Steven Schuyler lives his life shackled to a tray of medications. Diagnosed with HIV 25 years ago, Schuyler, now 52, concentrates on being healthy and staying alive.
So when he started noticing AC Transit buses driving unsafely in his downtown Berkeley neighborhood, he began making reports to the agency. Frustrated that nothing seemed to change, he submitted dozens of complaints in the past decade about the “hazardous operation” of public transit buses, including accusations of red-light running.
“My life is at risk enough,” he said. “I don’t need any help to hasten my death or get injured by a bus driver that’s being careless about how they are driving. That’s why this is important.”
Though it’s unclear if red-light running has resulted in a significant accident at AC Transit, members of the public fear it could.
NBC Bay Area obtained the agency’s complaint database and found at least 230 complaints of buses running red lights and stop signs since 2014. Some people accuse the agency of routine violations. Others report instances of red-light running near schools.
Most of the complaints are centered in the East Bay, with the majority of people complaining about violations in Oakland and Berkeley. Schuyler pointed to an especially problematic intersection at Shattuck Avenue and Kittredge Street near his apartment in Berkeley.
Transit agency boss, Michael Hursh rejects claims that AC Transit has a problem involving drivers who run red lights. Yet, after reviewing video NBC Bay Area captured at the intersection near Schuyler’s home, including a red light violation, Hursh said any problems would be investigated and fixed.
Paul Herbert, a transportation safety consultant with more than two decades of experience evaluating bus crash cases, said what he witnessed at Shattuck and Kittredge sets up “horrible scenarios” for accidents to occur. The intersection is a notoriously busy one, made even busier by the closure of a nearby bus stop in August.
Herbert, owner of the Western Motor Carrier Safety Institute in Quincy, Calif. reviewed NBC Bay Area’s video. He spotted an obvious red light violation, where a bus entered on a red light after waiting for oncoming traffic to turn left.
He also saw buses blocking crosswalks and double-parking.
“It’s a huge hazard for pedestrians that may be coming out in front of the bus or behind the bus,” he said. “It’s exposure to accidents.”
He noticed at least two buses speeding up on yellow lights. Herbert said instead, buses should be slowing down when they approach an intersection to anticipate when a light will turn red.
“Bus drivers, as they are well back from an intersection, should be paying attention to traffic signals,” he said.
That doesn’t always happen. NBC Bay Area found more than a dozen red-light camera citations issued to AC Transit bus drivers since 2011. Hursh doesn’t find that number alarming, considering the agency operates 575 buses with nearly 180,000 daily riders.
But with Bay Area cities continuing to dump their red light camera programs, members of the public argue red light camera tickets may not provide the best indication of problems. Some complainants begged AC Transit to take their reports seriously and urged supervisors to retrain drivers who jeopardize public safety.
In March, a caller complained that an AC Transit bus ran a red light next to Thornton Middle School in Fremont, “almost hitting children walking inside the crosswalk.”
Hursh said AC Transit investigates each complaint and reviews onboard camera footage of alleged violations, when possible. He also said the agency retrains and disciplines drivers who break traffic laws. AC Transit employs 49 field supervisors, who cover the 364 square mile service area, to monitor the driving habits of bus operators.
Though Hursh hasn’t witnessed chronic red light running in the 15 months since his appointment as general manager, he said the number of complaints uncovered by NBC Bay Area is too high.
“If that number is in fact true, and if the number doesn’t dramatically drop, then we are not delivering what the taxpayers are paying for,” Hursh said.
In the past year, Hursh said he reorganized the agency’s safety department by hiring a safety manager and an executive director of safety, security and training who reports directly to him.
“There’s a direct line to the general manager’s office so if there’s a concern in the organization, I get word about it,” he said.
Hursh intends to be a hands-on boss. After the interview with NBC Bay Area, he met with Schuyler to discuss the safety concerns about buses in his neighborhood.
The general manager also acknowledged the log-jam of people and buses at the stop on Shattuck Avenue and Kittredge Street. The beautification of downtown Berkeley BART closed the bus stop right in front of the station.
In August, AC Transit and the City of Berkeley created a temporary bus stop one block north of BART on Shattuck and Center Street. But AC Transit and city transportation staff admitted passengers may not have been aware of the new bus stop, which could have contributed to increased pedestrian traffic near Shattuck and Kittredge.
Farid Javandel, Berkeley’s Transportation Manager, said transit agency staff contacted him last month after NBC Bay Area brought Shuyler’s concerns to Hursh. More signs have been posted at the intersection of Shattuck and Kittredge to alert passengers and drivers of construction in the area.
“I appreciate that you brought it to our attention,” Hursh said. “I would rather we found it on our own, but regardless of how we find out about it, if it happens it’s going to be investigated, we’re going to respond to it, and we’re going to make sure its fixed.”