Public Comment

Commentary: BRT: Orwell, Damned Lies and Parking

By Michael Katz
Friday January 04, 2008

AC Transit’s misnamed bus “rapid” transit proposal would not be very rapid. And it would not “replace” the many parking spaces it would remove, as Charles Siegel’s Dec. 14 and 21 letters mistakenly claimed. 

Rather, in exchange for destroying 945 to 1,299 parking spaces along its whole proposed route, the bus agency offers a remarkable “mitigation:” to destroy yet another 187 to 318 spaces! 

General parking spaces on Telegraph would become yellow-curb delivery zones, meaning that most people couldn’t use them. And free parking spaces on residential side streets would become metered, meaning that most people wouldn’t want to. That’s some “mitigation” for neighborhoods already threatened with increased traffic diversion from this boondoggle. 

This all comes straight from AC Transit’s recent draft environmental impact report (EIR). You can download that in a convenient (although very large) single-file format at: http:// 

If you’ve ever defended your neighborhood against a big, berserk development project—the kind that Mr. Siegel keeps trying to plop into someone else’s backyard—you know what it’s like to read the project EIR. You tumble rapidly through the looking glass into a mix of Kafka and Orwell. 

Projects disguised as “green” or “sustainable” turn out to actually harm the environment. Impacts portrayed as “slight” are actually substantial. And, as in this case, the claimed “mitigations” are really further impacts. 

Oh, and, parking “replacement” is anything but. AC Transit’s EIR pays lip service to the phrase (on page 3-123), but immediately redefines “replacement” to mean: AC Transit might toss a little money into parking structures already built, or into those already planned by other agencies. 

So, what AC Transit is really proposing is a purchase of naming rights. When Monster Cable paid to rename Candlestick Park “Monster Park,” no one claimed they’d built a new stadium. And if you believe that AC Transit’s retroactive donations add up to “parking replacement,” I’ve got a nice orange bridge to sell you. 

Three pages later, the EIR flatly dismisses the very idea of fully replacing the 1,132 to 1,617 parking spaces that BRT would destroy. (Combining 945 to 1,299 spaces lost for unneeded bus lanes, plus 187 to 318 for “mitigations.”) Then it sums up just how few spaces the bus line is offering to rename. 

It would subsidize “zero to 20” spaces (either existing or already planned) in downtown Berkeley parking garages; and “zero to 101” spaces (existing or already planned) in Southside garages; and “zero to five” spaces in North Oakland. Merry Christmas. 

It gets worse. Even the “new” parking currently planned in Berkeley will only partly replace spaces already lost to other projects before AC Transit proposed BRT. 

Ask Telegraph and downtown merchants why our city’s core commercial districts are decaying, and they regularly cite these ongoing losses of parking. Their defecting customers agree. Also, for struggling storefront merchants, no amount of parking in remote garages would replace the business they’d lose when parking disappears out front. 

AC Transit’s BRT folly targets the district of one of Berkeley’s “greenest” City Councilmembers, the bicycling Kriss Worthington. And Worthington has forcefully rejected it. He wants to redirect its wasteful public subsidy (of up to $400 million) toward smarter transit incentives that might actually benefit our favorite planet. 

Charles Siegel and his ally Rob Wrenn constitute two-fifths of the prolific “Friends of BRT”—meaning they’re about two-fifths of Berkeley’s constituency for this big, berserk waste of scarce transit funds. If they again use these pages to make easily disprovable misstatements about AC Transit’s filings, you can safely disregard anything else they say about BRT. 

Among past misstatements: that BRT on Telegraph would significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions (the EIR never studied them), or energy consumption (where the EIR explicitly predicts only “negligible” changes), or conventional air pollution (where the EIR shows equally negligible results). 

Any claims about real environmental benefits from BRT are theoretical extrapolations from other cities, where routes were reasonably planned to substitute for missing subway lines. But AC Transit’s entire route would run an absurd one to six blocks beside BART. BART would remain faster, greener, cheaper to ride, more popular, and cheaper to expand. 

AC Transit is simply proposing to run big, dirty, and largely empty diesel buses through a giant loophole in federal and regional transit subsidies. Stunningly, the agency’s own EIR consultants concluded that on this nutty route, “buses are not as energy efficient as autos”! (Page 4-151.) 

Reclaim the $400 million that AC Transit’s Grinchlike accountants are seeking to nab, and we could buy a truly beneficial gift for our favorite planet. 


Michael Katz is a Berkeley activist and occasional journalist.