Public Comment

The Real Truth About Oregon’s BRT System

By Doug Buckwald
Tuesday November 20, 2007

Oregon has a Bus Rapid Transit system called the “Emerald Express” operating on a five-mile route between Springfield and Eugene. This bus system is generally regarded as a successful transit project, and transportation planners in Alameda County should pay careful attention to several important factors that have contributed to its success. Steve Geller mentioned some of these factors in his commentary “Bus Rapid Transit Success in Oregon” (November 2), but downplayed or neglected others. I think it is important to have a more complete picture. 

One thing we can learn from Oregon’s experience is that a BRT system does not need to use exclusive, bus-only lanes along its entire route to be successful. In Oregon, transportation planners decided to balance the need for improved bus service with the need to maintain traffic flow on their streets—and it works. Exclusive bus lanes are used only in areas where they will not cause disruption and diversion of traffic off of main roads into residential areas. In more developed areas, the buses share lanes with other cars and trucks. Only 60% of Oregon’s BRT route is in dedicated lanes, while the remaining 40% is in mixed-flow lanes. 

Second, riding on the “Emerald Express” BRT buses between Springfield and Eugene is free! This is a proven method to increase bus ridership, and if that is really our goal, we could do it here right now—without paying for the hugely expensive $400 million BRT infrastructure. Alternatively, we could provide Eco-Passes for all Berkeley residents to make bus travel possible at very low cost. Eliminating the need for fare collection also speeds up bus service and decreases air pollution, because buses spend less time idling at stops. 

Third, very few parking spaces were eliminated for Oregon’s BRT system. Over the entire five-mile route, less than ten parking spaces were eliminated. The Oregon transit representative I spoke with on the phone assured me that they would have had far greater difficulty getting their BRT system implemented if they had displaced parking to any significant extent. Contrast this approach with AC Transit’s current proposal that calls for the elimination of 75% of the parking on Telegraph Avenue between Woolsey and Dwight, and the removal of many heavily-used spaces downtown. Recent experience shows us that this parking reduction would cause significant disruption in business patronage in these areas. 

Fourth, the bulk of the seating on the “Emerald Express” is perimeter, bench-style seating—to make it easier for seniors and disabled passengers to get into and out of the seats. This is precisely the kind of passenger-preferred seating that has been entirely eliminated on AC Transit’s new Van Hool buses—to the displeasure of many longtime bus riders. Comfort is one of the factors that affects people’s transportation choices, and AC Transit’s decisions in this regard are actually discouraging people from traveling by bus. Sadly, these are the very same buses they intend to use on the BRT line. 

And last but not least, Oregon transportation planners realized that the choice of engines for their vehicles should be environmentally responsible, so they use hybrid-electric buses. AC Transit, in contrast, has just purchased many new diesel-powered buses for its fleet, and they will be in service for many years to come. So, if you live near a Rapid Bus stop, your neighborhood will experience higher levels of particulate air pollution from diesel exhaust. Fine particulate air pollution is implicated in diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, and lung cancer. 

Oregon transportation planners have worked with the public to develop a bus system that has many benefits and few detriments. In our own East Bay, unfortunately, AC Transit has adopted an autocratic, cram-it-down-our-throats approach that has alienated many neighborhood residents and business owners. 

It’s shameful, really, how poorly AC Transit responds to public input. Often, it seems, it even works in defiance of the public’s wishes. Eliminating bus routes, making schedules more inconvenient, limiting the use of transfers, failing to coordinate with other transit agencies—and buying more and more of the highly unpopular, painfully uncomfortable Van Hool buses—are all decisions made by AC Transit to the detriment of its customers. AC Transit apparently cares far more about its own pie-in-the-sky plans to compete with BART than it cares about the needs of the average bus-riding citizen. 

At every single public forum I have attended about the East Bay BRT proposal, skeptics have vastly outnumbered BRT supporters. Even so, the BRT proposal continues to move forward, propelled by an elite, inner group of planners and advocates who want to tell us how to run our lives. And this occurs despite the fact that AC Transit’s own Draft Environmental Impact Report shows that BRT will do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and will convert only a small percentage of automobile drivers to public transit! 

Make no mistake: All of the time and money AC Transit has poured into this deeply-flawed BRT proposal has diverted millions of dollars from other important public transit needs. Enough is enough. Let’s stop this BRT mistake now. It’s time for AC Transit to work with the community to develop practical and effective transportation solutions.