Public Comment

Commentary: BRT Alert: Look (to Cleveland) Before You Leap

By Gale Garcia
Thursday September 24, 2009 - 09:29:00 AM

Several months ago, I heard that the only Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project in the United States that took two lanes from a four-lane road for dedicated bus lanes was in Cleveland, Ohio. This is exactly what AC Transit is planning for Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro, so I began to investigate Cleveland’s BRT through newspaper articles, blogs, newsletters and any other source I could find. 

The Cleveland Greater Regional Transit Authority (RTA) built a BRT on a 6.7-mile stretch of the Euclid Avenue corridor, from Public Square in the downtown to Stokes Windermere in East Cleveland. More than half of the route has dedicated bus lanes and stations in the middle of the road, just as AC Transit is planning for Telegraph Avenue here. The project opened in October 2008 and was named the Healthline. 

Unlike our Telegraph Avenue, Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue is not the only arterial street available in the immediate area. The closest parallel streets on either side of Euclid Ave. are also arterials—each appears to be a four-lane or six-lane street, providing ample space for the traffic overflow from Euclid Avenue When the Healthline route reaches a point where the parallel arterials end, the buses no longer have dedicated lanes. RTA Media Relations Manager Jerry Masek explained on a forum at “East of East 107th Street, we need more road capacity to carry the traffic, because we no longer have the parallel streets of Chester and Carnegie. There is no room for a bus-only lane.” (How sensible!) 

Telegraph Avenue has no similar parallel arterials to absorb the displaced traffic. Shattuck and College Aves. are 3-4 blocks away, and are themselves extremely congested. It’s hard to imagine that AC Transit officials really believe this will work. 

The Cleveland project is more resident-friendly than the proposal threatening us in another manner—the RTA retained local bus service on Euclid Avenue. On July 29, the AC Transit Board voted to eliminate local bus service on Telegraph Avenie if it is allowed to implement BRT, casually dismissing the concerns of riders who will lose their closest stop. 

One major concern Berkeley and Oakland residents have about the local plan is potential negative impacts to the Telegraph Avenue merchants. This concern is very well-founded. In Cleveland, great detriments occurred to small businesses along the route during construction of the Healthline. 

There were many articles in Cleveland newspapers about the protracted construction havoc. My favorite was a December 12, 2007 piece in the Plain Dealer entitled, “Euclid Corridor project becomes a route to lost business for many on the avenue.” It reported about city sponsored loans to assist the distressed businesses. One merchant responded to the loan offer with, “I’m not looking to get further in debt. I’m looking for people to buy stuff.” A restaurant owner complained, “Breakfast is dead. Dinner is dead. People can't cross the street.” 

Perhaps a couple of years of construction hell and the loss of many businesses would be acceptable to vastly improve the lives of the bus riding public. But I find no evidence that this has occurred in Cleveland. After several months of reading every single comment I could find in blogs, newsletters and on-line responses to newspaper articles, Clevelanders seem split about 50-50 on whether the project is even an improvement over the #6 bus that it replaced. 

The terms “scam,” “hype” and “boondoggle” come up frequently among those who are unimpressed with the Healthline. One commenter who was initially excited about the new buses decided the project was a waste of money after riding it, and wanted the #6 bus back. Another commenter suggested that “This whole project could be a feature story in Reader’s Digest monthly feature, ‘That’s Outrageous’ which details government and public funding waste.” 

Bus bunching is an enormous problem on the Healthline. In June, one contributor to reported seeing four buses in a row, while another countered that he/she had seen six buses queued up at the East 14th stop. The first writer later stated: “The bigger problem with the bunching of multiple buses (i.e. more than two) is that there's always a huge gap either before or after the bunch. Wait times for buses that come every five minutes can near twenty minutes.” Even when bunching does not occur, the Healthline appears to be completely unreliable. In January, a writer complained, “it needs to be faster. To my horror, I watched a trolley beat the BRT I was on from Public Square to E.22 the other day.” In June, a writer complained of a mid-day Healthline ride, “there was no bunching, but the trip took 33 minutes for what should be a 20 to 22 minute ride—we sat at nearly every light along the corridor.” 

Based upon years of studying AC Transit’s proposal and months of studying its prototype in Cleveland, I think AC Transit’s BRT proposal has exactly zero chance of being a success. I believe several of the agency’s board members are aware of this. But they don’t care. They cannot care. They’ve squandered money on the VanHool bus deals, and are desperate for the federal funds that are available if our city councils are willing to give away lanes of our streets. 

Berkeley and Oakland will soon hold public meetings about BRT. Now is the time to let your council members know that you don’t want your city sacrificed for AC Transit. Please do not wait for the bulldozers to show up, because if you wait, the bulldozers definitely will show up, and your city will be altered forever. 



Gale Garcia is a Berkeley resident.