Public Comment

Against BRT: Streets are for People, Not Buses

By Peter Smith
Tuesday May 04, 2010 - 08:44:00 AM

Proponents of bus rapid transit (BRT) have often engaged in a form of propaganda known as 'Lying by omission'--omitting important facts to deliberately leave someone with a misconception. It is common in our history textbooks, and on Fox News. 

Some BRT facts you may not know: BRT poster city, Bogota, has toxic air pollution (prompting a Tucson-based bicycle advocate/lawyer to describe Bogota as "a pre-apocalyptic technological dystopia") caused largely by their massive diesel-powered BRT bus system, Transmilenio. BRT did not cause a mode shift from cars to buses except by a government-enforced alternate-day private automobiles ban (based on license plate number). Still, per-capita car ownership continues to rise in Bogota year after year. Mexico City also bans private automobiles -- but only one day per week. Instead of riding the Mexico City BRT one day a week, however, residents bought a second car--driving up air pollution even further. 

Why, then, all the BRT hoopla? One reason is that big money from BP, Shell, Volvo, and other oil, bus, auto concerns fund an ever-expanding list of 'think tanks' like WRI and ITDP, and blog networks like These outfits pump out an impressive amount of pro-BRT propaganda. Other BRT advocates are well-intentioned, but wrong--wishing this failed bus technology would succeed, they argue, 'if only it were done right'. BRT has been around for over 30 years, but apparently the world has yet to see BRT done right. Still other BRT proponents are too cynical to believe that offering citizens dignified transit and a livable city is possible anymore. We deserve better than what BRT advocates are offering. 

Protecting 60-ft long, 41,000-pound bendy buses from hulking, brutish Priuses may be a worthy goal, but why not protect cyclists and would-be cyclists first? The number one reason people do not bike to their destinations is because they are terrified of the untamed beasts which slash and burn through our streets. We fear motorcycles, cars, trucks, and especially buses. This deterrent-to-cycling effect, not pollution, is the greatest negative externality produced by motorized traffic.  

BRT advocates are too focused on motorized transportation. The Federal Department of Transportation has declared that "motorized transportation will no longer be favored at the expense of non-motorized"--it is time for Berkeley to follow suit. 

The 'transit problem' can best be addressed by reducing car- and transit-dependence. This can be done with better land-use decision-making, and by allowing people to walk and bike. We do not have to coax anyone onto a bike--we only need to give them the option of walking and biking with dignity. That means cyclists need their own space on major roads, separated from fast-moving motorized traffic. A simple bike lane is a start, but most people will never be comfortable cycling right next to fast-moving, multi-thousand-pound, free-moving chunks of glass and steel--so we need physical separation, known as 'protected bike lanes'.  

Walk and bike transportation solutions are proven: cycletracks, protected bike lanes, buffered bike lanes, regular bike lanes, sharrows, traffic-calmed streets, pedestrian bulb-outs, leading pedestrian intervals, formal and legal priority for non-motorized over motorized transport--these are the hallmarks of a civilized streetscape and an enlightened, decent, and fair society. These solutions are inexpensive and effective--good for taxpayers, motorists, cyclists and walkers, businesses, children and parents--good for Berkeley. 

Give pedestrians and cyclists the priority and space they need and deserve on our most important corridors--especially our most important corridors. Traffic-calmed neighborhood streets are great for those who don't have anywhere to go, but for those who would cycle often if given the opportunity, we need to be able to travel on the most direct routes from Point A to Point B, just like cars. And cars have engines--if there is not enough room to accomodate both motorized and non-motorized traffic, then cars can take the long way around. 

Sprawl is bad for sustainability. Whether in the form of cars, high speed rail, commuter/express rail, BRT, rapid and regular buses, light rail, and even airplanes and streetcars to a certain extent, rapid transit enables and even induces sprawl. Those interested in sustainability should think very carefully about supporting any sprawl-enabling transportation solution that will not draw people out of their cars, the most harmful of all the sprawl-enabling technologies. Bus rapid transit (BRT) has never drawn people out of their cars, in any part of the world.  

Toronto is discussing protected bike lanes for their University Avenue. San Francisco continues to experiment with protected bike lanes on that all-important of corridors, Market Street. Washington, DC is striping bike lanes down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. Knowing which trends to follow is a leadership quality all its own--Berkeley can once again be a leader in bicycle infrastructure by becoming an intelligent follower. 

The transit-dependent are often pitied when fare hikes and service cuts come around, as they invariably do, but missing from the discourse is talk of the responsibility that we all bear in forcing these citizens into this situation in the first place. Everyone is hailed if we can help stave off the most outrageous fare hikes and the most draconian service cuts (tax hikes in disguise), but rarely are we held accountable for failling to address the root causes of transit dependence--namely, streets which are not suitable for walking or biking. Let's reduce this dependence by making biking a viable option for everyone from the ages of 8 to 80. 

Likely side effects of favoring non-motorized over motorized transportation include, but are not limited to: reduced air and noise pollution, healthier and happier citizens (including reduced childhood obesity and related Type 2 diabetes), less traffic congestion, revitalized small businesses and town centers, higher worker productivity, reduced crime, expanded economic opportunity, a restored social fabric, safer, livelier, and more-interesting streets and places, and reduced risk that 'chocolate milk' will wash up on our shores. 


Peter Smith is a walking, cycling, livable streets, and co-operatives advocate.