On Board With... John Urgo
Transportation Planner, AC Transit
As a Transportation Planner for Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit), John Urgo handles service planning for the cities of Oakland, San Leandro, Hayward, Newark, and Fremont. He is the project manager for AC Transit Flex, an on-demand responsive pilot bus service project that allows passengers to book bus rides on demand, giving them direct control of their daily commute. John also co-managed the planning and outreach effort behind the District's Service Expansion Plan (AC Go). John has master’s degrees in City Planning and Civil Engineering from UC Berkeley and is originally from Brooklyn.
Through AC Go, AC Transit has experienced its biggest service increase since the recession. What is AC Go and how did the project come about?
Measure BB was the catalyst for AC Go. Measure BB passed in 2014, and suddenly we had this increase in funding that amounted to a 14% increase in operating dollars. It was huge, although we really had to moderate expectations about what that could do, since it only returned us to the operating budget of 2010, before the recession hit AC Transit budgets. Measure BB brought us exactly to the level where we were in 2010. In June, we launched the first of three packages we’ll be implementing over the next 18 months.
What was included in the June rollout and what will the other two phases offer?
The first package focused on changes we could make to add frequency, along with minor route changes to improve reliability by shortening long routes that can’t maintain schedules because of traffic, construction, and other unavoidable impacts. This work really sets the stage for further service improvements coming in December 2016 and June 2017.
The second phase is a whole reimagination of the service in Oakland and Berkeley. During the 2010 service cuts, the district created a lot of circular routes. On paper, it looked like a good idea to take productive segments and connect them. But people don’t like to travel in circles. It took away many of the origins and destinations where people were trying to go. Now, we’re doing away with all of that. We’re also adding a lot of night and weekend service. We expect to have this rolled out in December.
The third package is Central County, or Hayward and San Leandro. There are 12 new lines, some of which come from breaking up the eight existing circular routes. Interestingly, a lot of these routes are what AC had in the 1960s. This one launches June 2017.
All of this will make up AC Go.
What were the key approaches to determine what would be included in the expansion that became known as AC Go?
The Service Expansion Plan is the result of a two-year planning process that led to the changes currently taking place as part of AC Go.
We have three area planners who focus on geographic areas: North, Central, and South. When we started with the AC Go planning, our area planners gave proposals for routes in their areas, and we held dozens of meetings internally to discuss the proposals, and that’s before we even took them out the door to the board or the public.
We would work on the proposals on the fly using Remix software that let us sketch out potential routes. Remix uses open-source technology and open-source data, including the General Transit Feed Specification and Census data, so we could better see the impact on riders and our budget.
We would pull Remix up on the screen in every meeting and say, “Okay, I’d like to see the route go down this street,” and we could draw and see roughly how much that would cost us.
After many meetings, a comprehensive report of the Service Expansion Plan and related public involvement efforts was presented to the AC Transit Board of Directors at a public hearing on November 11, 2015.
In the past, how would a project like AC Go be approached?
The automatic passenger counter (APC) data piece would have been the same, but the costing piece and developing the network costs would have been entirely in spreadsheets. Before, we were using Google maps to draw routes and get a distance and then use our runtime data to piece together the cost of the routes we were drawing in a big spreadsheet. This works great once, but to draw another route from the beginning or to change one, you have to go back into Google maps, then go into the spreadsheet and update the costing.
We never had anything like Remix to work with before. In the past, we would’ve planned one proposal, entered it in the spreadsheet, cost it out, plan another one, enter it in the spreadsheet, cost it out, plan another one...you get the idea. Taking advantage of newer data technology has been very helpful.
Overall, are you satisfied with the process you went through to achieve AC Go?
From the perspective of us planners, it went well. We ended up having far fewer monetary resources than we initially thought we had, so we couldn’t make all the improvements in the network that we, as planners, think should be out there and the public deserves. Service changes are hard. People get used to and rely on the service that's out there.
But in three rounds of public outreach, everyone seemed very happy with the changes. And now we’re working to hire the drivers to operate the expansion. We just can’t get enough operators through the training process quickly enough, which is a great problem to have!
As I said earlier, AC Go represents a 14% increase in service hours. We have 30 new or extended lines, expanded night and weekend service, and have seen the improvement of all routes to 30 minutes or less.
AC Transit is the agency host of the California Transit Association’s 51st Annual Fall Conference & Expo taking place in Oakland November 16-18, 2016. Be sure to attend to learn more about AC Go, or take a tour of AC Transit’s $178 million East Bay Bus Rapid Transit construction project that will connect downtown Oakland and San Leandro BART, or get an up-close look at the agency’s innovative hydrogen fueling station, among other attractions and events.