7:14pm

Mon January 27, 2014
Transportation

Voices on the bus: the people who depend on AC Transit

East Bay bus agency AC Transit doesn’t have the ridership or wide-reaching reputation of BART or San Francisco’s Muni. But about 100,000 people take an AC Transit bus every day-- and those riders are disproportionately lower-income, elderly, and less likely to own a car.

Over the past few years, the AC Transit has seen deep service cuts and major fare increases. At two dollars and ten cents, it’s the Bay Area’s most expensive most expensive local bus ride.

Recently, though, the agency has stabilized-- avoided new service cuts and fare hikes that many feared were inevitable. And it’s still as important to its riders as ever. Here are a few of their stories.

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LaVonte Thompson, 16

LaVonte Thompson is a sixteen-year-old sophomore at a charter high school in Oakland. He rides the bus every day -- just like 60 to 95 percent of his peers.

Thompson recently moved from Oakland to San Francisco to live with his godmother in Hunter’s Point, but he wanted to stay at the same high school. So every morning, his godmother drops him off at the bus station in Emeryville on her way to work in Crockett. From there, he takes the 57 bus to Castlemont. It’s a forty-five minute ride, almost the full the length of bus’s route.

Thompson doesn’t mind riding most of the time, but one thing really gets him mad: when the buses are late.

“It is very frustrating because when I become late to school then there's detention and all these things and I don't have anybody to call and excuse my tardies,” he explains. “I can call my godmother, however she's going to ask me weren't you on the bus, didn't I drop you off and it was supposed to leave at this time?”

Thompson has been catching the bus by himself since he was 10 years old. He says the bus gave him independence, and he liked that.

“I think that it was very amazing for me to have that responsibility, it was very amazing for me to catch it and not only catch it but catch it by myself because I was exposed to the world basically kind of in a way,” he says. “I was exposed to different types of cultures, different types of behaviours, things like that. Yes, it opened my eyes a lot.”

Thompson got on the later bus that day, and did get to school late, but he assured me that his tardy would be excused. A spokesman for the Oakland schools confirmed that the district gives some leeway to students who are late because of public transit.

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Walter Davis, 89

Walter Davis of West Oakland also belongs to a group that disproportionately depends AC Transit: he’s a senior, 89 years old.

Davis was born in Texas, but has been living in Oakland since 1944. And he says only way he’s leaving the city is feet first.

To say that Davis is a sharp dresser would be an understatement. Clad in a snazzy blue suit, white hat, and pristine black and white shoes, he says he was once named the best-dressed man in Oakland.

Davis rides the bus everywhere. After he plays dominoes at the West Oakland Senior Center on 18th and Adeline, he takes the 26 bus back  to his home at the Oak Center Towers senior community, not too far away. He’s been riding the bus since 1956 -- that’s more than 50 years. The only thing that really bugs him is when people hassle the driver, especially when they try to get a free ride.

Davis has been riding around for so long that he seems to know every other person on the bus.

“Oh yes, I see all the time someone that I know on the bus, like that young lady there,” he says, pointing out someone he’s just been talking with. “I been knowing her since she was a little girl and now she's got babies. And they know me now. So I meet all types of people on the bus, all kinds and all types.”

Getting off the bus, he sees another person he knows. And another.

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Nancy Piazza, 56

Just like Thompson and Davis, Nancy Piazza relies on AC Transit to get around. She’s blind. Right now, she’s staying at the Orientation Center for the Blind in Albany -- it’s a state-run residential program that helps people learn to live with vision loss. She’ll be here for about four weeks before she goes home to Redding, where she works as an Independent Living Services Instructor.

AC Transit estimates that about 10,000 of its daily riders are disabled. For many of those -- including a lot of blind people -- AC Transit is their only way to go shopping, get to doctors’ appointments, or commute to work.

Piazza has some extra challenges on the bus-- like remembering each bus’s interior by touch.

“There are so many different styles of buses that we go searching for the (stop request) buttons and nine times of out ten you don't find them,” she says. “So you have to holler at the driver to let them know where to stop it and they're good about that.”

Piazza does miss driving-- she says sometimes, taking the bus means doubling her travel time.

“I miss my car. I miss being able to get into a vehicle and being able to go at any given time or place,” she says. “The convenience of a car in bad weather is really nice and I miss that.”

But overall, Piazza is pretty pro-AC Transit. Javier Rocabado is not. He interrupts our conversation to say AC Transit drivers are mean.

“Very mean. Today, I was waiting for 72R which is the Rapid, and this driver cut in front of it and it didn't allow me to catch the bus I was supposed to take,” Rocabado says. “It just didn't stop for me so I'm late for my work now.”

Rocabado is right -- AC Transit has real problems that can make life difficult for the people who rely on it. But Piazza says she hasn’t had the problems with drivers that Rocabado was talking about.

“He might be having some bad experiences, I haven't had a bad experience yet with the drivers around here. They've all been very pleasant and very kind to me…...at least every other day I'm on the bus going someplace.”

Piazza will be done with her program at the Orientation Center for the Blind next month. She’s headed back to Redding after that -- and dreading the bus service, which she says is a lot worse than AC Transit.

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