Public Comment

Commentary: Bus Rapid Transit: Heed the Lessons of the BART Experience

By Steven Finacom
Tuesday April 15, 2008

The small number of Bus Rapid Transit supporters (one third or less of those who spoke) who showed up at the Planning Commission public hearing on BRT on April 9 spent much of their time urging the commission to endorse a “preferred alternative” route for BRT so AC Transit can move ahead with finalizing the environmental impact report on the project. 

AC Transit has indeed proposed several actual “alternatives” for BRT routing in the Southside, north of Dwight Way, and in the downtown. It is important for the city to scrutinize those options and, at least, determine which ones are less workable and should definitely be taken off the table as discussion continues. 

However, the larger issue that went completely unaddressed at the meeting is the fact that AC Transit has proposed no “alternatives” for the longest stretch of the proposed BRT route through Berkeley, Telegraph Avenue south of Dwight. 

From Dwight Way into Oakland, all of the BRT “alternatives” assume that Telegraph Avenue should become a two-lane street, with the center of the roadway given over to buses only.  

(A further assumption is that all un-signalized cross streets along Telegraph—including several in Berkeley—should either get full signals, or be closed to cross traffic and left-turns.) 

In essence, planning commissioners should understand that selecting any of the north of Dwight alignments for further study also entails selecting as the city’s “preferred alternative” narrowing Telegraph to two lanes and disruptively packing every intersection with either unneeded new signals, or traffic barriers. 

BRT-as-is supporters and AC Transit will seize on the city action as a de facto endorsement of bus-only lanes along Telegraph, whether the Berkeley policy makers intend that or not. 

If city councilmembers and planning commissioners want to retain the flexibility of saying no to the presumption of bus-only lanes on Telegraph—as two thirds of the speakers at the public hearing urged them to do—they need to make it clear to AC Transit that the selection of a preferred alternative route for BRT north of Dwight is explicitly not a blanket endorsement of narrowing Telegraph south of Dwight. 

There’s another issue worth considering in the BRT debate; the lesson of BART planning from the 1960s.  

In the early 1960s BART presented East Bay communities with its construction plan. In Berkeley, there would be a BART line along the present day route, three stations—two of them “elevated”—and a stingy three-quarters-of-a-mile of subway beneath downtown Berkeley. 

Elsewhere, both in north Berkeley and along south Shattuck, the BART tracks would be obtrusively “elevated” as they are indeed today in Albany, El Cerrito, and most of Oakland. 

Berkeley officials and citizens welcomed the concept of BART, but objected to the elevated subways and huge above-ground stations, quite correctly worrying they would be a detriment to the town, particularly the adjacent neighborhoods and businesses. 

But according to Berkeley’s mayor at the time, “it was not clear whether BART’s organization was adequate for its assignment…by the spring of 1964 it had become evident that BART held the single-minded attitude of the construction engineer with a job to do. Individuals and cities affected…appealed to BART to modify its plans or consider a new idea. Almost invariably the BART staff response was polite but negative, followed by a corresponding decision of the board of directors.” 

Berkeley’s leaders persisted, and after prolonged negotiation and struggle—and one successful citizen lawsuit—they were able to achieve the current BART arrangement, with the tracks underground from one end of the town to the other.  

Berkeley's underground subway, with costs scrutinized every step of the way by Berkeley officials, even proved much less expensive to construct than BART had projected, while in other communities that had accepted BART promises and plans without question, facilities went way over budget. 

Berkeley’s insistence on a better plan for BART meant that places like Ohlone Park, the Karl Linn Garden, and the North Berkeley Senior Center—where, ironically, last week’s BRT hearing was held—could be created in the long term. 

No Berkeley residential neighborhoods and business blocks were blighted by the rumble and screech of BART trains passing by overhead.  

In sum, the transportation objectives of BART were achieved and the system works well in and through Berkeley. But, thanks to Berkeley, and no thanks to the intransigent and hidebound transit agency, the design of the transit infrastructure through town was modified and gave Berkeley a better result. 

Forty years later that is, in essence, what BRT critics envision. 

A more sensible, vastly less expensive, and less disruptive public transportation system that meets community goals without making the community a less livable place. 

It remains to be seen whether a habitually inflexible regional transit agency—this time AC Transit—will continue to block the way to a better solution and whether, in response, Berkeley officials have the fortitude of their 1960s predecessors to act to improve transit while also protecting our community’s streets, neighborhoods, and businesses. 


Steven Finacom is a Berkeley resident.