Kern County Finds The Road Toward A Better Regional Transit System

Kern County, at the southern end of California’s Central Valley, is known for its small communities fostering the production of oil, agriculture, dairy, and beef, and more recently wind power. Spread across the county are small farming towns like Lamont, Wasco (rose capital California), and Mcfarland, all covering the ground with crops. Other communities like Buttonwillow and Taft, home of Elk Hills Oil Fields, once the U.S Navy’s largest petroleum reserve, are connected by fifty miles of freeway that are lined with oil derricks. Thirty miles over the mountains of Tehachapi, wind power is taking hold in the desert towns of  Mojave and California City. Crammed anywhere they can fit are dairies, even on the outskirts of Bakersfield.

The larger cities of Bakersfield and Lancaster connect to these places by country roads and freeways, spread out over eight thousand square miles. For years the county’s outlying communities have had few choices about getting around: riding a bike was for the very hardy, and if you didn’t have a car, you had Kern Regional Transit.

The old buses only sat 30 people for the long ride.Some of the older Kern Regional Transit buses still operate on the routes. Phtoto courtesy of Kern Regional Transit.
The old buses only hold thirty people for the long ride. Some of the older Kern Regional Transit buses still operate on the routes.

The vehicles were old. The routes were long. And the buses were frequently late.

But not anymore. Modernized, overhauled, and renamed last year, the new Kern Transit, run by the Kern County Roads Department, is striving to become a transportation option for the citizens.

It is a bus system that connects remote desert cities like Mojave to the mountain communities of Tehachapi , takes people from  the base of the Grapevine at Lebec to Lake Isabella to fish, from jobs in Rosamond to homes in the farming community Delano. Kern Regional Transit is aiming to become a better regional transportation option for residents in Kern’s smaller cities.

Bob Neath is the operations manager for Kern Transit, the only transit agency covering the entire county. He explained that the old route system was based on a series of inefficient loops, and had been “piecemealed” together over the last three decades.

“The [bus] started at one point, went out to its destination, turned around and came back. There was no time built in for driver breaks, meal breaks, or recovery time if you fell behind,” says Neath. A trip could be as long as two hours and fifty minutes, and even a small delay could quickly add up. “If you fell behind on any course of that trip, you carried that lateness with you all the way to the end,” said Neath. “So our on-time performance was pretty poor.”

A route map of the eastern half of the system. Most of the larger destinations are 20-50 miles apart.
A route map of the eastern half of the system. Most of the larger destinations are twenty to fifty miles apart.

But the problems were more than just long-winded bus trips that might be late. Outdated equipment–like old fare boxes that had no way of verifying a legitimate transaction–were also hampering the old transit agency.

With help from Proposition 1B grants and funds for public works in California, nearly $650,000 is going towards new buses. In addition to being more spacious and cleaner-running, they have a new look, “a bright deep blue with the modernized poppy on the side,” as Neath described it. “We now have 25 buses with the new design.”

The new buses were also an opportunity for the small group that runs the transit agency–there are only four employees at the agency’s headquarters–to finally make adjustments to the entire route system after nearly thirty years.

Neath elaborated on some of the pitfalls from the past and some of the ways the new Kern Transit will challenge them.

“There wasn’t a thought process into what are you trying to connect to, [or] what time do you need to get people there. We worked with places like Taft College and Bakersfield College and certain employers; [we asked them] ‘What time do people need to be there?’ We arranged our schedule to accommodate” the actual needs of their riders, as well as of potential new riders.

With the new system, the agency can remotely monitor routes and buses. According to Neath, this is resulting in increased efficiency. From his office in the corner of the Public Works Department, he gets real-time information from the Automatic Vehicle Locator, a GPS installed on most of the buses operating throughout Kern county. He can track the number of riders that get on and off, see if a stop is skipped or missed, and see whether the bus is running on schedule or has deviated from the route. There is no massive monitor bank flashing with locations of the buses in some elaborate science fiction fantasy. It is a small office, and the technology at Kern Transit looks like any office with desktop computers and phones at a desk.  “I can go on my computer and print out a list [for] the entire day and track every problem spot. [I can] talk with the general manager or with the driver and find out what’s going on.”

Getting people around the county to take advantage of of the transit service is also on the list of important tasks for the agency. Neath cites the affordable fares, which can be cheaper than owning and driving a car, as a selling point. An eighty-mile round trip from Tehachapi to Bakersfield College costs only four dollars. In Neath’s view, that’s much better than taking the trip by car.

Administrative Coordinator Ruby Horta has another job: she is looking at ways to connect riders with major places of business. She explains that areas like the Tejon Ranch Complex, home to an outlet shopping center and vast shipping centers like furniture giant Ikea, Famous Footwear, and Caterpillar Inc., a high priority for Horta. She is optimistic that Kern Transit can be a form of alternative transportation for some of the labor force. “We are in the preliminary stages. We have identified trips where times can be adjusted–30 minutes here, 45 minutes her– to [better] accommodate some of the shifts at those locations. It is just a matter of identifying a route.”

Better buses, optimization of routes, and soon new forms of ticket media–such as monthly swipe passes, pre-loaded cards, or tap cards– are all aimed helping the various communities in Kern County. The small group of people responsible for Kern Transit enjoy the small-scaled nature of the work they do for their customers. Ultimately, it all benefits the agency as well.

Of course, the company does receive complaints, and Horta answers most of them–as well as the encouragements and thanks that come from riders. A customer can call her directly. “If there is something you see that could be improved, give us a call,” she said. “Some of the best ideas have come from passengers–[asking for a line extension, or] saying ‘we want to spend more time in Bakersfield.’ Those are the type of things we love to hear and incorporate in our changes.”

Neath stressed the need riders have for connections to and between outlying communities who rely on transit to get to medical care or shopping destinations. “A lot of folks are trying to improve themselves,” he said. “They can’t get that leg up without the opportunities that are available in a large community like Bakersfield or Lancaster. There may not be those options in the small communities where they live. So we are trying to provide them with a tool to help.”

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