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Public Transit Challenges in the Pandemic Era - 350 Bay Area

Public transit, powered by clean energy sources, is a critical part of the sustainable mobility system we need in the Bay Area. Here we take a look at one of the main transbay transit agencies (AC Transit) serving Alameda-Contra Costa County and SF.  It is one of 27 transit agencies -our ally Seamless Bay Area is working to unite them.


Note About the Author: This post was written by Hugh Ross, a volunteer and transportation advocate with 350 Bay Area. Information about AC Transit was generously provided through remote interview by H.E. Christian Peeples of the AC Transit Board of Directors.


How Will East Bay Public Transportation Weather The COVID Storm?

COVID-19 has dramatically reduced the demand for every mode of transportation. Of all transportation-related sectors, public transportation agencies have suffered some of the most severe and complicated reductions in both ridership and funding. Public transportation plays a key role in the health of the Bay Area by providing equitable mobility to its riders (many of whom are essential workers) and a roadmap towards reducing the climate change and pollution impacts of transportation. The California Air Resources Board’s most recent data shows that 40.1% of the state’s greenhouse gasses are emitted by transportation and 70% of these transportation GHGs come from passenger vehicles. As businesses and institutions gradually reopen, people and cars are returning to our roads at a potentially unsustainable pace. We need to maintain robust public transportation service to help curb the pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion caused by rising VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) as the Bay Area reopens.

What is a transit agency? What is AC Transit?

A transit agency (also called transit system) is an entity (public or private) responsible for administering and managing transit activities and services. AC Transit is a special district and its board members are directly elected by the 1.5 million person population in its service area (rare in the US) which includes Alameda and Contra Costa Counties as well as transbay routes to San Francisco, Foster City, San Mateo, Stanford and Palo Alto. All of these services are operated by bus and connect with myriad transit modes and nodes spread out around and within AC Transit’s service area. I was able to speak (remotely of course) with Chris Peeples of the AC Transit Board of Directors to learn more about the benefits of public transportation and what people can do to help keep public transportation operating in their communities.

What are the societal benefits of public transit?

Climate activists and readers of this blog are likely already familiar with many of the benefits of public transportation:

  • Climate and air quality improvements: Transit vehicles emit far fewer greenhouse gases and harmful pollutants per passenger mile than private cars. AC Transit has also pioneered the adoption and deployment of zero emissions buses. The agency’s first hydrogen fuel cell powered bus pilot began in 2006 with strong initial results. AC Transit now operates a fleet of 28 hydrogen and battery electric buses with the goal of reaching a full zero emissions fleet by 2040.

Image credit: AC Transit

  • Equitable Mobility: Public transit is open to all paying or otherwise eligible riders and can be designed by local communities to best meet the needs of those who use it. 60% of AC Transit’s riders are low to very-low income and may not be able to afford alternative means of transportation.
  • Reduced Traffic Congestion: Large vehicles are more space-efficient per passenger and can both reduce traffic congestion and create levels of passenger throughput into areas that would not be physically possible to serve equally with individual cars. Under normal conditions, AC Transit’s service boards about 180,000 passengers per day and has a fleet of just over 600 buses (not all of which may operate on a given day). 

How is COVID-19 impacting public transit?

The simple answer is that revenue for transit agencies has plummeted. AC Transit in particular has a complex budget whose revenue streams are a mix of sales and property tax, federal funding, farebox revenue (passenger bus fares) and other subsidies. Ridership during COVID has dropped precipitously due to shelter-in-place orders, and AC Transit has suspended fare collection (12.6% of the agency’s FY 2019-2020 revenue) to allow back door boarding and increase social distancing between passengers and vehicle operators.  The agency has also reduced the number of passengers allowed on each vehicle to allow for adequate passenger spacing onboard again for social distancing purposes. The general economic conditions associated with COVID-19 have severely impacted some of AC Transit’s other revenue streams (like sales tax). Despite these changes, people are still relying on AC Transit’s services as its buses carry essential workers. As of May, AC Transit’s transbay ridership (which serves mostly commuters) had dropped by about 95%, but its local service ridership had dropped by only about 70%, indicating that people with essential service jobs and those who cannot work from home are still heavily dependent on the service. The federal government has provided about $80 million in COVID relief funding to AC Transit through the CARES Act which has allowed the agency to maintain its current level of service to date, but this payment is a one time assistance package.

            Source: AC Transit

What will the future be? How can we help?

Unfortunately with no end to COVID-19 in sight and looming economic uncertainty it is likely that near term revenue deficits for AC Transit (and our other transit agencies) will continue leading to reduced or modified service for the time being (AC Transit reports service changes on its Twitter Account). Even with a hypothetical dramatic improvement of COVID transmission and a quick reopening of the economy, transit agencies will likely feel the effects of the shutdown for 2-3 years. With COVID-19 in place however, reduced service compounds the effective reduction in vehicle capacity due to social distancing guidelines to result in even more severe capacity losses for each affected line or route.

These service cuts will likely become part of America’s “new normal” as additional federal public transit funding, while proposed, is still not well defined and will meet significant resistance in the current political climate. With COVID-19 occupying the attention and budgets of most political bodies there are many challenges in advocating for the investments and support that our public transit agencies need. The reader’s best chance at influencing the availability and quality of public transit in their area may well be to understand our upcoming elections, vote accordingly and then engage with representatives as early as possible about transportation concerns. Readers can also let their current local elected officials know that public transit is important to them right now to push for greater access to equitable and sustainable transportation.

Learn more:  350 Bay Area is part of a progressive Bay Area coalition, Voices for Public Transit, which is advocating for more funding and political support to keep our public transit systems PUBLIC, affordable and ready to serve ALL populations and recognize the importance of transit workers and their unions,  

Take ActionShow your support for public transit ! Please sign this petition by the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union calling for more funding for public transit to keep riders and workers safe as we continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.