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For the second year in a row, ridership is soaring for Oakland, Calif.-based AC Transit. System-wide, average daily ridership has risen by 8.2% in the past year, while the agency’s Transbay lines have seen an almost 20% boost in riders.
“Over the past two years, we have replaced a third of our fleet with new buses, expanded our workforce and taken steps to become more efficient,” says AC Transit GM David Armijo. “Our new ridership levels, to some degree, may be a reflection of those efforts.”
To help grow ridership, the agency assessed its operation to look for areas of improvement. “It’s a product like anything else,” Armijo says of the service. “You have to look at what’s working and what’s not working.”
Based on this assessment, Armijo and his staff developed a series of new service and performance initiatives throughout the agency called “A Better Ride.” The campaign’s initiatives called for improving on-time performance and service reliability, instituting a quality assurance program to maintain cleaner buses and bringing many internal efficiencies.
As a part of A Better Ride, AC Transit began replacing its bus fleet. “We had an old bus fleet that was almost 10-and-a-half years of age, so we knew that we needed to begin replacing them,” Armijo says. “We took on the project of replacing about 100 buses a year, which is twice the normal amount.”
To kick off its Better Ride campaign, AC Transit put 60 new 40-foot low-floor Gillig buses into service in March 2013. In June, 23 New Flyer 60-foot, articulated buses were added to the fleet.
The agency also took delivery of 54 new Gillig commuter coaches this year, which operate on the agency’s Transbay routes. The state-of-the-art commuter-style coaches feature high-back upholstered seating, individual reading lamps, luggage racks and free Wi-Fi. Equally important, there is a mechanical sameness that allows parts, training and preventative maintenance to be consistent with the other Gillig buses in the fleet.
As part of the A Better Ride campaign, AC Transit has so far revamped its fleet with 210 buses; instituted initiatives to improve service performance; deployed a cleanliness program; and created task forces to focus on areas, such as on-time performance, reducing the number of accidents for both passengers and employees, and decreasing road calls.
“On-time performance has improved and mileage between road calls has improved, so, basically, the product itself, the service is better,” Armijo says.
On-board improvements include new state-of-the-art fareboxes supplied by SPX Genfare, which accept bills, coins and transfers, as well as the ability to swipe certain tickets.
Other service improvements included the rollout of an on-board announcement program that uses text-messaging signs inside the agency’s buses to give passengers audio and visual stop and location information. A majority of AC Transit’s bus lines are equipped with the signs, with the rest to be installed this year.
Another on-board improvement is the addition of new state-of-the-art fareboxes supplied by SPX Genfare. The new fareboxes accept bills, coins and transfers, as well as the ability to swipe certain tickets.
This July, AC Transit is implementing a new fare policy that will allow bus passengers get discounts and a more convenient way to pay for their bus trips. The agency’s board of directors aborted a fare increase that would have occurred this summer, and instead, opted to adopt a new system that promises improved bus service and other passenger benefits without higher fares, Armijo says.
The new fare policy is primarily designed to promote the efficiency and convenience of paying fares — and attract new riders — by eliminating paper transfers, instituting a Day Pass and offering local discounts for Clipper Card users.
“This new policy will streamline the fare process and, in doing so, make bus service much better for both the District and our customers,” Armijo says.
To minimize farebox delays, speed up passenger boardings and dramatically reduce travel times, the new policy creates a Day Pass along with incentives to increase the use of Clipper Cards — the regional smart card — in lieu of paper transfers.
Creating a dialogue
AC Transit began replacing its aging fleet with 40-foot Gillig buses in March 2013.
Like the Better Ride campaign, improving communication throughout the organization was another key initiative Armijo implemented soon after he took the leadership reins in 2012.
“We’re kind of going through a transformational period,” he says. “Whenever you go through a lot of change, it’s also very challenging for the employees themselves.”
To help minimize these challenges, a variety of means were used to provide employees with information, including improved newsletters and “all hands” meetings. Trying to turn those communications into a dialogue with the employees led to the development of a new program called “Ask the GM,” where Armijo meets with employees on a bimonthly basis to discuss their concerns, as well as provide updates on various issues discussed.
“What I’m also trying to do is empower the employees. When we have a dialogue, I want them to understand that the concerns and issues they raise are actually being addressed,” Armijo says. “We’ve received a lot of good feedback.”
Some of the dialogues with employees led to adjusting the placement of new fareboxes and mobile data terminals in the buses, which had made accessing the driver’s seat difficult for some.
“Working together, we came up with a solution in-house,” Armijo says, which they are sharing with other agencies as well. These employee dialogues also helped resolve some tight route scheduling issues.
“We deferred a service change and actually gave ourselves an extra couple of months to work together to get the schedules right,” Armijo says.
The Ask the GM program is in use through the entire organization, in the operating divisions and the general office. The agency’s hope is to evolve the program to a point where social media is used to let the customer Ask the GM.
East Bay BRT
A major initiative Armijo took on when he joined AC Transit was to get the agency’s East Bay Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project moving. “This has been eighteen years in the making. We call this our legacy project,” Armijo says of the plan, which he says lagged in the planning stages for “too long.”
The project was tagged as a high priority for Armijo when he was hired by AC Transit’s board.
“We believe that BRT is much more cost effective than light rail,” Armijo says. “Not to be competitive per se, but with fewer resources available to us, it allows us to do more enhancements to the bus.”
The 9.5-mile long bus route extends from a heavily used corridor originating from downtown Oakland to the San Leandro BART station. The $178 million project is expected to begin construction later this year, with service fully implemented in 2017.
Project features include cleaner, greener buses with dual doors, dedicated rights-of-way; traffic signal priority; elevated boarding stations, a proof-of-payment fare system and real-time arrival information.
The BRT line will run through the center of AC Transit’s service area, linking downtown Oakland to two northern routes going to Berkeley and Richmond.
One of these northern routes, Line 51, a high ridership corridor linking Alameda, Oakland and Berkeley, is slated for development as a “mini-BRT system,” Armijo says, which will reduce delay and improve reliability for buses along the line. This project will be followed up with the rehabilitation of AC Transit’s four operating garages.
Other initiatives Armijo and his staff will be tackling in the future include introducing smaller 20-foot buses to service hilly areas in the southern county areas that are experiencing growth. “Those areas may not play to a larger bus, but we’d still like to have the service coverage,” Armijo says, adding that the agency will launch 10 vehicles for the expanded service area this fall.