In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin instituted a series of top-down reforms intended to speed the industrialization of the Soviet Union. These reforms came in the form of numerous five-year plans that completely reshaped the industrial and agricultural sectors of the USSR and were developed by top politburo officials who made decisions out of the public eye that had devastating impacts on many communities and individuals. The workers and peasants were powerless to resist these changes, and their lives were changed forever in deference to the “greater good.”
Most information in the Soviet economy flowed from the top down. There were opportunities for citizens to express concerns about development plans, but people who did speak up were often severely criticized. And since their concerns were almost always ignored anyway, fewer and fewer people chose to speak out. As a result, the Soviet planners had very little reliable feedback by which to gauge the likely success of their plans; instead, the planning went ahead fueled by wishful thinking and highly speculative data.
There are disturbing similarities between Stalin’s central planning approach and the tactics employed by the group of powerful insiders pushing the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project in the East Bay. For one thing, the basic plans for BRT were essentially finalized by a small group of people a decade ago. Back in 2001, the AC Transit Board of Directors determined that their rapid transit line would use diesel buses and travel along Telegraph Avenue and East 14th Street. Thus, a major development decision was made long before the citizens in any neighborhood affected by it had the slightest idea of the proposal, as typically happened in the Soviet Union.
Also, the BRT plan is clearly not intended to meet the needs of current Berkeley businesses and residents. In fact, it will cause many of them significant difficulties, as removing traffic lanes on Telegraph will unavoidably make the roads much more congested in the Southside and cause already-severe parking problems to intensify.
Who will benefit from this plan? Just looking at the huge, largely empty 1R buses hurtling day and night down Telegraph along the projected BRT route ought to tell you that something fishy is going on. It is! The buses keep running like this because the real reason for them is to encourage the construction of huge new apartment buildings along the route. That’s why it doesn’t matter to the AC Transit Board or the BRT supporters that this wasteful practice continues. Bus Rapid Transit is really a massive redevelopment scheme in disguise, laying the groundwork for the influx of developers who will be allowed to ignore zoning and environmental laws and build gigantic buildings in neighborhoods, reaping huge profits. This is exactly the same type of development that occurred in many Soviet municipalities, and it completely destroyed neighborhoods.
I have been amazed to watch the progress of the BRT plan in Berkeley. The whole process with the public meetings appears to be democratic on the surface, but that is all just for show. It is clear that the decision-makers have already made up their minds; the public meetings are just held to see how many more members of the public they can coerce into accepting their plans. Also, they know they have to go through this charade to “prove” to funding sources that the public has been involved in the planning process. What a sham!
At these so-called public meetings, it is very striking to notice how much time is consumed by the BRT spokespeople, giving lengthy presentations about the wonderful benefits BRT will bring and conveniently ignoring all of the detriments. When the public is finally allowed to speak, they are typically allowed only a short time to make statements—and the commissioners or board members often do not even pretend to be listening. I have even seen the discussion leaders tell people what they could and could not say at the meetings. Talk about parallels to the Soviet Union!
And even worse, members of the public who are obviously well-informed about transportation and development issues, some of them experts in their field, are treated with utter disrespect by those in power. Their views and information rarely evoke even a hint of interest on the part of the decision-makers—even when they provide ample documentation of their assertions. Like the former Soviet planners, BRT supporters want to consider only data that supports their position, no matter how speculative and unrealistic it may be.
I believe that the BRT supporters realize that if people actually learn the truth about the harm it is going to bring to their community, they will rise up and put a stop to it. So they feel it is necessary to stifle free expression, control information as much as possible, hide their real intentions, and ignore the concerns of those affected by their actions. Funny thing, this was the basic approach taken in the Soviet Union, too, for its major development schemes—and I suppose we all know how well that worked out in the end.
One last thing: The current process of choosing a “locally preferred alternative” is a blatant subterfuge. The proponents want you to believe that this is just another step in the exploration process—with no decisions being made, just alternatives being investigated. However, BRT supporters actually want our City Council to make this choice to allow AC Transit to prepare its final environmental review of the whole plan. They realize that, after the final review is completed, there will be no legal requirement for any public process to evaluate BRT further. The City Council can then just go ahead and vote for the project in its entirety, ignoring whatever the community may think.
I believe that a flawed and undemocratic process like this cannot hope to yield a positive outcome. But do enough Berkeley residents realize what is at stake here—the permanent loss of their quality of life? Or will they realize this only too late, as did many in the Soviet empire? If people in Berkeley do care about their rights, they need to step up and demand to be taken seriously about BRT. Time is running out.
Satya Preeti is a Berkeley resident.