AC Transit’s proposal for Bus Rapid Transit in Berkeley is inching forward despite vehement opposition from residents, commuters and at least two business improvement districts.
Community members packed the Feb. 10 Planning Commission meeting to voice concern about various aspects of the BRT Build Option, a system for buses, similar to a light-rail configuration, linking a 17-mile route through Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro, which has been proposed as Berkeley’s Locally Preferred Alternative.
The commission recommended that the Berkeley City Council ask for the Build Option to be studied in the environmental impact report, along with the Rapid Bus Plus and No Build options, alternatives that have been favored by many.
The City Council is expected to make its recommendation March 23.
AC Transit’s plans received a boost earlier this month when the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded $15 million to BRT, which is being billed as an eco-friendly way to reduce smog, congestion and wait times.
The Planning Commission asked that the environmental review include two-way traffic on Bancroft and Durant avenues, running BRT bus lanes down the center of Shattuck Avenue and two-way traffic on Telegraph.
Two major points of contention for Berkeley residents and merchants are a two-way Telegraph and dedicated bus lanes downtown.
The original “Build Option” proposed keeping Telegraph Avenue one-way northbound for cars but creating a southbound lane between Durant Avenue and Dwight Way for buses, delivery and emergency vehicles and bikes. After merchants protested that this would prevent private vehicles from loading and unloading easily, it was revised to allow cars to use the southbound lane and maintain the loading zones on that side of the street.
But that hasn’t stopped businesses, big and small, from coming back to oppose the two-way traffic on the first four blocks of Telegraph.
Roland Peterson, president of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, warned the commission that a two-way Telegraph would lead to the departure of street vendors, artists and independent stores—who make up the neighborhood’s unique character—by contributing to gridlock, loss of parking and sidewalk space. Peterson said in a letter he feared the plan might turn Telegraph into a “transit mall.”
“I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard what they were trying to do to tiny Telegraph,” said a street performer, shaking his head as he left the meeting.
However, the concept has received support from the UC Berkeley administration and the Graduate Student Assembly, which see it making commuting easier and faster for students.
Planning commissioners offered varying views of a two-way Telegraph after the meeting.
“I do not mind converting upper Telegraph into two-way traffic as long as cars are allowed with adequate loading and street merchant space,” said Commissioner Jim Novosel, a Berkeley architect. “In this tight public right of way, it makes little sense for there to be dedicated lanes. Buses need to share the road and to slow down here in order to increase pedestrian safety and comfort. I will support two-way traffic along Durant and Bancroft as a method to calm traffic and create a better pedestrian environment.”
Planning Commissioner Victoria Eisen, who co-founded the transportation consultancy firm Eisen and Letunic, said that she supported taking advantage “of the AC Transit-sponsored environmental process to give the public, the Transportation and Planning commissions, and the City Council the information required to make intelligent decisions about BRT in Berkeley.
“In general, what I like about BRT is that it combines the reliability of rail with the cost-effectiveness of buses,” Eisen said. “We’ll have to wait until the environmental analysis is complete before we can determine which characteristics of BRT that contribute to that reliability will be shown to be appropriate in each proposed Berkeley segment.”
Eisen said “whether or not BRT ever comes to Berkeley,” turning Telegraph into a two-way street and including more loading zones than currently exist would benefit the neighborhood.
“Two-way traffic doubles the exposure of each side of the street to motorists and has been shown to calm traffic so those motorists have more time to see something that makes them want to stop,” Eisen said.
Downtown dedicated lanes
John Caner, president of the Downtown Berkeley Association, made clear during public comment that while the DBA supported the growth of public transit, it was concerned about the loss of parking and left turns due to dedicated bus lanes on the four blocks of the BRT route on Shattuck Avenue between Addison and Bancroft.
Caner urged the city to explore Rapid Bus Plus, which he said shared some of the same benefits as BRT without the negative impacts of restricted lanes, which would include the loss of 50 street parking spaces on Shattuck between Addison and Durant with parallel parking replacing the current angled parking.
He added that although AC Transit promised to mitigate this by adding 20 spaces somewhere else in downtown Berkeley, area businesses who relied on short-term parking would suffer.
“Many customers will not bother parking in a garage a block or two away and will take their purchasing dollars elsewhere,” he said.
Caner added that dedicated lanes would also result in the loss of two left turns, southbound from Shattuck onto Allston Way and northbound from Shattuck onto Center Street, resulting in more congestion and access problems.
“Easy access to the Center Street garage is particularly important for the arts district during evening hours,” Caner said.
In a letter to the Planning Commission, Caner criticized the lack of a comprehensive urban design process.
“How will the dedicated lanes and associated changes—median, sidewalks, street crossings, stations—impact the citizen experience in Downtown Berkeley?” Caner asked. “What will be the visual and pedestrian impact of the large elevated BRT stations? How will dedicated lanes and loss of the current median impact the quality and feel of Shattuck Avenue? How will an increase in sidewalk width be ‘programmed’ to produce a welcoming downtown?”
Speakers also complained that the use of the term “Locally Preferred Alternative” to describe BRT was confusing to citizens because the city had not yet made any final decisions. The Planning Commission requested city staff to simply refer to BRT as the “Build Option” in future reports.
Planning Commissioner David Stoloff said that his support for dedicated downtown lanes would depend on the feature’s impact on adjacent businesses, pedestrian access and amenities and parking.
Novosel said he was still conflicted about the proposal.
“In the downtown, the island stations seem isolated and for people out there, vulnerable,” he said. “To create a friendly urban setting, I believe that people need to be near buildings and the shops and cafés that are inside. The BRT islands will isolate people between streams of vehicles.”