Saturday, June 15, 2024
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Anteater Express unmasked through a driver’s lens

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UCI undergraduates pay $149.98 toward the Anteater Express yearly, placing it in the middle range of the university’s undergraduate student fees. Despite this charge, students and the university have not gotten their money’s worth in several ways. As an Anteater Express operator, I can attest that it is a great job and an essential service, but there is plenty of room for improvement. 

In an interview with New University, an anonymous source employed as an Anteater Express operator detailed problems with Anteater Express’ electric buses, passenger satisfaction and being short-staffed.

The operator estimated that out of 20 buses in the fleet, only about 11 are reliable at any given time. They described two buses with long-term issues and said others “randomly break” sometimes. While many problems are minor, such as AE-19’s infamously broken radio antenna, some buses face disasters like acceleration issues or “powertrain failure.” The buses were manufactured by BYD Motors, costing $15 million. 

On top of that, the “zero-emission, electric hydrogen fuel cell bus” added to the fleet in 2015, known internally as FC-1, was reportedly a “problem child” before being removed from service in summer 2019. Breakdowns are common for electric buses, but it is disappointing that Anteater Express funding has returned these results.

The operator described electric bus technology as not “fully fleshed out,” which may be the source of these costly troubles. Electric buses are more expensive to buy up-front than gas-powered buses, but theoretically cheaper over time due to lower maintenance and charging costs. The biodiesel fleet replaced by the electric one was also generally inconsistent, and sometimes “even more unreliable” than Anteater Express’ current buses. Anteater Express has been unable to win with its fleet at the expense of students and taxpayers, and the challenges are poised to continue.

Anteater Express was supposed to put five new electric buses in service in fall quarter 2023, but it now seems they will be placed in service during the 2024-25 school year. The manufacturer, Proterra, filed for bankruptcy in August 2023, delaying the new buses’ arrival. Phoenix Motorcars acquired Proterra’s transit business line in November 2023. The operator described Proterra’s bus quality as “rocky,” evidenced by their struggles in Edmonton, Canada, where only 16 of 60 Proterra buses were in service three years after their purchase. Proterra’s failures cast doubt on the future of the electric bus industry, and it is certainly poor timing for Anteater Express to have bought from the unsteady company. On top of the existing issues, Anteater Express does not have enough drivers to utilize five new buses.

Anteater Express has eliminated routes and reduced the frequency of buses on some routes due to a post-COVID-19 staffing shortage. The Main Campus (M) Line is overcrowded because Anteater Express can only assign it two buses, leaving students frustrated. Off-campus routes to places like the Irvine Spectrum Center and Diamond Jamboree no longer exist, limiting student access to Irvine’s main activity hubs. The Camino Del Sol (C) and Vista Del Campo (V) lines, were also removed and turned into a combined A Line, placing a greater burden on the already busy Vista Del Campo Norte (N) Line. 

Anteater Express’ new Plaza Express (E) Line has failed to service the new Plaza Verde II housing community, with the operator saying it is not used “nearly as much” by Plaza Verde II residents compared to N line. They want to see Anteater Express do away with E Line and bring back the C and V Lines, but that is impossible without resolving the staffing shortage. Anteater Express has failed to attract enough workers, forcing them to provide insufficient service.

Anteater Express will raise the starting wage to $20 an hour for 2024-25 school year, offering a $1 raise for each 400 accident-free hours worked, with a capped wage of $23 an hour. Considering California’s $20 fast food minimum wage policy, which started in April 2024, Anteater Express no longer pays more than comparably accessible jobs for UCI students. Drivers have to learn how to drive a bus, get a specialized Class B driver’s license and consent to random drug testing that includes tests for marijuana. The operator describes working for the Anteater Express as a “really nice job” that is “so worth it” past the intensive training period, and I agree. Still, Anteater Express will have to increase its wages further to solve the staffing difficulties.

Whether it’s driving poorly, not stopping or supposedly leaving stops early or late, passengers love to hate Anteater Express drivers. We make mistakes sometimes, but some buses have extremely sensitive brakes that are nearly impossible to manage perfectly. We are always meant to follow a schedule, and there are many locations where we are only supposed to stop if someone is waiting or a passenger presses a stop request button. Passengers, please pay attention and press the stop request button once the bus leaves or passes the stop before yours. When waiting, some stops have poor visibility so make sure that drivers can see you and that it is clear you’re looking to catch their bus.

The TransLoc app and the Anteater Express website offer schedules and live bus tracking. Passengers can use these tools to catch their bus, but Anteater Express should implement broader measures to inform students of route changes. Several major route changes this school year confused students due to inadequate communication. Such information should be emailed to all students rather than only accessible through its Instagram or website.

If you’re a student dissatisfied with Anteater Express, be the change you want to see in the world and apply to be a bus driver. It is a flexible, fun and relaxing position. Anteater Express needs more drivers to improve its route design and run more buses. We have limited power to fix the Anteater Express’ woes as students, but we can do our part as employees and passengers, and urge it to do better.

Daniel Waters is an Opinion Staff Writer. He can be reached at dlwaters@uci.edu.