Public Comment

The Uncertain Results of Bus Rapid Transit

By Joseph Stubbs
Wednesday February 25, 2009 - 07:59:00 PM

As a Berkeley citizen who lives in the Southside, I would like to express my concerns over proposals to go ahead with a Bus Rapid Transit project on Telegraph. This project has received a lot of press coverage not only here in Berkeley but in San Francisco, too. A disturbing thing to me about the important argument which looks at the actual green benefit predicted for this project and compares it with impacts, is that it just isn’t there. 

Consider that AC Transit’s website officially states that the proposed BRT system will eventually save six tons of carbon dioxide per day. I hope that at least planners are making a benefit analysis which considers that six tons per day is actually a very small amount. As web-based resources such as Nature Conservancy’s “Carbon Footprint Calculator” will show, that figure is equal to the daily carbon dioxide output of about 90 people. Furthermore, this is a figure which aims at 25 years in the future, and is the official prediction for the entire BRT system from San Leandro to downtown Berkeley. Needless to say, this is a neglible benefit. It can be understood as the net balance between predicted emission savings and increases in emissions from autos stuck in congestion created by the same BRT system. Before that target 25 years away, emissions may actually get worse for any BRT which manufactures significant congestion. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being set up, beat up, pushed around, and mostly just lied to by my public representatives who spin things green for their own reasons. 

I want to be a good person. Does this mean I should sacrifice practical utility and put up with two years of construction so that Telegraph may be reduced to two driveable lanes, like Ashby and College? Am I to endure “calmed” traffic without honking my horn, raising my fist, or screeching out illegally into the bus lanes? Am I to take the bus when I can, and try to enjoy the big-box-residential-over-retail buildings which have “rehabilitated” the neighborhood and replaced the Spanish and Colonial low-rise historical architecture which used to be there? Am I to endure all this and more because this is a thing which is going to work, right? I mean, there is compelling evidence that this is going to work, right? We’re told Bus Rapid Transit will play, perhaps not an enormous, but at least a significant role in tipping the balance between what is essentially a car culture and a public transit culture here in Berkeley. The Joint Commission on Transportation may predict that this won’t occur to a “significant” degree for 35 years, but I can wait, right? Wait a minute, I’ll be dead. 

It’s time to drink some coffee with the Kool-Aid because this isn’t funny any more. Hopes that BRT is going to work for mode shift are just that—hopes, and from what I can see they are not based on much in this case. Certainly some people will shift their travel habits to some degree, but this is Telegraph, not Market Street, and the word “significant” is so subjective, isn’t it? What do we do when it just doesn’t work well at all? What do we do when the money is all spent, the big box new development is struggling, ridership is up only 3 percent and AC Transit’s reputation is starting to take a tail-spin as people realize the real game for our time is going to be WHAT people drive, not shifting to a bus? 

The horrible, unspeakable truth is that we DO live in a car culture, and people who want to seriously consider changing that have to seriously contend with that fact. We are not Europe, we are America. You cannot speed up a bus trip by 10 minutes or whatever it is and compete with the personal benefits of driving a car in most circumstances. Only in some circumstances, and that is the key. If BRT is not implemented carefully, that is to say, in the right circumstances, it will fail. Telegraph is a poster child for the wrong circumstances. A primary freeway access artery without good auto redundancies, little destination appeal between university and currently existing points south (future development not withstanding), and little hub interconnectivity with other forms of transit (a little is not “a lot”). If people must have a BRT in this city, downtown Berkeley to Emeryville shopping/housing/business parks via Shattuck, Adeline, Stanford, San Pablo and then on to downtown Oakland and beyond may be a better bet, and more in keeping with the high density changes that will accompany transportation corridors, now that SB 375 is law. 

When city planners and smart growth advocates tell us that we must do absolutely everything that even might work or have any effect, that is not a responsible statement. It is important to do these things right, and in a way that will work well. These people are so motivated by the prospects of high-density transit corridor development that they underestimate the reality of the car culture we do live in. They believe that people can be made to just abandon their cars in high density living environments. Well, it’s not that easy—and higher density will mean more cars on Berkeley streets, in addition to other impacts to neighborhoods which should be considered carefully. We are in a serious global crisis. We need serious change now—not later. With regard to driving, that change is going to come in the aggressive retirement of the internal combustion engine in favor of electric cars. That is the big show in the immediate picture. Mode shift to public transit is a part of the picture yes, but we have to see it in its proper place. It will play a smaller role in the immediate future and a gradually larger role decades from now, even for BRT systems that are good ideas for their particular locality, which this is not. In the meanwhile, BRT systems which are not well thought out and create significant congestion will actually make matters worse, and harder for us to meet aggressive emission reduction targets. 

Another important issue is that suddenly with SB 375, being a major transit corridor has whole new set of meanings for a boulevard like Telegraph. This aggressive government collaboration with developers gives enormous new incentives to these developers which include substantially weakening CEQA protection for historic resources, and a special “incentive margin” for transit-related infill within half a mile of a route in question. In our case, this the entire neighborhood area between Shattuck and College. So not only would Telegraph be faced with a more radical transformation than imagined before SB 375, but also adjacent neighborhoods would be more threatened than ever. All the more reason to not put a BRT in this location. 

An important core distinction to make here is that policy decisions are being made in Berkeley today based not on intelligence, but on greed. The city must make dollars to function and there is nothing wrong with vigorously trying to make more, but its most important job is to try its best to protect quality of life for its residents. This concept of quality of life should not ever be held hostage by cynicism or a developmental prerogative. The unfortunate fact today is that it is getting harder and harder to distinguish city officials from developers. Often, it appears, they are essentially one and the same. The secondary damage done by this is that Berkeley itself is held hostage from being a truly progressive city. We are heading straight towards government by developers, and that doesn’t work. We’ve just seen that proved by the entire Bush administration. The result is always inevitably an impoverishment of the whole in favor of an enrichment of the few, and the masses be damned. In the face of such forces, meritocracy must be fought for. So it is here in Berkeley, with BRT and other issues, too. 

Finally, the social currency of claiming greenness should not be abused, just as the crying of “wolf” should not be abused. The danger is the same in both cases. When you do finally come to the table with a good green project, not only will there be little love left for you, nobody will even believe you any more. And why should they? You have squandered your credibility. 


Joseph Stubbs is a Berkeley resident.