Opinion: Make AC Transit free on Sundays in Berkeley

The new ridesharing tax approved by voters is estimated to bring in around $910,000 annually and could pay for the free bus service.

One day I had breakfast at Bette’s Oceanview Diner on Fourth Street and happened to speak with an Oakland city planner from New Orleans exploring the area, who was lamenting how unserious local governments were about climate change. Over the obnoxious noise of cars driving by our cramped outdoor table on what could’ve been a beautiful, accessible pedestrian strip, he told me: “We’re going to have to change our consumption habits or else just give up ‘saving the planet’ thing. I’m guilty of this, after all: I drove here. But the parking was free!”

And that’s when it occurred to me: Why is parking free on Sundays but not public transit? Especially when you consider that driving is something we’d like to discourage as much as possible, considering over 60% of our emissions come from transportation which is overwhelmingly cars. Of course, I live in North Berkeley but was able to come to Oceanview with an easy 12 to 51B transfer. It’s even easier when I don’t have to tap a pass or fumble around for dollars.

That is why East Bay Transit Riders Union (EBTRU) has proposed to make AC Transit free on the weekends. In a joint effort with Councilmember Kate Harrison and AC Transit directors, a plan to make one day of transit free on the weekends in Berkeley is in the works.

This is the opportune time considering the City Council and the Transportation Commission are debating on how to use the tax revenue from rideshare companies. The new TNC tax approved by voters in 2020 charges solo riders 50 cents a trip and those who use pooled rides 25 cents a trip for rides originating in Berkeley. The tax is estimated to bring in around $910,000 annually. We argue it should be spent on public transit because data shows rideshare companies mostly cannibalize public transit. A study from the University of Kentucky found that rideshare reduces bus transit ridership by 1.7% annually. A UC Davis study found that rideshare made people 6% less likely to ride a bus.

Unreliable bus service is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If transit cuts occur, fewer people ride the bus and buy cars. If fewer people are riding the bus, then less fare revenue gets collected, which will justify even more cuts, and you see where this goes. Berkeley’s bus service map gets smaller and smaller every decade, from a truly comprehensive system at AC Transit’s peak in the 1990s to a dwindled shadow by 2020. It now only serves the densest corridors and is not a reliable alternative to private car trips for many in our community, so we need to think differently. 

We famously lost the Key System, a transit agency that served Alameda and Contra Costa counties, in the middle of the previous century, and if this trajectory continues, AC Transit could also become a relic of the past. East Bay Transit Riders Union and neighbors have successfully advocated to restore bus service on Ashby Avenue for the next year, but it’s time to reverse the declining ridership trend and restore faith in public transit. Free weekend service can do it.

Free weekend bus service will have three benefits:

  1. Helping local businesses. Though some merchants may not believe this, a lot of their customers ride public transit; they just don’t talk about it. A lot more Berkeleyans can go to the Lorin District, Fourth Street, College Avenue, Telegraph, Sacramento, Ashby, North Shattuck, Hopkins, Solano, San Pablo Avenue, Gilman, Adeline, downtown and many more shopping areas on the weekends in clean, ventilated, low or zero-emission vehicles.
  2. It’ll get transit-skeptical Berkeleyans back on board again. You’d be surprised how many people live by high-frequency lines like the 18-Shattuck or 51B-College and never give their local buses a try. To make matters worse, the pandemic service cuts have undoubtedly convinced people to buy cars once their bus lines disappeared. If we want to incentivize riders to return to public transit and attract new ones, free samples on the weekends will help. Once people see how great the bus service is, how fun it is to leave the car at home, they’ll be familiar enough with the system to start taking it on weekdays to BART or work.
  3. It benefits families. From a cost perspective, it’s the same amount of money for one person to be in their car versus the whole family. On public transit, everyone, including your kids 5 or older, the grandfolks, and your partner(s), have to pay fares. If we want to encourage people to ride transit, we can’t charge a whole group on the weekend to take the bus. On the weekends, how about they all ride free.

Implementation:

We know that free weekend transit would work because UC Berkeley and Berkeley City College students already have free transit passes, and they ride everywhere. Anybody who’s ridden the 51B on Sundays knows it is full of Cal students going to Fourth Street, Telegraph Avenue, or Elmwood to shop and dine. 

Practically speaking, after consultation with AC Transit staff and EBTRU, the implementation would be simple: When an AC Transit bus arrives in the Berkeley city limits, the bus simply stops collecting fares. You simply board the bus with a nonexistent ticket paid for by taxes on Uber and Lyft. So, for example, if you caught a bus in El Cerrito on Saturday afternoon to shop in Downtown Berkeley, you’d still pay a fare as you boarded outside the city, but going back home would be free, courtesy of the TNC tax. In another example, if you lived in Southwest Berkeley and caught a 36 to downtown, transferred, and rode the 67 to Tilden Park for a weekend getaway with your whole family, your entire trip would be free. Regardless of the number of family members or the number of transfers.

The amount of money available can certainly fund a 24 hour period on the weekend, at the least. When the City Council is back in session, it should direct the city manager to determine what the optimal hours would be? From 12 a.m. Saturday morning to 12 a.m. Sunday morning, to help with late partiers? Or perhaps, from 6 a.m. Saturday morning to 6 a.m. Sunday morning to help with weekend morning commuters?

How to fund it?

After a few months of calculating, AC Transit has provided EBTRU with the price tag: $654,000 annually for Saturday service and $635,000 for Sunday service. This is pre-pandemic, meaning with many currently not-running transit lines in operation, such as the Berkeley Hills and Ashby service. With the TNC tax projected to bring in a revenue of $910,000, that puts at least one day, either Saturday or Sunday, well within the identified funding range for free transit.

The current plan for East Bay Transit Riders Union is to establish free weekend transit in Oakland and Berkeley via TNC taxes. AC Transit is offering to make transit free on Fridays through September to entice ridership. Making all buses free on Sundays or Saturdays forever is very financially feasible right now. And most importantly, it would prove the viability of free transit as a model for the rest of the Bay Area.

As a lifelong Berkeley bus rider, I strongly encourage the City Council, the Transportation Commission, and the people of Berkeley to make this initiative a reality with our new TNC funds. Free weekend transit could make us a truly transit-first city and show we’re serious about combating the climate crisis. Someday free weekend transit will be the norm, as is free weekend parking or the free library, and it will have started here. Join us at EBTRU.org to keep in touch about your public transit service. Follow Councilmember Harrison’s office, who has been one of many leaders on the City Council we’re lucky to have advancing public transit, on an item to begin the process of this agreement with AC Transit after recess.