From Horses to Hybrid: A Century of East Bay Transport

By Elena Conis

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A squat gray brick building sits nestled among a crowd of houses and a nursery school near the intersection of Adeline Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Oakland.

Within the architectural patchwork that comprises the neighborhoods of the East Bay, this is nothing remarkable.

But like most squares in the quilt, this one-a single story of brick-has a history to speak of. Along with a few steel power poles on Telegraph and San Pablo Avenues, the building, an old streetcar barn that dates to the 1890s, is a remnant of the network of transit systems that held sway in the East Bay before AC Transit came into existence.

Public transit in the East Bay dates back to 1869, when a horse-drawn rail car began carrying passengers along Telegraph and Broadway in Oakland. In the decades that followed, nearly 10 companies ran local streetcars through the East Bay, most of them built to serve-and promote-growing real estate developments.

One of these local operations-the San Francisco Oakland Terminal Railways-set the first buses on East Bay roads in 1914. Called jitneys because of the fare-five cents-the old school-bus-style buses (engine in front) carted passengers to the Montclair and Mills College districts of Oakland.

Soon after, the jumble of local lines-described by John Gallwey, a librarian at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, as "a patchwork of medieval kingdoms"-gave way to just two competitors: Southern Pacific and Key System Transit.

"A lot of people don't realize that up until 1941 the East Bay had two of its own public transit systems," says Phil Gale, treasurer for the Berkeley Historical Society and a self-described East Bay transit-history buff.

Southern Pacific, popularly called SP, ran red cars down California Street. The Key System's cars were orange, sometimes yellow, and ran down Sacramento Street, parallel to SP's cars.

The two lines, just two blocks apart, competed with private cars to carry passengers up and down the East Bay. Eventually the cars won. "There just wasn't enough traffic," says Gale.

Only the Key System survived the advent of the automobile, by running streetcars, ferries, and local and trans-bay buses. But the Key teetered constantly on the edge of bankruptcy, its maintenance was "terrible," and it changed routes frequently. Says Gale, "it wasn't particularly well-regarded" by the public.

National City Lines, which bought streetcar operations all over the country and switched them over to bus systems, bought out Key in 1946. The Key name remained, but by 1948 the last streetcars were off the road and the last streetcar barns were shut down.

Under new management, the transit system grew increasingly unpopular as fares went up and routes were cut and altered. A 1953 strike halted service for two-and-a-half months, destroying the system's reputation for good.

In 1955, the California Legislature created a special transit district and the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit System was born.

AC Transit is now "the third-largest bus-only system in the nation," says agency spokesman Mike Mills. The system's fleet of 815 buses provides over 70 million rides each year, picking up and dropping off passengers at some 8,000 stops. It is publicly owned, governed by an elected board, and-unlike its predecessor-characterized by constant modernization, upgrades, and service improvements.

In the early 1990s, AC Transit drew on public feedback to replace the map of radiating routes with a grid of lines running east-west and north-south. The agency now says there is at least one bus stop within a quarter mile of nearly every residence in the 390 square miles it serves. And it is currently in the process of conducting a new survey to measure rider satisfaction, says Mills.

AC Transit is also characterized by a number of historical "firsts." It was the first public transit agency to raise revenue through property taxes. In 1998 it tested the first hybrid electric buses in the U.S. And just one month ago, AC Transit introduced the country's first free bus pass for low-income middle and high school students.

All that remains today of the systems that came before are the numbers for a handful of bus lines. Line 51 corresponds to the first bus route run by the Key system-tagged 51 because 1 through 50 were reserved for streetcars. Line 15 runs much of the Key System's Number 15 streetcar route.

And, of course, AC Transit buses continue to amble past the steel streetcar poles that still line parts of Telegraph and San Pablo Avenues and the old gray streetcar barn that sits tucked away off of Martin Luther King Jr. Way.