On all AC Transit buses, riders are no longer required to wear a mask. (Photo courtesy of AC Transit)

Social distancing triggered by the coronavirus has affected nearly every facet of urban living. Face masks are mandatory fashion statements, grocery shopping takes on apocalyptic overtones, and telecommuting, for whom it is available, is the “new normal.” 

Among the areas most affected by the pandemic is public transportation, and a look at Oakland-based AC Transit makes it easy to see why. The agency operates buses in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, as well as transbay services, and pre-COVID-19 its annual ridership was put 53 million.

Now, though, ridership at the transportation agency is down dramatically. A staff report issued in early summer placed  the decline in passengers since March 23 at 71% and, with passenger fares accounting for 12% of AC Transit’s $471 million annual operating budget, the agency said it was losing $5 million a month. 

Responding to the drop in both passenger traffic and revenues, AC Transit cut back service on some lines in early August and  discontinued other routes indefinitely.

For riders, this means the traditional convenience of mass transit now comes with large doses of uncertainty and apprehension.

Although some buses are eerily vacant, space can still be hard to come by during busy commute hours, and drivers are being asked to enforce strict limits on the number of passengers allowed on the bus. As seats fill along busy routes, drivers now stop to count passengers and pass potential riders by if the bus is deemed to be at capacity.

“It makes it hard for passengers who’ve been waiting a long time,” said Oakland resident Arturo Sosa, commenting on drivers who turn away passengers.

Despite the coronavirus-induced austerity, AC Transit has gone ahead with its new rapid transit “Tempo” line, a $232 million project that began service in August after decades in development. Tempo, which connects Uptown Oakland to the San Leandro BART station, replaces the old 1R line. Riding Tempo is free until Nov. 8, after which regular fares will apply.

On all AC Transit buses, new and old, riders are required to wear masks, and passenger thresholds are set according to bus size. Passengers board through the back entrances and are expected to maintain the standard 6 feet of distance from each other. 

Sosa said passengers are following the rules for the most part. “There’s a visible effort to comply,” he said.

But not everyone adheres to safety regulations all the time. Often a few passengers enter wearing a mask, but remove it once on board. Some talk on the phone with no mask, others eat or drink — a prohibited but widely practiced activity on AC Transit. In an attempt to comply with one rule (masks) while breaking another (no food), a passenger recently tried unsuccessfully to eat a banana without taking their mask off.

With all this, the bustle of an AC Transit commute feels simultaneously alien and familiar these days. Passengers still pleasantly thank the bus driver as they exit the bus — even if they might lower their mask to do so.