Public Comment

Bus Rapid Transit: Feel-Good Environmentalism?

By Matt Kondolf
Thursday November 19, 2009 - 09:45:00 AM

The city of Berkeley has now released its plan for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Telegraph Avenue, arguing that this system will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The proposed project may make us feel good that we are doing something but in fact is more likely to increase greenhouse gas emissions than reduce them.  

What is Bus Rapid Transit? BRT involves using buses like trains: buses run on their own lanes and cross intersections with “grade separation,” on overpasses, so they don’t have to stop at lights. Unlike normal buses, they don’t have stops every quarter mile but have less frequent stops and nice stations, more like a rail system. BRT has been tremendously successful in Latin American cities like Bogota, Quito, and Curitiba. These successful cases have some key elements in common: 

1. Large populations of poor people who don’t own cars and who need to travel from population centers to industrial/commercial centers. 

2. Buses that have their own lanes and cross over intersections on overpasses. 

If it works in Latin America, shouldn’t it work here? Not necessarily. In the San Francisco Bay region, most of us have cars: we have over 800 cars per 1,000 households, compared to around 100 cars per 1,000 households in Latin American cities. Moreover, the natural market for BRT is already served by BART and AC express buses. The proposed line in Berkeley and Oakland would follow Telegraph Avenue and International Boulevard down to San Leandro, essentially duplicating the BART Fremont line.  

Moreover, the proposals for Berkeley and San Francisco are better described as “BRT-lite.” While the Telegraph Avenue line would have its own lane (impacting vehicular traffic), it would not have grade separation at intersections, so travel times will not be that different from those of the existing buses.  

Looked at objectively, it’s not at all clear that our Bus Rapid Transit would deliver the promised benefits if implemented as proposed. And the costs will be substantial. The Telegraph Avenue BRT project is projected to $250 million, and generally the costs will result in a public subsidy of around $8 per ride. And it will create worse traffic problems on Telegraph Avenue. 

Prior to the November 2008 election, Berkeley residents received a glossy flyer in the mail—the flyer featured a polar bear and intoned “We can’t afford to wait…” The flyer argued that we must implement transit projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and we should oppose a citizen initiative to require voter approval of BRT.  

But to really reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we need to get people out of their single-person cars and into mass transit. It’s not at all clear that the BRT-lite proposed for Berkeley would accomplish this. There would be other benefits for the politicians involved: federal grants, a big construction project, jobs, and the favorable “buzz” that we are progressive because we have BRT. But the costs would be high. Moreover, once you factor in the energy and resources involved in the construction, and the effect of poaching riders from BART, the net greenhouse gas emissions are more likely to increase as a result of BRT as proposed. It may make us feel good, it may benefit politicians, but the BRT proposed for Berkeley is unlikely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  


Matt Kondolf is professor of environmental planning at UC Berkeley, where he is co-director of the environmental sciences program, and teaches Introduction to Environmental Science, among other courses.