ac transit bus
An AC Transit bus in Berkeley. AC Transit suspended Line 80 in August 2020 due to low ridership. A pilot program is expected to reroute Line 7 onto the section of Ashby Avenue previously served by Line 80 this August. Credit: Zac Farber

Update, Aug. 7 Bus service has returned to Ashby Avenue after a long pandemic pause.

The one-year Line 7 pilot program, which extended the line from the Cal campus to the Emeryville Amtrak station and added weekend service, took effect on Sunday, Aug. 6.

Buses run every 30 minutes. Here’s the full schedule.

You’ll want to check here for a full list of service changes, which AC Transit says it’s making so that buses can come on time as it continues to deal with a bus operator shortage. In some cases, these adjustments will mean buses will come less frequently.

Original post, April 20 Local bus service along Ashby Avenue is expected to resume, albeit temporarily, in August, after being suspended in August 2020 due to low ridership and pandemic-related revenue loss. 

Last week the AC Transit Board unanimously approved a pilot that would extend Line 7 to end in Emeryville, and bring back crosstown bus service in West Berkeley. Line 7 currently starts on San Pablo Avenue at El Cerrito Del Norte BART, wends through Richmond, El Cerrito and Kensington, and ends at Downtown Berkeley BART. 

The extended, seven-days-a-week route will run along Bancroft Way and Durant Avenue, and College and Ashby avenues, before terminating at Emeryville Amtrak. It will bring back bus service to a route lined with key amenities, including Alta Bates Hospital, Ashby BART and Berkeley Bowl West.

map showing extended route of line 7 as described in story text
Map showing the current Line 7 (in green), the Line 7 pilot expected to go into effect in August, and the original path of the now-discontinued Line 80. Credit: AC Transit

Line 80, which previously traveled along Ashby Avenue, Sixth Street and Pierce Street, was suspended in August 2020 due to decreased ridership and revenue. 

“I’m so excited to bring back this vital service to our riders,” AC Transit Director Jean Walsh wrote in an email. “The AC Transit Board heard from hundreds of Berkeley residents about the critical need for east-west bus service along Ashby.”

There will be a public outreach process next March, during which the board will solicit feedback on the pilot and come to a final decision on whether the pilot will be included in the future network plan, Walsh said.

What happened to the Line 79 pilot?

In response to backlash from transit advocates and city officials over the suspension of Line 80, the AC Transit Board in May 2021 unanimously approved a pilot rerouting a segment of Line 79 from Claremont Avenue to Ashby Avenue. Michael Eshelman, a service planning manager for AC Transit, said at the time that the pilot would go into effect in March 2022, and that the board would hold a hearing by March 2023 to decide whether or not to keep the service. 

That pilot, however, was never implemented. 

In an op-ed published by Berkeleyside in February, transit advocate Darrell Owens and Councilmember Terry Taplin criticized the agency for not providing an explanation as to why it never followed through with the plan. They encouraged people to show up to a March board meeting to advocate for bus service on Ashby. Otherwise, it would “almost certainly be discontinued forever,” they wrote, and would “have people wondering how such a crucial piece of infrastructure disappeared before their eyes.”

Teen transit enthusiast Hayden Miller and former Councilmember Cheryl Davila were among six public commenters who voiced support for Ashby restoration at the March meeting.

“When the board looks at its service restoration priorities, it’s important to keep in mind that only one of the lines ahead of the 80 in terms of restoration currently has no service,” Miller said. “As somebody who depends on transit, the frequency doesn’t really matter when I can’t even get to my final destination because the route doesn’t exist.” 

Another public commenter, Molly Crowther, introduced herself as a Berkeley business owner and a Ashby Avenue homeowner. Crowther, who works in health care, said she knows seniors who have had trouble getting to Alta Bates Hospital since Line 80 was cut because of how expensive and difficult parking is. 

At the meeting, the public finally received an explanation.

The Line 79 pilot could not be implemented by staff, Eshelman said, since rerouting the southern segment would have taken away service from Claremont between Rockridge BART and Ashby Avenue, required too many bus operators, and violated the board’s 2021 service recovery plan, on which Line 80 had ranked 40th out of 69 local bus lines in ridership.

Map of the proposed Line 79 pilot that was never implemened.
The Line 79 pilot, which was unanimously passed in 2021 but never implemented, is shown in red. The dotted-blue line shows the segment of Line 79 that would have been discontinued if the pilot had been implemented. Credit: AC Transit

In the meeting, AC Transit Director Walsh pushed back on his last point, saying the service recovery list was intended as a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule. AC Transit has shifted gears from focusing on service restoration to improving reliability, she said, and that requires some degree of flexibility. 

“We were under the assumption that this would be a temporary situation and that this was just a framework for getting us back to 100% service by … March, so that’s been pushed back,” Walsh said at the meeting. “We also were originally focused on a service redesign that was supposed to be done by August 2022 (and) that’s been pushed back a year, so everything has changed. Our focus has changed. Our priorities have changed.”

AC Transit Director Diane Shaw said the public should have heard the explanation earlier.

“We had already said we’re going to do this pilot on the most important piece of that route, which might have addressed some of these concerns, and we didn’t do that, and we weren’t forthcoming about not doing that,” Shaw said during the meeting. “I think, hopefully, we’ve all learned from that experience.” 

A temporary fix

AC Transit, like many Bay Area transit agencies, is facing fiscal challenges as federal COVID-19 emergency funding dries up. Ridership is gradually rebounding, but remains at around 60% of pre-pandemic levels, meaning reduced fare revenues. A worst-case financial projection from the agency projects a $314 million deficit over the next seven years. 

Chart showing monthly ridership between May 2019 and January 2023.
Chart showing AC Transit’s monthly ridership levels between May 2019 and January 2023. Credit: AC Transit

The agency is also grappling with a bus operator shortage, making it more difficult to revive pandemic service cuts and bring back riders. In response, it’s ramped up hiring efforts, including offering a $2,000 hiring bonuses for bus operators, but onboarding takes time — new bus operators are required to take and pass a 10-week training program.

For the time being, AC Transit still doesn’t have enough operators to fill every run. It needs 1,208 bus operators for full service; as of the week of March 20, it had 1,185 available. The shortage has resulted in the agency missing more than 5% of trips per day on average, according to a staff report

AC Transit staff had recommended against the Line 7 extension on Ashby, as it requires six additional operators — nearly half of the 14 operators who would be freed up in August 2023 due to route changes — and would mean that fewer operators would be available to address missed trips. (Restoring the original Line 80 was even less feasible, as it would have required 10 operators, even with buses only running every 40 minutes.)

“With the District facing a daily operator shortage, commitments to operating additional transit service directly impacts the ability of the District to fill its current runs on a daily basis,” the staff report states. “These resources could be used for the pilot or to reduce the District’s overall operator requirement to deliver service each day.”

It’s a tradeoff the AC Transit Board has decided is worth at least trying. 

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...