Public Comment

Commentary: Bus Rapid Transit Debate — Any Takers?

By Doug Buckwald
Tuesday August 14, 2007

Charles Siegel and Steve Geller certainly respond promptly and with great vigor to anyone who suggests that there might be flaws in the massive and expensive Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal put forward by AC Transit. The problem is, these two men usually shed more dust than light on the issues involved. In their separate letters in last Tuesday’s issue of the Daily Planet (August 7), they both ignore two essential facts: First, there has not been any city forum held to debate the issue of the approval of the BRT proposal, nor has there been any decision by our City Council on this matter. Mr. Geller’s and Mr. Siegel’s efforts to assist groups like the Transportation Commission in squelching public debate on this important issue are profoundly undemocratic. They are just as guilty as the Transportation Commission in perpetrating the falsehood that BRT is a “done deal”—a cynical strategy intended to hoodwink the opposition into accepting the program. Second, it is AC Transit’s own study (the Draft Environmental Impact Report) that shows that BRT will not motivate many people at all to shift from driving cars to riding the bus. Therefore, Mr. Siegel and Mr. Geller should be criticizing AC Transit for failing to provide a better alternative to automobile transportation—rather than leveling their contempt and disdain at citizens who are struggling to find transportation choices that work.  

Regarding Steve Geller’s “straw man” argument that the Rapid Bus system currently in operation on Telegraph Avenue will not be good enough: I quite agree. In fact, nobody I know is suggesting that it would be. (That’s what makes his argument a “straw man”; it is not put forth by anybody as a serious proposition, and it is quite easy to knock down.) In fact, what most opponents of BRT are proposing as an alternative is a package of improvements to Rapid Bus that will offer 90 percent of the gains of BRT without any of the major detriments caused by traffic lane removal and loss of business and residential parking. We recommend the use of expanded Eco-pass programs, advance ticket purchase (also called “proof of payment”), free shoppers’ shuttles, and better transfer policies and connections to improve bus performance and increase ridership. These improvements could be implemented at a small fraction of the cost that BRT would incur, currently slated at a staggering $400 million of our hard-earned taxpayer dollars.  

For his part, Charles Siegel has tried to tar certain individuals with the label “disruptor.” I think it is a shame that he has chosen to resort to such ad hominem attacks (that is, attacking the person rather than the issue)—especially in light of the fact that he himself was guilty of highly disruptive behavior at the Transportation Commission meeting on July 24. While most of us were trying to address substantive issues, Mr. Siegel chose to interrupt a speaker to level a blatantly personal attack. It was this outburst that provoked a rebuke by the chair. In his letter to the Planet, Mr. Siegel reveals that he didn’t really learn his lesson. He has unfortunately chosen to escalate his ad hominem attacks to try to smear a whole community of dedicated volunteer civic activists. This is a very unfair tactic. And, just for the record, it is inaccurate to label as a “distinct minority” a group that includes, to the best of my knowledge, the vast majority of the informed residents in the Willard, LeConte, and CENA neighborhoods—not to mention the Downtown Berkeley Association and almost all of the merchants on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Rather, I would suggest that this group appears to be a distinct majority. In fact, I have found that the more people learn about BRT, the less they like it. And opposition is growing daily because the plan is so flawed. At the BRT-related meetings I have attended, I have noticed that it is generally the proponents of BRT who are in the minority, usually outnumbered by BRT opponents by a large margin. 

I say we’ve had enough misrepresentation and argument by logical fallacy. Why not debate the issues and stick to verifiable facts? I hereby challenge Mr. Geller or Mr. Siegel—or anyone else, for that matter—to participate in a public debate on this issue. All I ask is that we choose an impartial moderator. Will anyone accept my challenge? 


Doug Buckwald is a Berkeley civic activist, and a frequent rider of AC Transit, BART, and SF Muni.