Public Comment

Commentary: Some Practical Questions About Bus Rapid Transit

By Steven Finacom
Friday March 14, 2008

Berkeley’s very limited debate over Bus Rapid Transit so far has concentrated on sexily symbolic aspects of the proposal, such as the contributions BRT might or might not make to more “liveable” cities or to reducing global warming. And these “big” questions don’t always produce the expected answers. 

What’s more important at this point when evaluating BRT is to frame and answer some practical questions about how BRT would operate and would relate to Berkeley. 

I offer the following questions and observations as a sample of just some of the issues the city staff and City Councilmembers should be researching, then discussing in public, over the next several months. 

Let’s start with two fundamental questions. Who owns the streets? Who controls the streets? (These are not necessarily the same question.) 

The city should first establish what rights it has to control and allocate the use of its “city streets.”  

Next, the city should clearly define what AC Transit must do to request and acquire exclusive control over certain portions of those streets. What form of agreement must be negotiated between agency and municipality?  

And what specifics should be in that agreement to protect the interests of the City of Berkeley? 

Most people seem to think, in somewhat vague terms, of a symbolic City Council vote approving or rejecting Bus Rapid Transit, then we move on. But the devil will be in the details of the actual agreement and contract, and those details must be clearly spelled out, publicly discussed, and enforceable. 

Details? What details? How about these, for starters. 

How will the streets be maintained? Who will pay for the maintenance? 

If AC Transit is granted exclusive or near-exclusive use of miles of pavement in Berkeley, then shouldn’t the transit agency also pay for the maintenance and upkeep of that pavement? 

A few years back, this question was asked of an AC Transit representative at a neighborhood forum. The dismissive non-answer was that AC Transit is funding research into more durable pavement materials.  

Now AC Transit can believe in Magic Asphalt all it wants, but I hope the City of Berkeley will continue to worry about real potholes and such. When those potholes occur in the bus lane—and particularly when they spread across to the regular traffic lanes—who will be responsible for fixing them, and paying for the fix? 

More important, what happens when a street with reserved bus lanes comes up on the city’s schedule for repaving—a very expensive proposition—and AC Transit says, sorry, we don’t feel our portion needs to be repaved and we won’t fund it?  

The city’s Public Works Department should prepare a careful and cautious analysis of street repair and upkeep costs (including cost escalation over the life of any agreement with AC Transit). 

And any deal with AC Transit should spell out how that upkeep is undertaken and funded, and which agency has the authority to manage the street work and accept or reject the outcome. 

Who will police the bus-only lanes? 

AC Transit is proposing side-by-side lanes, where only some vehicles can use certain lanes.  

So let’s consider Telegraph Avenue. Imagine there’s a back-up of private vehicles in the single “public use” lane in each direction and, for a moment, no buses in the “dedicated lanes.” A few frustrated drivers decide they’ll cut out into the bus lanes for a block or two to bypass the traffic. 

This occurs thousands of times each day in Bay Area freeway carpool lanes. It will happen in Berkeley, too. 

Do those drivers get tickets? If not, what is the practical mechanism to enforce the “bus-only” nature of the lanes and keep them from filling up with private cars, negating the whole concept of “dedicated lanes”?  

If there is consistent enforcement, who provides it?  

AC Transit has a security contract with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. My understanding is that if a bus is involved in an accident or criminal incident, a sheriff’s deputy responds to take the report.  

So will AC Transit pay for sheriff’s deputies to regularly patrol Telegraph Avenue, Bancroft, and Shattuck, issuing tickets for traffic violations in the bus only lanes?  

If so, should staff from a law enforcement agency entirely beyond the control, review, or management of the City of Berkeley be regularly patrolling Berkeley streets with the specific assignment of local traffic enforcement? 

And if the sheriff doesn’t do the patrols, will Berkeley police be responsible for this enforcement? If Berkeley Police become AC Transit’s de-facto traffic cops, what does that mean for levels of Berkeley police service and staffing?  

Will the police officer who might otherwise be responding to my home security alarm, or phone call about an altercation on the street, be delayed because she’s stuck in traffic over on Telegraph, handing out lane violation tickets to commuters? 

The Berkeley Police Department needs to carefully think all this through and give its analysis to the City Council. 

What are the actual Berkeley impacts of AC Transit’s vague and changing descriptions of BRT?  

AC Transit’s draft environmental impact report says, for example, that AC Transit might “replace” parking displaced from streets like Telegraph Avenue that are reconfigured for “dedicated lanes” and bus “stations.” Where? 

Some statements imply that AC Transit might fund spaces in existing or new parking garages. That might work in places like Downtown Berkeley, but is irrelevant to areas like the Willard, Le Conte, or North Oakland neighborhoods along Telegraph where there are no off-street public garages (and—thank goodness—no plans for any). 

Other statements imply AC Transit might just fund moving parking meters off Telegraph onto side streets, thus “replacing” parking by commercializing and converting street spaces on residential blocks. 

Are my South Berkeley neighbors going to end up with parking meters in front of their homes? Inquiring residents would like to know.  

This is the sort of question where City of Berkeley staff should press AC Transit for formal and coherent answers. 

Finally, what sort of level of service will AC Transit be obligated to provide if it’s granted special rights to the street? 

If Berkeley turns over exclusive use of major portions of its streets to a regional agency, what absolute, iron-clad, enforceable guarantees will there be that the service will actually be provided? 

During my entire time in Berkeley, the repeated story about AC Transit has been one of funding shortfalls, service cuts, poor service (or lack of service), and fare increases. There’s no reason to expect that this will change with Bus Rapid Transit, which will only increase the demands on AC Transit’s operating funds. 

(I’ve read that when BART was being proposed and funded, promoters talked about trains every few minutes, round-the-clock. We can all see how that worked out.) 

Berkeley—like Oakland, and San Leandro—needs to have an enforceable means to say we gave you our streets, now give us the service you promised—and if you don’t, we take back the street. 

Berkeley should set, with citizen and rider input, a specific list of measurable performance criteria that AC Transit must meet, and the contract should also include means and funding to monitor that performance and a “sunset” clause and penalties if AC Transit doesn’t use a valuable loan of Berkeley streets as promised.  

For example, how frequently and regularly do the buses arrive? Is there sufficient capacity? Are the service needs of special populations, such as the elderly and the disabled, properly accommodated? Are the buses safe and comfortable? Are “local” and “feeder” bus lines still sufficiently funded and operated, or have they been starved to feed BRT? 

Nothing will focus the minds of AC Transit managers more carefully on providing promised service than the knowledge that they could lose their bus lanes due to poor performance. 

And Berkeley must be willing and have the legal means to pull the plug—in essence, take back the streets—if the service isn’t provided as specified.  


Steven Finacom is a Berkeley resident. He works for the University of California and has worked on transportation issues in past years, but is not currently assigned any work on BRT. This essay represents his personal views, not necessarily those of the university.