AC Transit is taking steps designed to improve service on Line 51. Photo: Paul Sullivan
AC Transit is taking steps designed to improve service on Line 51. Photo: Paul Sullivan

Two community meetings are scheduled this week to collect public input on proposed changes to AC Transit’s Line 51 service, which in Berkeley could include the temporary closure during peak travel hours of dozens of parking spots, the addition of three traffic signals, signal timing coordination, and more.

The city of Berkeley would have to approve many of these changes, in meetings that are set to take place this fall. Parking losses, stressed AC transit representatives, would only be in place during peak transit hours and are dependent on public feedback.

Line 51, which runs through Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda, carries more than 19,000 people each day, and is the most used route in the East Bay, according to AC Transit.

A report about the bus line that was published in 2008 outlines possible changes to parking and lane usage, signal coordination recommendations and other ideas designed to improve service. (Scroll down to see our interactive map of many of the proposed changes in Berkeley.) AC Transit representatives said Monday morning that some of these proposals have been scaled back, and that more details will be available at this week’s meetings and in the coming months.

The meetings are part of a series of community sessions related to the Line 51A/B Corridor Delay Reduction and Sustainability Project, a $10.5 million effort to design and implement improvements along route from Alameda to Berkeley. AC Transit received the grant last summer.

“We had hoped for a lot more and we could use a lot more but, with this amount, you’ll get a good project in every city,” said AC Transit planner Nathan Landau on Monday morning. He added that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will be keeping a close eye on what happens locally as a possible model for regional changes down the line.

More than 80 years of service

The 12.7-mile route runs between Berkeley's Amtrak station and Blanding Avenue and Broadway in Alameda. Image: AC Transit
The 12.7-mile route runs between Berkeley’s Amtrak station and Blanding Avenue and Broadway in Alameda. (Click to view larger.) Image: AC Transit

Line 51 has a long history in the East Bay, having operated in Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda in various forms since 1928. The route was established by AC Transit’s predecessor, the Key System, and was the first bus-operated route added to its existing streetcar operations. The route has changed minimally since it began, though it was split in two to improve service in recent years.

In 2006, AC Transit began a formal effort to identify problems and craft solutions in the wake of increasing customer complaints and performance concerns due to unreliable service. “Bus bunching,” driver behavior, late vehicles and crowded buses plagued the route, according to the 2008 report.

AC Transit convened a task force that ultimately turned over recommendations to the agency’s planning department for further study.

Source: AC Transit
Source: AC Transit

In the past, AC Transit has tried to improve service by adding buses to the route, but the report noted that this isn’t a sustainable approach going forward: “Adding buses to maintain existing levels of service is costly and is something that that AC Transit can not continue to do. Moving forward, the District would rather look at ways to speed up service, allowing for higher levels of service with the same resources.”

The route itself poses challenges for drivers due to high variability between the same two stops, depending on traffic, time of day, day of the week and other factors. AC Transit also found that, as of 2008, buses on Line 51 tended to run 9 mph slower than its system average, which can lead to customer dissatisfaction and increased operating costs. Service and reliability have improved since the line was split, but the agency hopes the changes currently under consideration would make the line run even better.

“It’s our heaviest line, and Berkeley is our heaviest segment,” said Landau. “We think it’s really important to try to get it to be reliable, to get it to be a little quicker, and to make sure people can get from Point A to Point B in a predictable amount of time.”

Recommendations moving forward: Signal coordination, more transit passes, lane changes

AC Transit came up with a number of ways to improve service on Line 51. They included, as of 2008, stop removals and re-spacing; lengthening bus stops; encouraging transit pass usage; schedule refinements and traffic signal coordination.

Changes to traffic signals could take place all along University Avenue, on College Avenue and in other places along the route such as on Bancroft Way and Shattuck Avenue, said Landau. These could include more detection for all motorists, as well as something called transit signal priority, which would give more green-light time to buses and other motorists.

“We’re going to try and do as many as possible,” he said. “Signal priority is something where you really want to do it everywhere. If you don’t do it at certain places then you often lose what you’ve gained.”

The redder the line, the longer the delay experienced between stops. AC Transit hopes to improve service on Line 51 via a range of changes. Image: AC Transit
The redder the line, the longer the delay between stops. The most significant areas of delay occurred when entering and exiting downtown Berkeley, approaching San Pablo Avenue, at Bancroft and College, and at Ashby at Webster. Image: AC Transit

Other possible changes include lengthening red curbs around bus stops; having more clearly defined waiting areas that are free of clutter for better ADA access; encouraging transit pass usage to speed up boarding; and encouraging passengers to use the rear door to disembark.

Some of the proposed changes to improve service would take place outside the actual bus. Traffic signal coordination could cut down on stoplight wait time, and make signals more responsive to vehicle and pedestrian needs, according to the report. Ensuring that accurate arrival time information is readily available, via NextBus, by cellphone and also via signage at stops, could also make riding the bus more convenient.

New roadway treatments could make an even bigger difference

Lengthy delays and a high degree of unpredictability are common on this part of the route, says AC Transit. Image: AC Transit
Lengthy delays and a high degree of unpredictability are common on this part of the route, between Third and University to Milvia, says AC Transit. “Southbound” service is actually westbound on University. (Click to view larger.) Image: AC Transit

Another set of broader recommendations could save even more time along the route, says AC Transit, but would require cities to sign on to the effort.

“Nothing can happen without the approval of the city of Berkeley,” said AC Transit traffic engineer Wil Buller.

These include changing traffic patterns by establishing a type of lane called a “queue jump” — often a right-turn late or parking lane — that allows drivers to get ahead of stacked-up traffic; or setting aside a shared bus lane via peak-hour parking restrictions that would allow drivers an extra lane of travel during certain times of day.

AC Transit representatives said Monday morning that some of the 2008 recommendations, in particular related to parking spot removals, have been significantly scaled back. The report recommended the removal during peak transit times of nearly 90 parking spots. Buller said this number is “much reduced” in the current proposal, but that a specific number is not currently available pending the completion this fall of a parking analysis currently underway.

According to the 2008 report, on eastbound University, AC Transit recommended removing four parking spaces, from Fourth to Sixth streets, during peak periods, and possibly narrowing the sidewalk, to create a queue jump; creating a tow-away lane from 4-7 p.m. daily from Sixth to Ninth streets, which would affect 20 parking spaces; and removing four parking spaces from 10th Street to San Pablo Avenue to create another queue jump. The stop at McGee Avenue could be removed, said Buller, because it has low ridership and is very close to the California Street stop.

Eastbound on University, several stops could be relocated across the intersection (Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Sacramento, Acton and Ninth). Proposed queue jumps and tow-away lanes — on San Pablo Avenue, between Sixth and Seventh, from Curtis to Sixth, and from the Ohlone Greenway to Curtis — could affect 56 parking spaces along the route, according to the 2008 report, which is the most current information available. Again, Buller said Monday this number may be much lower, but specific details are not yet available. (See the detailed proposals on page 47 of the report.)

Southbound on College from Berkeley BART to Rockridge BART, changes mostly entail adjustments to traffic signals, prohibiting left turns from College Avenue into the Safeway parking lot (near Claremont Avenue), and the removal of three parking spaces at Russell Street. Northbound, a left-turn pocket could be created at Ashby Avenue; a signal could be installed at Bancroft; and the stop sign at Russell could be converted into a signal. Buller said Monday that another signal, at Bancroft and Dana Street, is also under consideration. (See more detailed recommendations on page 49 of the report.)

“Bus bulbs” — where the sidewalk is extended outwards for a bus stop — are proposed on Bancroft at College; and on Durant at Dana, Telegraph and College Avenue, said Buller.

Blue stars show existing proposed stops to be relocated; red circles show intersection changes; and the yellow box shows a proposed stop removal. Pedestrian icons indicate proposed “bus bulbs.” Green lines show proposed “queue jumps” and red lines are proposed tow-away lanes (during peak times); this information comes from a 2008 report and some proposed changes have been scaled back, said AC Transit, but more detailed information was not available Monday. Locations are approximate. Click each icon for more detail. Use the “plus” and “minus” signs to zoom. Some proposed changes, such as those related to signal timing, are not shown in the map. View a more interactive version of the map here

Public process underway

The 2008 report noted that a three-meeting public process — one in Berkeley, one in Oakland and one in Alameda — would begin in 2009 to collect feedback and comments. Those meetings took place, and the line was later split in two as part of a separate service overhaul undertaken by AC Transit in 2010. Several bus stops along University Avenue also were removed but, otherwise, few changes taken place to the line in recent years, said AC Transit reps.

To spread the word about the new proposals, AC Transit did extensive email outreach, and also mailed 4,000 notices to Berkeley residents and businesses within several hundred feet of the proposed changes, said Buller. AC Transit also posted fliers at locations that could be affected.

At a related meeting that took place over the summer in Alameda, said Buller, members of the public expressed concern about changes to parking and the loss of a popular stop,  but there were also many supporters of the proposals in attendance. Meetings in Oakland are scheduled to take place as well.

Clarence Johnson. Photo: AC Transit
Clarence Johnson. Photo: AC Transit

AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson said the changes are under consideration now because there have been “several delays for a number of different kinds of reasons.”

“With projects like this,” he said, “it takes time to come up with a plan, it takes time to get funding for the plan and, in the interim, other things happen.”

He said none of the recommendations are set in stone, which is why public comments will be especially important going forward. Public outreach, along with project design, is set to continue through December.

The recommendations will go before the transportation panel and City Council in Berkeley in September or October, Johnson added, and construction is scheduled to take place from January through July of next year.

“The process is to find out what is acceptable to the community, what we can and cannot do, and then come up with a plan,” he said Friday.

At the coming meetings (details below), staff will outline potential changes, as described above, and attendees will have the chance to break into small groups to discuss the ideas.

This week’s meetings are scheduled to take place Monday, Aug. 26, from 6-8 p.m. at La Quinta Inn’s Continental Room on the second floor, at 920 University Ave. in Berkeley; and Thursday, Aug. 29, from 6-8 p.m. at the Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., in Berkeley.

Information about the project can be found online. Community members who are unable to attend the work sessions can submit written comments by 5 p.m., Sept. 13, to Tammy Kyllo, administrative coordinator for AC Transit, 1600 Franklin St., Oakland, Calif., 94612, or by email to The planning department can be reached by phone at 510-891-4755.

goBerkeley parking rules get final public review (for now) (08.08.13)
The Alameda in Berkeley to be put on ‘road diet’ (07.31.13)
2 goBerkeley public meetings on parking coming up (07.31.13)
Scorecard would help determine Measure M projects (07.18.13)
Details unveiled on proposed metered parking changes (07.03.13)
City sets goBerkeley transportation program in motion (06.27.13)
Berkeley council weighs in on parking pilot program (06.12.13)
Berkeley set for $12.7m in downtown transport grants (05.28.13)
Parking changes slated for 3 Berkeley business zones (05.23.13)
Berkeley resident parking fees set to rise 30% (04.03.13)

Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Read all about it, be part of it. Register on the Uncharted website.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...