Public Comment

Why BRT Will Work

By Rob Wrenn
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 09:58:00 AM

I was amused by Russ Tilleman’s Sept. 18 letter opposing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). To bus riders who are frustrated by the absence of good transit and who want something done about it, he gives a Marie Antoinettish response: Let them drive cars. 

He suggests giving the capital funds for BRT to motorists to buy fuel-efficient cars. Let’s forget about improving public transit and encourage people to drive instead. 

There’s a big problem here. The embedded energy in new cars, the greenhouse gases created in the manufacture of a new car, are substantial. Wired Magazine reported that you are better off buying a relatively fuel-efficient used-car than a new, more fuel-efficient Prius hybrid because of the greenhouse gases generated in the manufacture of hybrids. 

When you compare the reduction in greenhouse gases from riding public transit instead of driving to the reduction you get from trading your current car for a more fuel-efficient one, transit wins hands down. This is true with existing buses, and it’s even more true if zero-emission buses are used. Of course, it’s even better if you walk or ride a bicycle. 

Moreover, like Marie Antoinette, Russ Tilleman has a clear class bias. He is blissfully unconcerned about bus riders who have to put up with slow, unreliable buses that frequently don’t arrive at bus stops at scheduled times. In Berkeley and Oakland, along the proposed Bus Rapid Transit route, a quarter or more of the residents don’t own cars. They are dependent on public transit to places they can’t walk too. Some are too young, too old, too infirm, or too disabled to drive. Others work low-wage jobs, doing things that are essential to our economy, but can’t afford to own a car. 

This transit-dependent population should not be treated like second-class citizens. They need better transit. BRT will, without question, reduce bus travel time by giving buses a dedicated lane to travel in. It will, without question, improve on-time performance (reliability) of buses because they won’t fall behind schedule or bunch up as a result of being stuck in automobile traffic. And disabled people who use wheelchairs will benefit for the level boarding at BRT stations; no more reliance on slow lifts that don’t always work. 

Throughout the world, transit vehicles, both buses and trams, that have their own lanes perform better than transit vehicles in outmoded settings where they have to share space with cars. 

Tilleman, more explicitly than most BRT opponents, espouses the cars-come-first mentality that underlies opposition to BRT. The BRT EIR shows that cars will be slowed down slightly during peak travel periods (i.e. rush hour). This minor inconvenience for car drivers is a small price to pay for the substantial improvements in transit service and the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that will come with BRT. 

One of the world’s cities that has gone furthest in implementing dedicated travel lanes for buses is Paris. There were people like Tilleman there too, arguing for the primacy of cars. But despite this opposition, Paris now has a network of dedicated lanes for buses and bicycles, and a new tram system to boot. The result: a measurable reduction in automobile traffic, in pollution and in greenhouse gas generation. Where dedicated lanes for transit vehicles are put into effect, transit ridership rises and generation of global-climate-change-inducing greenhouse gases falls. 


Rob Wrenn is a member of the Berkeley Transportation Commission.