Reframing AC Transit Realign for Long-Term Solutions

In response to changing travel after the COVID pandemic, AC Transit’s is doing a project called Realign to propose changes in their service. The proposals consist of two main parts: where the routes will go and how much service there will be on each route. By design the project does not increase service, but rather redistributes the current service (which is only 85% of pre-COVID service levels).

In 2023 the Board set three principles—equity, reliability, frequency—to guide the realignment process. While these have remained the stated goals of Realign, the way these principles have been measured and their relative importance have changed, causing confusion for Board members, staff, frontline workers, and riders. This post aims to clear up that confusion and put Realign into the larger context of what is needed to improve reliability and frequency while increasing equity.

Measuring equity

With the decision to keep the amount of service the same, the frequency and reliability principles are in direct tension with each other. Adding time to a bus route schedule to make it more reliable means longer waits between buses. But with the right metrics the equity of the outcomes of those trade-offs on riders can be assessed.

In September 2023 AC Transit staff proposed measuring equity by access to destinations for equity priority communities. In January 2024, the equity principle was also applied to the frequency principle by measuring the percent of zero-vehicle households with access to 15-min service compared to all households with access to 15-min service. Measuring the equity of access to frequent service is an important way to check the equity of proposals for riders, allowing relative equity to be maintained or increased regardless of the balance between frequency and reliability.

Solutions to reduce the trade-offs

Given the trade-off between frequency and reliability in Realign, it is important for AC Transit to make progress on long-term solutions that can improve frequency and reliability. AC Transit bus speeds decreased by 14% between 2009 and 2022. Without other solutions, additional funding and operators will constantly be required to maintain the same, currently inadequate, frequency of service. Increasing transit priority on the street, speeding up the boarding process, and active line management to address delays, bunching, and detours can reduce variability in bus schedules and improve reliability. These improvements can be invested in the increased frequency riders need and used to improve equity.

Realign is only focused on schedules, which requires making difficult choices. But it would be incorrect to characterize these choices as favoring either riders or workers, because without addressing the working conditions needed to retain bus operators there will not be enough service for riders.

Measuring reliability

Reliability is important to both riders and workers, but each group defines their needs differently. Riders want buses to show up at the scheduled time, or spaced consistent minutes apart (e.g every 10 mins), throughout the entire line. This is why AC Transit’s on-time-performance metric is measured at all key stops (time points) along each route. Currently the target is 72% and actual performance fluctuates between 73-74% systemwide.     

For bus operators it is important they get to the end of the line on-time in order to have time to stretch and use the bathroom or have their meal break before getting back in the seat. The staff proposal in December 2023 used a metric of arrival to the last time point less than 70% of the time to determine what routes need additional time in the schedule. This metric identified 19 routes that need additional buses and operators to provide the extra time. 

The definition and threshold matter. The staff proposal in January switched to the rider definition of on-time-performance, which might not address the operators’ need for break time at the end of the line. Staff also used a 70% threshold instead of the Board-adopted 72%. The lower threshold with the rider definition reduced the number of routes to invest in from 15 to 8 (using FY23 data). 

Bus operators are asking for more run and recovery time to reduce driving stress, improve safety, and ensure break times. Run time is the time scheduled for the bus to travel the length of the route. The actual time needed varies (depending on traffic and passenger boarding times) and so recovery time is the time built into the schedule to account for the variability and keep the bus on schedule. In the ATU Local 192 contract, the minimum recovery time is a function of the amount of run-time, so increasing run-time also increases recovery time. The recovery times can be used as part of the contractually required operator meal/rest breaks, but are designed to keep the bus on schedule. 

Disconnect between planners and bus operators

At the January 2024 Board meeting, Board members expressed a desire for better data to understand whether operators are getting their breaks and whether there really are widespread problems with the run times. There are at least three ways to think about the disconnect between what the Board is hearing from planners and what they hear from bus operators. 

 First, the planners and schedulers aren’t using all of the data needed to understand whether there is enough run and recovery time. They use the GPS data from the bus to know how long each run took. But this doesn’t tell them what the operator had to do to stay on schedule. Did they leave a stop before all the passengers were seated, did they run a yellow light, did they hold off a trip to the bathroom or lunch in order to start on time? 

Second, there is a lack of clear definitions, data, and reporting when breaks are missed. There is a process in the ATU contract for operators to report—within 25 days of the start of a new sign-up—if they regularly miss their meal and rest breaks. While this can address reported issues at the start of a quarter, it isn’t a comprehensive assessment. The GPS data doesn’t capture when a break actually starts, only when a bus reaches a layover spot and operators could still be assisting passengers. Because recovery time can count as break time, but is meant to keep the bus on schedule, operators can feel pressure to cut their break time short. 

Third, there are differences between the break requirements in the ATU Local 192 contract, what is happening in actuality, and what many people would consider good working conditions. Even if AC Transit is meeting the minimums in the contract, a 15 minute lunch break and 35 break minutes scattered at times out of your control across an 8 hour shift doesn’t make up for sitting in a driver’s seat the rest of the 430 minutes of the work day. (Especially when the only place you can afford to live, on the wages provided, is hours away.) 

Addressing the disconnect

These disconnects lead to solutions that AC Transit needs to put into place in order to create lasting improvements that can attract and retain operators.

First, run and recovery times have to be assessed using qualitative as well as quantitative data. Operator feedback is data that is required to understand the context of the quantitative data that comes from automated systems like GPS. This means changing the culture of the agency to respect operators’ input as data and regularly collecting and incorporating their feedback.  

Second, the Board needs to set an operator metric and threshold for on-time that is different from the rider metric. The operator on-time metric should be used in the quarterly planning to identify where run and recovery time is needed, and reported quarterly to the Board and public with explanations if they can’t meet it. This transparency is needed to build trust with operators and reflect the costs of traffic to bus service to the public in order to build support for transit priority. 

Third, when the ATU contract is renegotiated there needs to be an assessment as to whether the existing break requirements are adequate, the development of clear measurement procedures, and the implementation of stronger protections to ensure the break requirements are met.

Moving forward with Realign

While the long-term solutions to address working conditions and reduce schedule variability are implemented, it is critical that Realign fix the run-times on the routes identified by the operator on-time measure. To address the impacts on frequency, Realign should not be resource neutral but should add service as additional operators are hired. Along with the required equity analysis, the frequency changes should be analyzed to ensure the equity of access to frequent service.

Laurel Paget-Seekins (she/they), is Public Advocates’ Senior Policy Advocate for Transportation Justice.

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