where planning staff detailed the types of choices before them in crafting the service reductions.

Then, based on the public comment they had received and the results of the service reduction survey, AC Transit crafted a service reduction proposal, released it to the public two months before it was scheduled for adoption by the Board, and held another series of eight public workshops, which were then followed by two public Board hearings. Additionally, the agency solicited input through their website, where visitors were invited to comment on proposed changes to each individual line.

It wasn’t just the quantity of public input and opportunities for comment that made this process so excellent – it was also that the way feedback was taken. I’m sure that many of this blog’s readers watched at least one of the special budget meetings the Oakland City Council held earlier this year. Some of you may have even attended one of the City’s budget town halls. The way they were conducted was pretty typical for public meetings – people who have something to say sign up and then get X amount of time to make their pitch or plea for whatever it is they want protected from cuts, and then when that’s all done, the decision makers may or may not talk for a while about what they think, then it’s over and everybody goes home without accomplishing anything.

AC Transit allowed for this model during the two public hearings they held, but they scrapped it for their workshops. Instead, they offered a brief presentation followed by an hour of opportunity for attendees to examine service maps and talk to planners about how exactly they use the bus and what the proposed cuts would mean for them in terms of getting where they need to go. I know that some people don’t like this format because they prefer having an opportunity to force everyone else in the room listen to them grandstand, but for everyone else, it’s much better.

The “listen to me for two minutes” model of public input is well suited to angry people who either don’t expect to be listened to anyway, or who believe that they should get what they want simply because they showed up to demand it. The conversation model creates an opportunity for real understanding of and meaningful response to the public’s concerns.

In any case, the massive amount of outreach worked. AC Transit recorded nearly 5,000 comments (PDF) on the service reduction proposal altogether, through a combination of workshops, public hearings, letters, e-mails, website comments, phone calls, petitions, and comments at their customer service office. (You can read a breakdown of all comments received, sorted by line, with notes here (PDF).)

Meanwhile, realizing just how awful the proposed cuts were, no matter how carefully they tried to be in crafting them, the agency scrambled to figure out a way to avoid at least some of the devastation. And lo and behold, they came up with one. AC Transit is working with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to take some funds previously earmarked for BRT and transfer them into operations. Although the funding swap has not yet been completed, the AC Transit Board of Director agreed to a set of conditions (PDF) requested by the MTC at last week’s meeting, and at the moment, things look good for the funding swap.

Which brings us to AC Transit’s revised service adjustments plan. It’s great.

I mean, obviously, service cuts are service cuts and that always sucks, there’s no way around it. But based on the massive amount of feedback, AC Transit planners were able to adjust the proposal in a way that avoided some of the most controversial cuts. Many of the cuts that provoked the most outrage weren’t in Oakland, so I won’t get into them here, but I am pleased to say that under the new plan, service on 3 and 4 (which will be replacing the 51 that runs up Broadway and College Avenue) has been restored to the same frequency that exists on the 51 right now. Also, the 18, which runs up Park Boulevard to Montclair, and under the original proposal would have run only every half an hour on the portion of the route between MacArthur Boulevard and Montclair Village, would now get to keep 15 minute service over the entire route. Lucky Glenview.

But the revised service adjustment plan is not just a simple matter of taking back proposed cuts and putting things the way they already were. Routes have been altered in creative ways to help people get to where they need to go more easily. For example, service along Lincoln Avenue had previously been a matter of controversy. The many institutions along the road (Head Royce School, the Cerebral Palsy Center, the Mormon Temple, and the Greek Orthodox Cathedral) were insistent that they need bus service along the road, but the folks from the Woodminster Shopping Center, where the bus had previously turned around after completing its route, did not like having the bus come there. The new plan revises the route so that service up Lincoln Avenue is maintained, but instead of turning around at the top, the bus will continue on, serving Joaquin Miller Park and then providing all day service to Skyline High School.

Many people at the workshops and public hearings emphasized that they needed the bus specifically for commuting, and pled with AC Transit to keep at least peak hour service along their lines. Problem is, the bus (and the bus driver), if it’s operating at all, has to have something to do all day long, so providing service on a line only during peak hours doesn’t actually save any money. But rather than just throwing their hands in the air, AC Transit planners buckled down and came up with some really creative solutions. By combining routes that don’t need all-day service, AC Transit was able to provide those necessary peak hour buses, and use the non-peak hours for other things, like shopper shuttles and (OMG, I am so thrilled about this) new service to the Chabot Space & Science Center.

In other institutional/recreational service news, service to the Oakland Zoo, which had previously been proposed for cuts, has not only been restored, it has been improved! Instead of dropping you off near the zoo, which frankly, was not terribly convenient before, the line 46 will actually take riders into the zoo parking lot, providing a much more useable service.

There’s a lot more in the revised plan, and if you’re a bus rider, I strongly encourage you to review the new proposed changes for what’s happening to the routes you use. AC Transit will be taking comment on the newly revised proposal next Tuesday, December 1st, at a community open house from 5 to 7 at the AC Transit Headquarters (1600 Franklin Street, downtown Oakland). If you have questions, this would be the time to ask them. And of course, you can provide comments online as well.

AC Transit, just like pretty much every other public agency in California, is in trouble, there is no doubt about that. They’re going to have to cut a lot of service, and they’re going to have to take a serious look at their operations and their finances, and perhaps dramatically rethink what kind of service is or is not feasible to provide in the future. (Happily, this process is already underway – part of the MTC’s conditions for allowing the aforementioned fund swap.)

But for now, AC Transit deserves some serious props for what they’ve been doing over the last six months.

I was complaining to a friend the other day about how unfair it was the AC Transit has had such a great process to craft their service reductions and nobody has paid any attention to it, except to constantly repeat that they already cut service by 15% (which, BTW, they haven’t). Meanwhile, BART made dramatic service cuts with no public input, no process, and basically no notice, and nobody even seems to remember that it happened.

My friend said that the lesson to draw from the whole thing is that AC Transit made a mistake by having this long drawn out process and bending over backwards to notice people about what was going on, and that clearly there is no point in trying to take public input or work with the people you serve, because all you will ever get from it is abuse and people thinking that what you’re doing is even worse than it actually is.

Naturally, I disagreed, and I think the release of the revised service reduction plan makes my case. By giving themselves ample time to address their shortfall and working closely with their riders, AC Transit has been able to minimize the pain of the proposed cuts and find some creative solutions that actually improve service in some places while at the same time saving money.

This is basically the exact opposite of what the City Council has been doing in the face of their own staggering (and fast-approaching) budget deficit. They have spent the last year and a half patching over budget holes with one-time and otherwise unsustainable solutions and talking in the broadest possible terms about how they’re going to have to really examine city services and make serious cuts “soon.” But of course, “soon” seems to eternally remain somewhere in the distant future, and the only one of them willing, or apparently even capable, of taking the problem seriously and trying to start coming up with actual potential cuts or real ways to bring in some revenue is At-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. Sadly, one lonely voice of reason and reality against seven heads planted firmly in the sad isn’t getting us anywhere.

The Council needs to wake up and realize that temporary solutions are not going to keep the City going forever, and that the hatchet they keep turning to when they do make cuts does not do anything to serve their citizens. If something real is not done soon, this City is literally going to fall apart. The Council needs to start seriously looking at how they can restructure City functions and evaluating what they can and cannot continue to provide immediately, and they should look to AC Transit’s process for a model of how much you can accomplish when you’re willing to take a budget process seriously.

8 thoughts on “AC Transit’s extensive service reduction planning process yields great results

  1. Ralph

    OMG, the gall of an agency that serves the public to solicit and to LISTEN to public input. this is unprecedented. there is really no way of knowing how the public may react to such news. i mean white is black, black is white, wrong is right and right is wrong. where are the pigs? has anyone seen chicken little.

  2. East Lake Biker

    I was so amazed to see my actual comment on Line 11 cuts incorporated in the survey. I couldn’t believe it, a public agency actually listening to to their constituents, mind blowing. Service on the 11 will be maintained at the same level it is now so what I suggested won’t really be used for anything, but still, to be listened to … awesome!

    Getting service to Chabot and Joaquin Miller will be so much fun. My last time there I took the old 53A bus. Service to the zoo will only be on weekdays, but better than nothing. Props to the zoo for putting the word out to their patrons.

  3. len raphael

    as if the cc members are deer caught in the approaching headlights of the disaster semi.

    RK had a couple of ideas that sounded interesting (no i don’t include expanding oaksterdam). other than get rid of meter maids for alt street parking all she did was allude to cuts.

    nope, no cc wants to be the first one to cut popular programs.

    the mayor is paralysed, even thought lindheim knows whats up.

  4. david vartanoff

    Indeed, AC’s planners made a serious effort at a very difficult task. I was pleased by a number of the route realignments. Berkeley made an effort to get revisions to keep services whereas Oakland was MIA. Many better routings/or at least retained service areas resulted from the funding swap which roughly halved the cuts. I remain appalled that the North Berkeley BART station which AC’s own ## show as a major trip generator, is being abandoned. Although frequencies are supposed to be retained on the 51 College Ave/Broadway route, the rider hostile split remains. If a current bus is delayed north of Rockridge, it runs late. In the Revised Plan, riders on a late bus will be dumped at Rockridge to await a connection. The plan does mention revisiting the transfer surcharge and future efforts to clean up a few of the delay generating traffic issues. (YAY!) And, for entertainment at the AC Board mtg (where the plan was presented), the Cedar Street anti transit people made a series of complaints about being subjected to buses on their street.

  5. len raphael

    not sure how well the ac transit process would translate to something like budget or the rezoning process that is going on. were there any organized groups with strong economic or electoral power behind any particular alternative, or were there enough offsetting interests or just weak forces to make it possible for staff to listen and decide?

    hey, any process would be better than the current state of denial where our officials seem to be waiting for a miracle.

    a starting place would be for city to fund a web accessible simulation after consultation with a broad cross section of the city’s residents, and not the typical “blue ribbon” panel. There is already citizens city budget committee that could serve that function.

    -len

  6. East Lake Biker

    @david

    Oh man, I couldn’t believe the demands the Cedar Street Neighbors made on AC Transit. I don’t know of any other neighborhood with this kind of arrangement. The silliest rule is the one restricting frequencies of buses. Isn’t more frequent service a good thing? I feel like getting an old school bus (bio-diesel powered of course) and shuttling up and down the street just to see what they would do.

    Cedar Street Agreement
    On June 19, 1991 the District entered into a settlement agreement with the Cedar Street
    Neighborhood Association (CSNA) regarding service along Cedar Street. The
    agreement stipulates the types of vehicles, number of trips, as well as hours per day
    that District buses may traverse Cedar Street. Specifically:
    • Vehicles – The agreement allows for the operation of “standard diesel” buses in
    the peak periods, and “vans” during midday. This terminology has come to mean
    that peak service could be operated by use of 40 foot buses, and midday service
    by 30 foot buses. Since the initiation of the Line 19, AC Transit only programs 30
    foot buses for service along Cedar Street.
    • Service (weekday) – Service from 6am to 10am may range in trips from 22 to 30.
    Service from 10am to 4pm carries no trip number specification, but it must be
    operated in “vans”. Service from 4pm to 7pm may range in trips from 20 to 26,
    and under no circumstance shall the total number of daily trips exceed 48
    • Service (weekend) – No hours delineations, just vehicle type requirements.

  7. david vartanoff

    Tuesday 5-7 PM AC HQ for the next round of rider (or transit hater) input
    Be there to see the squares!