Public Comment

Problems with the “Rapid Bus Plus”

By Rob Wrenn
Thursday October 30, 2008 - 09:57:00 AM

Opponents of AC Transit’s planned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service have proposed an alternative that they call “Rapid Bus Plus” (RB+). But their half-baked proposal doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny; it’s a minor variation on existing inadequate 1R service rather than a real alternative. 

All the most vocal opponents of BRT have signed their names to the RB+ proposal, but it is not supported by anyone with any expertise in public transit planning. 

BRT would replace the 1R (formerly the 40 bus) that runs up Telegraph from Oakland and proceeds via Bancroft to downtown Berkeley. BRT will improve service on this heavily used route by making it more frequent, faster and more reliable. 

Dedicated lanes will enable buses to stay on schedule since they won’t get bogged down in automobile traffic. It will allow for more frequent service by reducing bus bunching. 1R buses are supposed to arrive every 12 minutes, but they deviate frequently from this schedule; sometime two buses arrive one after the other. While buses will never be “fast,” and will continue at average speeds well below the speed limit, travel time will be reduced. The environmental impact report (EIR) for BRT estimates that travel speeds will be as much as 31 percent faster during peak periods. 

One problem with “rapid bus” service such as the 1R or the 72R on San Pablo is that it deteriorates as auto traffic increases. In the past two years, the rush-hour speed of the 72R has dropped by 30 percent. If any of the forecast growth occurs in the Southside and downtown, already unreliable 1R service will deteriorate further. 

Creating dedicated lanes for buses is the key BRT feature that makes faster, more reliable, more frequent service possible. Another BRT feature that contributes to improved service are the stations with level boarding and ticket vending machines. Like light rail, BRT makes boarding easy. No steps to climb; people using wheelchairs can roll right on the bus. 

And it’s possible to require people to buy their tickets in advance by providing ticket machines at each station. No wait while a line of boarding passengers pays at the front of the bus. 

RB+ proponents reject dedicated lanes, stations, level boarding, and even ticket machines. They claim vending machines are “trouble-prone.” This is odd since such machines are used by BART and by transit systems around the world. 

But ticket machines are “infrastructure” and BRT opponents are opposed to any infrastructure that might take a little space from cars and that might encourage some development in commercial areas where BRT stations are located. 

Studies of BRT systems in other cities published by the Federal Transit Administration have found positive impacts for the local economy and local business. For example, the Silver Line BRT in Boston has been accompanied by “new construction on vacant lots, rehabilitation of historic buildings and enhancements to retail.” 

So what is the “Plus” in Rapid Bus Plus? It comes down to just one thing: passengers could buy tickets in advance from merchants. Besides that, there is no difference between their proposal and existing rapid bus service. 

Needless to say, you couldn’t require pre-purchase of tickets if tickets could be purchased only from merchants. There aren’t merchants near every bus stop, and where there are, they may not be open from 5:30 a.m. to past midnight, which would be necessary if bus patrons were to rely on them for pre-purchase of tickets. AC Transit would lose revenue if it had to pay a percentage to local merchants. Without the promise of increased ridership that comes from BRT, AC would not be able to make up for the lost revenue. 

There are some transit systems where merchant sales supplement the transit agency’s direct sales. In Paris, you can buy tickets from “tabacs,” but you can also buy them at 300 metro stations, as well as at bus terminals, tram stations and commuter rail stations. And, you can buy a ticket from the bus driver. Paris has embraced what local BRT opponents reject: dedicated lanes for buses on major routes and dedicated lanes for their new trams. 

In their RB+ proposal, BRT opponents tack on various things that are not inconsistent with BRT. They want fuel-efficient buses. Good idea. AC Transit has calculated that BRT will reduce generation of global-warming inducing CO2 emissions by 12,500 pounds a day even with the added buses for more-frequent service. 

City staff working on the Climate Action Plan have calculated that the reduction in CO2 attributable to BRT could be closer to 56,000 pounds a day if zero-emission buses are used. The sooner that BRT introduces zero-emission buses the better. 

The CO2 reduction would result from new riders attracted by faster, more frequent, more reliable service. The BRT EIR estimates that BRT will increase bus ridership by between 56 percent and 76 percent, an estimate in line with actual increases in ridership achieved by BRT service in other U.S. cities such as Eugene, Oregon. 

RB+ proponents also want to preserve local bus service, but BRT does not preclude that either. Two of four BRT alternatives under consideration would retain local service. 

RB+ proponents also want “dramatically reduced transit fares”, which is a bit utopian in the current context of budget cuts and rising operating costs. In any event, capital funds for BRT can’t be used for operations. The capital investment in BRT will have a favorable impact on operating costs since labor costs and fuel costs per mile traveled will be lower with dedicated lanes than for slower-moving buses mired in traffic. 

The starting point for BRT opponents is that transit cannot be improved if doing so causes even the slightest inconvenience for motorists. While the BRT EIR found that traffic will continue to flow on  


Telegraph with BRT, the extra minute or two that it might take to drive up Telegraph at rush hour is too much for them. While AC Transit would replace parking spaces that have to be removed, going a little further to find a space is also unacceptable. Their “cars come first” mindset is at odds with the City’s officially adopted transit-first policy. 

RB+ proponents repeatedly show their unfamiliarity with existing public transit. They make the amazing claim that what they are proposing would be similar to Muni’s N-Judah light rail line in San Francisco, going so far as to describe the N-Judah as “essentially Rapid Bus Plus on rails.” In fact the N-Judah has dedicated lanes for more than 70 percent of its route. It travels on rails in a dedicated right of way under Market Street and in dedicated lanes on surface streets, wherever the streets are wide enough to allow for a separate lane for buses and cars. (In one stretch, cars can enter the transit lane to make left turns.) 

To convert the N-Judah to RB+, you would have to move it back to the surface of Market Street without its own lane, where it would quickly get bogged down in automobile traffic. That would certainly not improve service. Buses that share surface streets with cars in downtown San Francisco average only 7.5 miles per hour. 

San Francisco is not scared of BRT; plans are moving forward for BRT with dedicated lanes for buses on both Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue. San Francisco’s Transit Effectiveness Project has determined that one cause of transit delays is traffic congestion where transit vehicles share lanes with cars. Bus riders want faster, more reliable service, and that is also key to attracting new riders and convincing them to leave their cars at home.  


Rob Wrenn is a former Transportation Commissioner.