Public Comment

Commentary: Bus Rapid Transit Means Reduced Traffic, Reduced CO2

By Rob Wrenn
Friday August 17, 2007

In his latest attack on AC Transit’s planned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service, Doug Buckwald (Planet Aug. 14) once again misstates the facts, this time claiming that the environmental impact report (EIR) for BRT “shows” that BRT will not lead “many people at all” to shift from driving to taking the bus. 

In fact, the EIR estimates that BRT will result in as many as 9300 new transit trips each weekday. These are trips made by people who formerly were not using transit. I’d say that’s “many people.” 

The EIR further estimates that weekday automobile use would decline by 20,700 vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per weekday as the result of drivers shifting to transit.  

Each driver who switches from driving to transit will reduce his or her emissions of CO2. City staff have estimated that 47% of greenhouse gas emissions generated in Berkeley are generated by transportation (cars, trucks, etc.) and that calculation was made without including CO2 generated on the portion of 1-80 that passes through Berkeley.  

It’s not hard to understand why BRT will reduce the number of automobile trips and, by doing so, contribute to the city’s Measure G goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 80%. Surveys show that travel time and reliability are factors in why some people choose driving over public transit. Improve reliability and reduce travel time and more people will choose transit. 

Bus ridership has increased in other cities where BRT has been implemented such as Eugene, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.  

Providing buses with their own lanes has also played an important role in efforts to reduce automobile traffic and to improve transit service in Paris and London. And New York City is among many other U.S. cities that are moving forward to implement BRT. Giving buses their own transitway and separating them from the flow of automobile traffic clearly works. 

Mr. Buckwald makes the unsubstantiated claim that the limited bus improvements that he favors instead of BRT will result in 90 percent of the “gains” that BRT would provide. His sketchy “alternative” would add Eco Pass transit subsidies, free shopper shuttles, “better transfer policies” and advance ticket purchase to the interim Rapid Bus.  

Improving transfers between buses is difficult to achieve as long as buses travel in mixed flow traffic lanes rather than in dedicated bus lanes. With BRT, buses will be far more likely to arrive on schedule, which will facilitate transfers to and from other bus lines. 

Eco Pass (employer-provided free or low cost transit passes) is something that I and others have been lobbying for for years. (Where was Mr. Buckwald?) It’s a great program, but it will not improve transit service and reliability. What it does is give people an incentive to use whatever level of transit service exists at a given point in time.  

But if incentives like Eco Pass encourage people to try transit, the percentage who stick with transit will be smaller without BRT than with BRT. If Eco Pass recipients try the bus but find it slow and unreliable, some will give up and go back to driving. More Eco Pass holders will stick with transit if they have both the improved service of BRT and a transit pass.  

Shopper shuttles, if well planned and designed, and if frequent and adequately funded, can be a good supplement to the transit service that AC and BART provide. But they don’t work for commuters and for trips outside Berkeley; like Eco Pass, they are not a substitute for BRT. 

In short, we need both better service and incentives to use that improved service. Eco Pass and shopper shuttles would complement BRT; they are not an alternative. It’s not either/or. And funds available for capital projects like BRT can’t fund a shuttle or Eco Pass. 

Eugene, Ore. had a shopper shuttle linking its downtown, its bus hub and the University of Oregon with the city’s large shopping mall and with its downtown shopping district. And the University of Oregon has had its own version of Eco Pass; students, staff and faculty can ride the bus for free by showing their U. of Oregon IDs.  

But Eugene also recently added a Bus Rapid Transit line that also serves its downtown and the University and picks up many riders who have the University’s version of Eco Pass. BRT has increased ridership beyond expectations, even though it serves some of the same areas served by the shuttle. Plans are under way to expand BRT there. Shuttles and Eco Pass complement BRT. 

As for the idea of Rapid Bus plus advance ticket purchase, it would still fall short of the service improvements that would be achieved by BRT. The EIR clearly shows that BRT will increase ridership much more than rapid bus will. And including proof of payment with Rapid Bus, if that were a real possibility, would not change that reality. 

While the interim 1R Rapid Bus service on the BRT corridor is expected to increase “average weekday boardings” by 21 percent, implementation of BRT could increase boardings by 100 percent or more, according to the EIR. It would be far superior to Rapid Bus with respect to increasing ridership. 

The EIR predicts that the reduction in bus travel time could be more than double the reduction with the 1R Rapid Bus service. With Rapid Bus, the reduction in travel time is the result of having fewer stops, so if you don’t live near a Rapid Bus stop, you have to walk further to get to the bus.  

With BRT, the greater reliability and more substantial reduction in travel time result, to a substantial degree, from buses having dedicated lanes. 

If any growth occurs in Berkeley or Oakland, the benefits of BRT vis-à-vis more limited improvements favored by Mr. Buckwald, will increase. Buses stuck in mixed flow traffic lanes will move more and more slowly over time if the number of people needing to get around the area increases. Having dedicated lanes for buses will become more and more important over time. 

Doug Buckwald has taken full advantage of the many opportunities that members of the public have had to comment on BRT. He has stated his opposition to BRT at numerous public meetings in front of at least three commissions. He had come out in opposition to BRT before the EIR provided valuable data on BRT’s impacts.  

It’s unfortunate that he comes to meetings to trash BRT rather than to participate in the discussions about the impacts of BRT on parking and traffic and the adequacy of proposed mitigations. The city has yet to choose a preferred alternative for BRT routing; he could offer his opinion on this as many others are doing. That would be more productive than his entirely negative approach to improving transit service in Berkeley. 


Rob Wrenn is a member of the Transportation Commission and the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee and lives in one of the neighborhoods that would be served by BRT.