Public Comment

Commentary: Bus Rapid Transit Leaflet Misleading

By Rob Wrenn
Tuesday May 09, 2006

At the recent community workshop on the Downtown Berkeley BART Plaza redesign plan, an anonymous leaflet was distributed that is full of factual errors and misinformation about Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service, which AC Transit is planning for Telegraph Avenue, the Southside and Downtown Berkeley. 

The author of this anonymous leaflet tries to suggest that we don’t need to improve transit service on the Telegraph corridor by implementing BRT because existing bus service is adequate. The anonymous leaflet states that buses that currently use Telegraph are “almost empty.” This is simply false.  

Anonymous must never ride the bus. Anyone who does ride the 40 bus from Berkeley to Oakland and back on Telegraph will note that people are getting on and off the bus all along the route. How full the bus is varies, not surprisingly, by time of day. 

AC Transit gathers statistics about how many people ride their buses, which is not hard to do since everyone must pay, or have a pass or transfer, to ride. According to AC, the Telegraph Avenue portion of the approved BRT corridor currently draws about 8,000 bus riders a day. 


A billion dollars for BRT? 

Anonymous says AC is getting “a billion or more taxpayer dollars” for BRT, which anonymous describes as a “grand scheme to compete with BART.” This is simply false. 

The total cost of BRT construction is estimated at between $190 million and $340 million.  

Is BRT meant to compete with BART? Hardly. It will, as the current 40 bus does, serve areas that are not well served by BART.  

BART is good for longer distance travel. If you are going from the center of downtown Berkeley to the center of downtown Oakland, BART is obviously the best choice; the same holds true if you are going from downtown Berkeley to Market Street in San Francisco.  

But BART stations are spaced much further apart than both current bus stops and planned BRT stations (which will be one-third to one-half mile apart). For many people living near Telegraph or International Blvd, there is no BART station close by.  


Why BRT is needed 

BRT is expected to increase transit ridership by 30-40 percent on the corridor it serves. Most of these new transit riders will be people who currently drive. In addition, for people who don’t own cars and are dependent on transit for commute and other trips, including those in low-income and minority neighborhoods along the route, it will substantially improve the quality of service. 

How does BRT improve service? First, of all BRT buses will run in their own dedicated lanes in the street and will have traffic signal priority at intersections. BRT stations will be spaced further apart than current bus stops, so the bus will spend less time stopping. 

The combined impact of these changes will be a substantial improvement in travel time. Trips will take one-third less time and will be much more competitive with automobile trip travel time to the same destinations along the corridor. For someone boarding in the area south of the UC campus, the travel time to downtown Oakland will be reduced by about ten minutes, a substantial improvement. 

A survey of commuters conducted a few years ago found that the top reason given for NOT taking transit to work was that it “takes too much time.” BRT will attract more riders to transit because it will reduce travel time.  

Also in the top five reasons for not riding transit is concern about transit’s reliability. People who ride buses regularly know that buses are not always on schedule. Dedicated lanes will make it easier to stay on schedule since it is often traffic congestion that knocks buses off their schedules. 

Why does it matter if bus service is improved and more people choose to ride transit as a result? Berkeley’s population is increasing as more housing is being built. UC plans to expand as well.  

Both Berkeley’s General Plan EIR and UC’s Long Range Development Plan recognize that the volume of traffic will increase. If more trips are made as a result of growth and there is no change in the percentage of those trips made by transit and other alternatives to driving, then the net result will be more traffic. There will also be more demand for on-street parking in neighborhoods and commercial areas. 

BRT will reduce traffic overall and will benefit neighborhoods adjacent to its route by doing so. Anyone in these neighborhoods who opposes BRT forfeits their right to complain about traffic and competition for neighborhood parking spaces. Without BRT and similar efforts to improve transit service and to encourage transit use, more traffic is inevitable. 


Reducing emissions 

Since BRT will reduce traffic and eliminate an estimated 9,000 to 11,000 daily auto trips, it will also reduce emissions that contribute to global climate change and that pollute the air. It will help Berkeley implement the Urban Environmental Accords, which include an action which calls for implementing “a policy to reduce the percentage of commute trips by single occupancy vehicles by ten percent in seven years.” 

AC Transit has introduced “clean diesel” buses that have sharply reduced emissions of nitrogen dioxide and particulates to levels far below those set by the California Air Resources Board. AC is also trying out zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell buses and gasoline hybrids. 

There is no question that the emissions from BRT buses will be far below the emissions that would be generated if all the car-owners who decide to ride BRT buses were to drive instead. 

The anonymous anti-BRT leaflet suggests that BRT’s “polluting diesel buses” could emit more harmful particulate pollution into our city’s air and add to greenhouse gases. Had anonymous talked to anyone at AC, this mistaken impression could have been avoided. 


Impact on pedestrians and business 

Anonymous says that BRT’s raised concrete platforms and bus shelters will “impede pedestrian movement and block views of businesses on the street.” First of all the raised platforms will only be 8-13 inches high. They will make things easier for pedestrians because they will allow for “level boarding” which will make it much easier for people with wheelchairs, people with strollers, and people with mobility problems to board the bus. 

People will board buses in the median, so sidewalks will not be obstructed by BRT shelters. Given all the rain we had this winter and spring, bus shelters are an obvious necessity. AC is working on a design that will be attractive with a transparent canopy. AC plans to seek public input on the specific design. 


Next steps 

The BRT EIR should be released to the public in a few months. The EIR will look at BRT’s impact on traffic among other things and will provide data on the route alternatives being considered. 

The Berkeley City Council endorsed BRT and dedicated lanes in a general way when it approved the current General Plan. But many specific decisions remain to be made.  

What should the specific route be through Berkeley’s Southside and Downtown? Should buses run both ways on all of Telegraph and on Bancroft and Shattuck? Or should buses use couplets of streets: Telegraph/Dana (north of Dwight); Bancroft/Durant; and Shattuck/Oxford? 

What mitigations will AC propose for the removal of some on-street parking spaces near their new BRT stations? How many stations should there be in Berkeley and where should they be located. Should there be a station between Dwight and Ashby on Telegraph or is the distance between those stations about right? 

What’s a good design for stations and shelters and what’s the best design for the streets where BRT buses will run? Clearly we can work with AC to come up with an optimal design that will give a boost to Downtown and the Telegraph area while meeting AC’s and our need for improved more rapid bus service. 

AC has welcomed public input in the planning process leading up to the EIR. They have hosted public meetings and have made presentations and heard input at meetings and hearings before the Planning and Transportation commissions.  

There will be more opportunities for public input in the post-EIR phase of the planning process. Hopefully that input will be informed by accurate information and not by misinformation coming from people who long ago made up their minds that BRT is a bad idea.  


Rob Wrenn is a member of the Transportation Commission and the Downtown Area Plan Committee.›