Public Comment

A Response to False Allegations About BRT

By Len Conly
Thursday October 02, 2008 - 10:38:00 AM

In her latest attack on Bus Rapid Transit (Sept 18), Gale Garcia suggests that AC Transit’s projections for the ridership increase that would result from BRT are inaccurate. 

She cites a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) study to make her case. She says the study was done in 2007, but actually it was published in 2003. This makes a difference because the study was done too long ago to include any full-fledged BRT projects. 

The study in question looks at ridership projections made in the 1980s and early 1990s for 19 projects, 17 of them rail projects, including BART’s extension to Colma and various light rail projects. Only two bus projects were examined; one a highway transitway in Houston, the other a busway in Pittsburgh. These projections made between 1982 and 1995 are compared to actual ridership in 2002. One major finding of the study, which Garcia fails to mention, is that forecasts improved over time. 

If ridership is below what was originally forecast does that mean that the forecast was faulty? Not necessarily. In the Pittsburgh case, the busway as actually built was substantially different from the planned busway due to construction problems. The route is 25 percent shorter than planned and serves fewer bus routes than planned. That’s part of the reason for riderhip falling short of projections. And, today, ridership is close to the level forecast for 2005 for the bus routes that were actually implemented on the busway. 

Ms. Garcia falsely states that the study found that projections overestimate time-savings. In fact the 2003 study did not look at time-savings projections at all. 

If Ms. Garcia were to look at the studies that FTA has published about specific bus projects, she would learn that BRT and busway projects have actually been quite successful. That’s why the federal government is continuing to provide funding for BRT. It works. 

Start with the Pittsburg West busway; it doesn’t include the full array of BRT features but it does provide a dedicated busway on a former railway corridor physically separated from local streets. It shows the advantages for buses of not having to travel in mixed-flow traffic. Ridership jumped 135 percent in the first two years of operation and is now, as stated earlier, close to projected levels. 34 percent of riders had previously gotten to their destination in a car; the FTA study estimated that the busway removed 4000 cars from area highways. The study found that buses were more reliable and faster, with 85 percent of surveyed bus riders reporting travel time-savings averaging 14 minutes. And there were no negative impacts on local business; instead there was economic growth near busway stations. 

FTA has also done studies of full-fledged BRT projects, such as ones in Boston and Las Vegas. In all their studies, they find reduced travel time, improved reliability and increased ridership compared to pre-BRT buses on the same routes. Surveys of bus riders find that they prefer BRT to the buses that existed before. And there has been no negative impact on local businesses. In Boston, for instance, the Silver Line BRT has been accompanied by “new construction on vacant lots, rehabilitation of historic buildings and enhancements to retail.” 

Ms. Garcia is wrong when she says that transit agencies overestimate ridership. When we look at the most recently implemented BRT projects, it’s evident that the opposite is true. Transit agencies these days, unlike in the 1980s, tend to underestimate projected ridership. 

Take the Orange Line BRT in Los Angeles for instance. A year after it began service in 2005, ridership was around 20,000 people a day, three times more than expected by L.A.’s transit officials. It achieved its 15-year ridership goal in just seven months. This summer, ridership reached 26,500. In response to its success, plans are afoot to extend BRT service. 

In Eugene, Ore., where BRT service began in 2007, ridership hit its projected 20-year level in just four months. After a year, ridership was up 70 percent compared to non-BRT bus service without dedicated lanes that previously served the same route. After 18 months ridership was about double that of the route it replaced. BRT extensions are planned. 

Two things that contribute to underestimation of ridership are the increase in gas prices and growing awareness of global climate change. It’s not surprising that more people are willing to try improved transit systems that use dedicated lanes and other features to reduce travel time and increase reliability. AC Transit did its estimates of ridership increase before the rise in gas prices. They may turn out to be conservative estimates. Even if AC’s BRT falls somewhat short of its projected ridership increase, it would still be beneficial by improving service for bus riders, and by attracting new riders, who will reduce their carbon footprints by choosing transit instead of driving. 

BRT service, with dedicated lanes, has been successfully implemented in a variety of different settings, none of them exactly similar to what we find in Berkley and Oakland. BRT must be adapted to fit each specific context. Once Measure KK is defeated, that’s what we need to get to work on. Let’s implement BRT in a way that maximizes the benefits for our city. 

Ms. Garcia ends her attack with a claim that, even though she opposes BRT, she wants better transit service. But before the campaign to kill BRT came along, Ms. Garcia was not spending her time working to improve transit. She was, as Planet readers may recall, doing her best to kill the David Brower Center, a center for nonprofit environmental groups now under construction downtown that will be the city’s first LEED platinum highly energy-efficient green building, and Oxford Plaza housing, the 96-unit affordable housing project going up next door. 

What her opposition to BRT has in common with her opposition to the Brower Center and affordable housing is that, were she successful, it would make it more difficult for the city to reach its voter-approved Measure G goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. 

Len Conly is a Berkeley resident.