Public Comment

Commentary: Blocking the Road Forward

By Michael Katz
Tuesday September 18, 2007

Berkeley’s City Council may be blundering into AC Transit’s controversial, misnamed Bus “Rapid” Transit (BRT) proposal with eyes wide shut. Hidden on tonight’s consent calendar is item 18, requesting that the “Transportation Commission, Planning Commission, and staff develop a city preferred alternative route for the Telegraph Avenue Bus Rapid Transit.” 

Given the deep public opposition to BRT, you’d think our City Council would pull this off “consent” for a full community discussion. Berkeley neighbors deserve to discuss not where to house AC Transit’s white elephant, but whether to accept it at all—or what to request from AC Transit instead. 

Telegraph (and downtown) merchants overwhelmingly oppose BRT. So do thousands of Southside customers and neighbors who’ve signed anti-BRT petitions. So tonight’s item is a poke in the eyes of both the struggling, core commercial districts that Councilmembers normally claim to support. 

However, the council could simply reject AC Transit’s wasteful, top-down BRT proposal, which offers Berkeley virtually no environmental benefits and no meaningful new transit options. 

That could pave the way for a made-in-Berkeley solution that meaningfully reduces our greenhouse-gas emissions, reduces fuel consumption, improves air quality, reduces congestion, and improves the whole region’s transit network. 

In particular, the council could tonight flatly reject AC Transit’s divisive proposal to create “exclusive bus lanes.” Those lanes would halve the capacity of Telegraph, and of other Southside and downtown streets. That would generate artificial congestion, diverting traffic onto residential streets. 

San Leandro’s city council clearly declined bus-only lanes years ago, and AC Transit listened: it now proposes no exclusive lanes within San Leandro. 

Indeed, bus-only lanes aren’t necessary to speed up buses. AC Transit’s new 1R “Rapid Bus” line has demonstrated this on Telegraph since June 24. Even light rail doesn’t need exclusive lanes to move quickly. San Francisco’s J through N lines demonstrate that, as do some speedy trams I recently rode along Prague’s shared lanes. 

Merchants oppose BRT because of its negatives: Exclusive lanes would remove or convert some 945 to 1,618 parking spaces along AC Transit’s Berkeley/Oakland route—reducing customers’ access, and hurting business. 

Many other people oppose BRT because AC Transit’s own recent draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) shows hardly any positives: no meaningful changes in energy usage, air pollution, carbon emissions, or transit alternatives. Read it yourself at 

That study predicts “negligible” impacts on energy usage by 2025 (page 4-152) and minimal reductions in six air pollutants (by a factor of 0 to just -0.0003; page 4-131). 

The DEIS says nothing about CO2 emissions—AC Transit didn’t study them. But with BRT hardly reducing energy consumption or other pollutants, one can assume virtually no progress on carbon either. If anyone claims that AC Transit’s BRT route would cut carbon emissions, they’re deceiving you with theoretical maximum figures from elsewhere. 

Why does this route yield almost no environmental benefits despite assumptions that it would switch many motorists to transit? Because it would add 90 bus runs per day, and the DEIS says: “Buses are not as energy efficient as autos” (page 4-151). Who knew? 

In fact, full buses are highly energy-efficient. But AC Transit proposes to run large diesel buses nearly empty during much of the evening—for show, to collect federal subsidies. That wasteful, rolling Potemkin village would squander the environmental benefits of motorists switching to buses. 

Even the “rapid” is missing: From Berkeley to San Leandro’s Bayfair BART, AC Transit estimates time savings of 0-19 minutes with BRT. In one scenario, BRT actually takes longer. But this is relative to a current trip length of 59-78 minutes. On nearby BART, you can already make this trip in 30 minutes. 

AC Transit relies largely on “proof of payment” to achieve even those trivial time savings: Riders would buy tickets offboard, then board buses through all doors. For this, AC Transit claims it needs exclusive lanes, BRT “stations,” and fancy ticket vending machines.  

But proof of payment is common across Europe, without any of those things. Riders buy single- or multi-ride tickets in advance at service counters, stores, or (if they insist) vending machines inside subway stations. 

The fancy machinery is onboard the buses, where riders cancel their own tickets with a timestamp. Crucially, in most of the cities represented here, that timestamp gives you a long window for free transfers to all other transit vehicles. (In our terms, other buses, BART, or even regional trains like CalTrain.) 

This is an outline of the affordable, conveniently linked transit the East Bay needs to productively shift a lot of motorists to transit—and to really reduce our carbon footprint. If Berkeley and neighboring cities led instead of following, we could persuade transit agencies to provide it. 

Imagine nudging AC Transit to implement advance-ticket proof of payment fleetwide, speeding up its whole network. With free transfers to and from BART. 

Imagine getting more-frequent bus runs on Telegraph using fuel-efficient vehicles. Not the diesel-guzzling, polluting giants AC Transit proposes for BRT, but smaller hybrids. Or the zero-emission, fuel-cell buses that AC Transit is proudly testing elsewhere. 

Grassroots activists near Telegraph are developing an alternative they call “Rapid Bus Plus,” which could include many of these genuine environmental benefits. 

What’s blocking the way is AC Transit’s backward-looking BRT proposal. That’s aimed at loopholes in federal and regional transit subsidies, not at communities’ needs. It’s a bid to extend our region’s old, unsustainable mess of competing and (in this case) redundant transit agencies and routes. Berkeley deserves better. 

If Berkeley rejected exclusive lanes, Rapid Bus Plus would cost much less than BRT. The funds AC Transit is eyeing for BRT are all earmarked for transit, so they wouldn’t be lost. They’d go to worthier transit projects—whether AC Transit’s or other agencies’. 

If they went to an environmentally beneficial project somewhere else, Berkeley could still be proud. Think of it as buying ourselves a giant carbon credit. 


Michael Katz is a Berkeley resident.