Retired UC Berkeley Traffic Expert Casts Wary Eye on Bus Rapid Transit Plans

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday April 01, 2008
Wolfgang Homburger speaks about Bus Rapid Transit to members of the Berkeley City Commons Club.
Richard Brenneman
Wolfgang Homburger speaks about Bus Rapid Transit to members of the Berkeley City Commons Club.

For Wolfgang Homburger, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) provides the wrong solution to East Bay traffic and environmental concerns. 

A traffic engineer who served on the faculty of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies for 35 years, Homburger said projects that involve construction and lead to ceremonial ribbon-cuttings lure political figures far more than do projects that involve upkeep and maintenance. 

“When’s the last time you saw a ribbon-cutting for maintaining a building?” he asked members of the Berkeley City Commons Club, who had invited him to speak on East Bay transportation issues Friday. 

“AC Transit wants to spend capital funds,” he said, “which is money with a ribbon-cutting at the end.” 

Homburger said BRT makes sense in cities like Sacramento, Los Angeles and Pittsburg, where rights of way either follow abandoned rail lines or occupy new lanes built for the purpose. 

Taking away existing traffic lanes can only lead to political backlash, he said, citing the case of an experiment on the Santa Monica freeway where an existing lane was taken away for carpools and buses. “It lasted about 12 weeks,” he said. 

The BRT proposal now under consideration by AC Transit includes a proposal for creating a bus-only lane along Telegraph Avenue, a notion which has drawn the anger of neighbors and businesses along the thoroughfare. 

“I am very skeptical of the existing proposal,” he said, “though I am in favor of parts of it, including controlled traffic signals” and a new ticketing system that would speed up the entry of passengers onto the buses. 

Berkeley hasn’t grown since 1950, he said, nor has El Cerrito, while the populations of Richmond and Albany have declined, leaving Oakland the only city with some growth in the last half of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st. 

Bay Area transportation is complex, he said, with 30 agencies involved in running public transit systems, and only one, the privately owned Tiburon Ferry, operating independently of public financing. 

“I once advocated a birth control program for public agencies,” he said, smiling. “But our brightest graduate students are doing very well in them because there’s plenty of jobs.” 

And while traffic engineers and systems designers think in terms of creating works that last for decades, the public is far more fickle. “Pity a poor engineer who has built a facility for 50 years and after five years the public has changed its mind.” 

Another problem transportation system operators face is the thorny question of just who really does speak for the public. 

He cited one project in San Francisco, where a group of self-proclaimed public leaders called for and won a project to widen sidewalks at the expense of on-street parking. The moment jackhammers set to work, neighbors started asking what was happening, and within 48 hours the project had been abandoned. “It turned out that the people who worked with the city weren’t representative of the neighborhood,” he said. 

Successful transportation designs arise from working with neighbors, he said, citing the 1960s case of a 10 by 12 block business area of Richmond where owners wanted four-way stops at all the intersections. Instead, engineers worked with the neighborhood and came up with a system of street closure and forced turns that won wide support, ensuring the City Council’s approval. 

Some plans are so outrageous that failure is a virtual certainty. 

Consider the Reber plan, the creation of schoolteacher-turned-theatrical-producer John Reber, which would have resulted in the filling in of 20,000 acres of San Francisco Bay, transforming the East and South bays into freshwater lakes by two massive roadway-creating dams, one at the site of the Bay Bridge and the other stretching between Richmond and Marin. 

Part of the plan included creation of a shipping channel starting at Oakland and slicing through the heart of Richmond. 

That one didn’t even make it to the ballot box. 

Another ill-starred plan called for creation of the Southern Crossing, a span connecting San Francisco and Alameda which remained in the hopes of CalTrans planners as late as 2001. 

Of major plans proposed, one looks certain to be completed, the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel, while another, an additional runway for San Francisco International Airport atop a trestle system anchored in the waters of the bay, remains a possibility, Homburger said. 

Proposals to extend the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s rails to San Jose are unlikely without a major cash infusion, he said, and on a grander scale, high-speed rail between the Bay Area and Los Angeles is probably a non-starter, given the lack of major population centers in between the two major conurbations.