Public Comment

A Tale of Two Cities

By Sharon Hudson
Thursday June 12, 2008 - 10:50:00 AM

Around noon on Friday, May 16, I waited at Telegraph Avenue and Dwight Way to board the new 1R bus (Rapid Bus) to San Leandro. My goal? To see for myself why AC Transit chose the Telegraph Avenue/International Boulevard route for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). To do this, I would ride the BRT route to San Leandro, and several unfamiliar bus routes (Bancroft, MacArthur) back to Berkeley.  

As I waited, I asked a regular bus rider at the stop whether he had ever heard of BRT. He hadn’t. I explained that it was a plan to remove one traffic lane in each direction along Telegraph Avenue and International Boulevard, as well as most of the parking and left turns on Telegraph in Berkeley, to create bus-only lanes that would speed up bus service from Berkeley to San Leandro. 

I asked him what he thought of the idea, expecting that, as a bus rider, he would favor it. But instead he said thoughtfully, “Well, I guess that could work in some places, but it sure won’t work along the entire route.”  

The bus came at 12:15 p.m. It was a 60-foot articulated Van Hool containing eight riders. Without going into detail, let me confirm that the Van Hool buses compare unfavorably with every other bus I have ever ridden in any country, except for a few third-class buses in very poor countries.  

The Van Hools reveal AC Transit’s arrogant disregard for the “public” in public transit. One must also seriously question whether an organization that purchased these buses has either the integrity or the intelligence to research or analyze a $400 million project like BRT.  

By 12:30 p.m. we had departed 12th Street, Oakland; at 12:55 we stopped at Fruitvale; and we arrived at downtown San Leandro at 1:20, for a total ride of 65 minutes. Between 18 and 23 people rode the bus between downtown Oakland and San Leandro. 

Almost no street segment on this route (or the others I rode) was wide enough to accommodate dedicated bus lanes, two traffic lanes in each direction, and parking. In addition, long sections of the southern end of the route are planted with large, beautiful street trees, which locals do not want to trade for bus lanes. In downtown San Leandro I was happy to exit the miserable Van Hool for a quiet, cool bench in the shade. San Leandro is pleasant and functional without dedicated lanes, and that city was wise to reject them. 

Most people realize by now that BRT is not about improving transportation. For regional planners, it’s an attempt to consolidate future East Bay population density by incentivizing development in certain locations. For cities, it’s a way to get federal and state development dollars to increase the municipal tax base. For AC Transit, it’s a self-serving empire builder. For public consumption, BRT is greenwashed, though the idea that BRT is a good way to help reduce global warming is based on one false proposition after another.  

BRT is therefore driven by planning dogma, money, and developer shills, not by concern for, or input from, existing travelers or communities. That’s why only the uninitiated care whether BRT will “get more people onto buses.” Other bus routes are and could be equally or more heavily used but, for physical or political reasons, cannot handle the BRT infrastructure or as much future development. Decentralized, flexible transportation models, such as more coverage by smaller buses, are not considered. And relative intangibles like bus passes or socioeconomic changes just don’t say “America” like big, shiny engineering projects.  

So BRT is an expensive, technological, infrastructural, and permanent “solution” to a vaguely conceived transportation or environmental “problem” that is cultural (not mechanical) and in flux, and has only tenuous ties to the BRT route. This infrastructure-based approach is soooo 20th-century, but it refuses to die because it is familiar, relatively easy, and enriches powerful people. The final irony is that autos will probably stop emitting significant greenhouse gases long before transit development has any significant impact on driving.  

It is unfortunate that urban development assistance is predicated on an expensive and unwise transit boondoggle. But given that constraint, the place to concentrate new regional development is in Oakland, where substantial new density can be intelligently integrated into new planning.  

Oakland is the largest city and natural center of the East Bay, but with only about a third the population density of Berkeley. Oakland has many wide streets and enough room to increase population density through good planning that realistically accommodates future human needs, cars, and public transit. By comparison, Berkeley has bad planners, congested streets, settled and popular existing urban forms, and only modest space and limited appetite for increased population density. 

Oakland also has large areas of low-income neighborhoods. Every neighborhood should decide its own future, but in general such neighborhoods need and welcome development dollars more than the comfortable, middle-class neighborhoods of Berkeley. Money should go where it will help people who need it and want it. 

International Boulevard is a good place for new development. First, with miles of underutilized, one-story industrial property and surface parking lots, International Boulevard is close to an urban “blank slate.” It is flanked by low-density, low-income, single-family homes. If new development were planned correctly and respectfully (i.e., not secret or top-down), everyone in the area would benefit from increased amenities (including planned greenspace) and higher property values.  

Second, International Boulevard is not congested. A short distance away is a freeway and an efficient auto corridor—12th Street/San Leandro Street. This should make it possible to remove a lane from International Boulevard without bringing traffic to a standstill, even after significant development occurs. 

Third, although two-hour neighborhood parking along International Boulevard suggests that some parking problem already exists, reduction of on-street parking there looks feasible if it is carefully planned for. Oakland does not have to make the same mistakes that Berkeley has made. Oakland could insist that all new residential and commercial development along the BRT route provide plenty of off-street parking. This would create a viable commercial street with adequate business parking and minimal parking pressure on the residential side streets. 

By contrast, however, the BRT route north of downtown Oakland is much less rational, even destructive. Instead of looking for parts of town that have extra road capacity and would most benefit from smart development, it appears that BRT’s northern route was solely determined by the location of the University of California. But Telegraph buses serve UCB fine right now, and growth in Berkeley campus users—even if desirable—could never numerically justify the cost of the BRT infrastructure in Berkeley—about 10 percent of $400 million.  

However, by spurring UC-related development, BRT would concentrate future expansion of the Berkeley campus in its current crowded location, discouraging its logical and flexible growth elsewhere. And the high-density housing built on Telegraph near UC will inevitably become student housing, causing homeowners to flee from currently stable neighborhoods.  

Meanwhile, development along Telegraph would have none of the benefits of development in east Oakland. In Berkeley, BRT would force development and density on already-dense neighborhoods that don’t want it, remove parking from businesses and neighborhoods that need it, remove traffic lanes where UC employees and Berkeley residents need access to the freeway, marginally speed up the best bus service in the city, and do nothing to bring better buses or development to those in need.  

It’s equally hard to see the benefit of turning downtown Berkeley into a giant bus turnaround. Downtown Berkeley is a good place to increase density, but it is already eligible for most transit-oriented development incentives. So BRT would do little for downtown except disrupt pedestrians, traffic, parking, and shopping.  

Therefore, while BRT may help east Oakland, it is sadly inappropriate for Berkeley as currently proposed. But AC Transit is not entirely to blame for this fiasco. They had plenty of help from Berkeley’s green-eyed “planners” and “environmentalists.” Without their help, even an organization as misguided as AC Transit might not have come up with such a bad idea for Berkeley.