Public Comment

Commentary: BRT Benefits Outweigh Inconveniences

By Rob Wrenn
Friday June 15, 2007

In his attack on bus rapid transit (Daily Planet, June 8), Peter Allen says that AC Transit should reduce fares and run more buses instead of implementing BRT. 

This is an impractical response to the real problems faced by bus riders and by AC Transit. In recent decades, as traffic has increased in Berkeley and the East Bay, bus travel time has gotten worse. Currently buses along the planned BRT route average only 10.9 miles per hour at peak periods. 

Because buses take longer to get from point A to point B, AC Transit’s costs have been rising and AC Transit has been struggling to maintain service. In fact, AC Transit has had to cut service and increase fares in recent years. They don’t have the money to hire more drivers and they can’t use the capital funds available for BRT for that purpose. 

Buses are slow and unreliable on many major routes because they operate in mixed-flow traffic lanes with cars. BRT addresses this problem head-on by providing buses with dedicated lanes, which will reduce travel time and increase reliability. Buses will be more able to stay on schedule. 

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 by reducing travel time. Peak period travel speeds along the route are expected to increase by 28-55 percent compared to existing conditions. 

Also in the top five reasons for not riding transit is concern about transit’s reliability, which BRT also addresses. 

More and more, cities around the world are providing separate lanes or busways for buses on important routes. For example, as part of the “Mobilien” program, Paris has, since 2000, added bus lanes to routes on its principle bus network. Reducing travel time by 20 percent is one of the goals. Bike lanes and trees are also being added in space once dedicated to cars. A survey done last year found that Parisiens support the changes and want them to continue. 

While Europe is way ahead of us when it comes to improving transit and addressing global climate change, some American cities are also taking action. Los Angeles opened its BRT Orange line service in the San Fernando Valley in 2005. It’s been so successful in attracting new riders to transit that officials are thinking about extending the route. 

At the beginning of this year, BRT service began on a bus route that runs from Eugene to Springfield in Oregon. Ridership is already up 47 percent compared to previous bus service after just a few months of operation. 

BRT is planned for both Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco and several other American cities also have BRT routes in the works. 

Critics of BRT, like Mr. Allen, tend to downplay the benefits of BRT, while exaggerating the impacts on traffic and parking. 

One clear benefit is that the East Bay’s long-suffering bus riders will benefit from faster, more frequent and more reliable bus service. They won’t have to spend so much time waiting at bus stops, or stuck on a bus in the middle of traffic. 

And, BRT will reduce the volume of automobile traffic on Telegraph and along the rest of its route by attracting new riders with its improved service. The environmental impact report (EIR) estimates that automobile vehicle miles traveled will be reduced by as much as 20,700 each weekday and that as many as 9,300 people will switch to transit.  

These figures use as a baseline the expected ridership after AC implements preliminary service enhancements; the improvement over current service conditions will be even greater. And every time someone boards a bus instead of climbing behind the wheel of a car, that reduces greenhouse gas emissions in the East Bay. 

As for impacts, BRT will require removal of some on-street parking spaces but AC Transit plans to replace parking where needed. 

Some BRT opponents have made irresponsible statements about BRT’s alleged traffic impacts. Last year, City Council candidate George Beier claimed in a campaign mailer that BRT’s dedicated lanes would cause “gridlock on Telegraph.” The EIR’s traffic analysis does not offer any support for this contention. Traffic will continue to flow at all Telegraph intersections. 

While traffic overall will clearly be reduced, some modest localized increases in traffic are projected for streets like Shattuck, Adeline and College as some motorists using Telegraph now may search out parallel routes. The EIR’s traffic analysis found only one intersection in Berkeley where BRT will cause significant, difficult-to-mitigate congestion problems, Bancroft and Fulton. But this problem can be avoided if one proposed alignment option for Bancroft is chosen. 

While citing parking and traffic impacts as reasons to oppose BRT, Mr. Allen also expresses support for light rail, which is interesting because light rail would require removal of 400 more parking spaces than BRT. Like BRT, light rail would also require dedicated lanes and stations and would have similar traffic impacts as a result. 

While transit ridership would have increased somewhat more with light rail, it was projected to cost more than 2 1/2 times more than BRT. So AC Transit chose BRT. Maybe if our Republican president and governor are replaced by more enlightened leaders, we might see an increase in funds available for public transit and AC Transit can consider upgrading BRT to light rail as well as improving service on other routes in Berkeley. 

While the need for and benefits of BRT are obvious, many important issues about how to implement BRT remain to be resolved. 

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? 

Where should replacement parking be located? What’s the best BRT station design(s) to enhance the areas where BRT stations will be located? 

I hope that Berkeley residents will take advantage of the numerous opportunities they will have to give their input on these and other BRT-related issues. 


Rob Wrenn is a member of the Transportation Commission and the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee. He lives in the LeConte neighborhood, one of the neighborhoods that will be served by the BRT line.