Public Comment

A Response in Favor of BRT

By Roy Nakadegawa
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 09:01:00 AM

It is very disheartening to read what a UC Berkeley professor who teaches a class titled “Introduction to Environmental Science” wrote in a Nov. 19 commentary, “Bus Rapid Transit Feel Good Environmentalism,” which is fraught with lay comments and is not a knowledgeable article. 

If he had corroborated with his UC colleagues on transportation and land planning his comments would be very different. 

I’m a professional engineer, experienced in public works, transit and traffic. I served as a publicly elected director for 32 years (12 years with BART and 20 years with AC Transit) and have served on two Transportation Research Board committees (a branch of the Academy of Sciences) for about 20 years. I was also appointed to serve on an oversight committee that oversaw the production of four Transit Cooperative Research Program reports. I have extensively examined various modes of transit, traveling to Europe six times, Japan five, and well over a dozen times to Canada and many South American countries including Curitiba; most visits were self-funded. I was also endorsed by several prominent academics when I ran for BART office. 

The professor inferred that South American Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems have grade-separated intersections; I have visited many countries that have BRTs and have not seen any with grade-separated intersections. Impoverished South American countries built BRTs because they improve transit at a low cost; to build BRTs with grade-separated intersections would make them unaffordable. Canada and Australia have grade-separated BRTs but even those are not totally grade separated over its length. 

The professor acknowledges the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by getting “people out of their single-person cars and into mass transit.” But how can this be accomplished? He offers no alternative but criticizes Bus Rapid Transit and says we already have BART and Express buses. 

Does he know how many people currently use BART or bus to get to San Leandro? Very, very few would make the 17-mile bus trip to San Leandro by public transit. And how many would use BART to go to places along Telegraph or International Boulevard? To use BART a Berkeley resident would have to traverse between two-thirds to one-and-a-half miles to reach Ashby BART. How would one make this trip? Drive? Parking at Ashby is very limited and there would be a charge. Walk? It would take time, but it does provide exercise. Take the local bus? Walk to the local bus stop, wait for an infrequent local bus, pay bus fare, then wait again for the respective train to get to your desired station; on exit, you pay your fare then walk to your final destination.  

Along Telegraph there are the greatest number of destinations, i.e., medical, governmental, businesses, schools, parks and residences within in the East Bay, that are within a half mile that the BRT could serve. And BART conveniently serves a fraction of these destinations. Most people who use buses, only travel one-and-a-half to 4 miles. Therefore using BART to get local destinations along Telegraph, such as medical facilities and shopping centers, would be very difficult and time consuming and cost more. 

And how well does the existing Express bus, 1R, operate? Often two 1R buses arrive in Berkeley in tandem or a few minutes apart, when they are supposed to operate at 12-minute intervals; they provide very unreliable service. Is the professor aware of the reasons for 1R’s erratic operation, even though 1R’s operation has signal priority? Signal priority only provides a few extra seconds in holding the green or in some cases advancing the green for the bus to clear the intersection. Under the present mixed-flow, a bus will often be queued in traffic, and even though the bus may activate the green on approaching the intersection, it will not be able pass the intersection in the seconds allotted because of the number of vehicles. With the exclusive lane, buses will be able to take full advantage of the few seconds the signal provides. A recent study shows the BRT will get riders from downtown Berkeley to downtown Oakland in about 20 minutes whereas with the 1R it will only cover 2/3 of this trip and will be unreliable. 

He mentions how auto-oriented we are compared to South American countries, but does that mean we should still cater to the auto? We need to face the fact that we will have congestion whether we build the busway or not. In the 60 years I have been around Berkeley, its population has decreased 15,000, but traffic has tripled and will continue to increase. Berkeley currently plans for more dense downtown development and with UC’s new developments it will increase trips, so there is a need for improved transit and limiting parking. Following Berkeley Transit First Policy they should institute the BRT that will attract greater usage. 

Lastly, we will have more traffic, parking problems and traffic congestion on Telegraph even if we do not build the BRT; BRT will be able to handle over three times the capacity of the adjoining lane while providing a reliable, convenient and fast service that will offset congestion. Furthermore, because of its reliable, convenient and faster service BRT will provide comparable service to driving and attract several thousand riders who drove; its projected increased ridership will be around 40,000 trips per day. With this high ridership, it will reduce the GHG emission measurably. Due to increased ridership and speed BRT will reduce AC Transit operating costs, thereby requiring less public subsidies than the current1R and 1 local bus. It also will lessen the demand for parking, and aid in the development of a more livable community.