Editorial: So You’d Like to Hear More About BRT?

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday January 15, 2008

“Last fall, Wolfgang Homburger wrote an opinion piece in the Berkeley Daily Planet attacking Bus Rapid Transit. Friends of BRT researched his claims and found that many of them were inaccurate. Unfortunately, the Berkeley Daily Planet failed to publish our response to Wolfgang Homburger, though it was much better researched than most of their opinion pieces—perhaps as a result of their bias against BRT.”  

—Leonard Conly and Charles Siegel, on the Friends of BRT Blog, Jan. 10 


Well, no. As far as I can remember, the Berkeley Daily Planet has never taken any position pro or con the Bus Rapid Transit proposal now being floated by AC Transit. The Berkeley Daily Planet as such doesn’t take positions on topics like this, or on any topics. The executive editor, in signed pieces like this one, sometimes expresses her own opinions, but as far as she can remember she’s never expressed her opinion on the BRT proposal. She might not have one. 

The paper has, of course, published many many letters and commentaries on this topic, much to the dismay of many of our readers who just don’t care about it. It has published many communications on the topic from Mr. Conly and Mr. Siegel themselves, as well as from the four other members listed on the Friends of BRT blog site. It has also published letters from some BRT opponents, which might be the reason that Mr. Siegel and Mr. Conly now charge the paper with bias. It is even possible (I haven’t checked) that we skipped one letter from Mr. Siegel and Mr. Conly somewhere along the line—we do run out of space occasionally. Anyone who still wants to see it can find it at http://berkeleybrt.blogspot.com, and if we indeed missed it in these pages, there might be room for it sometime soon. 

But there have been enough letters from parties who support or oppose the specific BRT proposals in the draft environmental impact report put forward by AC Transit that interested readers can make up their own minds on the factual aspects of the plan. Most of the writers on both sides are articulate and persuasive. Few readers should need additional guidance from the editor of the Planet at this point.  

Many of us are neither pro nor con in this battle of the century. Few would dispute the need to convert as many Californians as possible to mass transit patrons. Climate change makes it mandatory that we all abandon our addiction to one-person-one-car.  

But many of us never plan to travel between Bayfair Mall (wherever that is) and downtown Berkeley, by bus or any other means, so the prospect of saving 20 minutes or so of travel time on that trip, as promised in the BRT scenario, doesn’t excite us unduly. Many of us note the diesel behemoths, some of them double-length, already rumbling through city streets with three or four passengers on board, and have trouble believing that some day they’ll be filled with smiling faces, though miracles do happen. 

There are plenty of transit innovations which most people in Berkeley would happily endorse, even the most fervent BRT naysayers. It’s the little things that make a difference, like making sure reliable bus schedules are posted at every stop, with electronic updating in case a bus gets delayed. Running small feeder vans to existing BART stations would make more difference than building elaborate station structures along the BRT route. Stopping UC from building ever more parking lots for its employees and giving them free transit passes instead would help a lot. 

It’s now virtually impossible for would-be travellers to get accurate information about transit choices. I’ve been a sophisticated computer user for 40 years, so I spent a few minutes trying to use the “trip planner” software on the 511.org web site. It is, I regret to say, a joke.  

I tried three different destinations. The first time, the system didn’t recognize my home address of 35 years as a valid starting point. The second time, I asked for a Santa Cruz destination, and got a choice of five possibilities, including Emeryville and San Mateo, but no Santa Cruz. It’s possible the system doesn’t go as far as Santa Cruz, but if so it should have just told me that, not offered lunatic alternatives. The third time, I tried a destination in El Cerrito which I happen to know is easily served from my house by the No. 7 bus, and the program did eventually give me a correct response, though at first it refused to recognize the destination as a real address.  

But the main problem with the El Cerrito trip as planned by the software is that it was predicted to take more than an hour in the middle of the day with no bus changes. By car, the same trip takes only 25 minutes. At night the program reported that a bus change on San Pablo is needed, probably daunting for timid riders, and the whole trip takes a minimum of an hour and 15 minutes—barring transfer glitches, which can be expected. 

This kind of service will never get anyone out of their car. Few users who own cars will decide that they have enough spare time to accommodate such a bus schedule. BRT, if implemented, wouldn’t make any difference for trips like this one. 

A major cause of transit problems is competition among empires. Coordinating BART and AC Transit has never been made to work. Each agency jealously defends its own turf, and neither is willing to make the concessions necessary to give the hapless consumer a meaningful range of transit options. The lack of what is called, in the software world, “interoperability” among Bay Area transit systems is scandalous. It’s the first problem that needs to be remedied, long before any capital-intensive hardscape “improvements” are constructed by AC or any other player in the game. 

But perhaps we won’t have BRT to kick around much longer, if we’re to believe Gov. Schwarzenegger’s dire predictions about the state’s economy. Perhaps whoever’s paying the bill, federal, state or local, just won’t be able to afford spending the $400 million dollars it’s estimated to cost. 

The city of Berkeley, however, still seems to have plenty of cash. As I was leaving home yesterday a city truck with three employees in it pulled up on my corner, parking in the red zone. Their mission? To change a big sign saying “street not through” to a bigger one saying “no outlet.” If we can fund important tasks like that, perhaps we can also pay what it takes to build the bus stations on Telegraph and the whole BRT project.  

It would be entertaining and informative to see the debate on the BRT project which opponent Doug Buckwald has repeatedly proposed, but supporters haven’t yet had the courage to accept his challenge. They take themselves and their cause pretty seriously, and Buckwald has an antic sense of humor which tends to outrage the sententious. He’s promised to avoid light verse in his presentation, and perhaps jokes at the expense of BRT devotees could also be banned if they would agree to take part.  

In fact, perhaps the Planet could sponsor a whole debate tournament for those who feel that they haven’t gotten enough spaces in our pages. The first half could be on Bus Rapid Transit, and the second could be devoted to what’s happened at KPFA. Does anyone have a hall they’d make available for such an event? It doesn’t have to be a very big one, I imagine.