Making Transit Work for People: Why BRT is Doomed to Fail

By Becky O'Malley
Friday May 07, 2010 - 11:21:00 AM

Today we have an excellent reader commentary from an environmental scientist explaining, once more with feeling, why AC Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit boondoggle will do absolutely nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, contrary to the claims of some local pols. To that can be added what’s even more pathetic: It won’t do anything to improve public transit either. 

To discuss that question, all of us who have ever tried to use public transit to reach a new destination should mentally review the trip, and what went wrong, because inevitably plenty did. I’m not talking about taking the same bus or BART train every day to commute to the same job site—that often works, if you’re lucky enough to live and work in the right places. But for anything except regular commuting for the favored few, it’s a crap shoot. 

A friend visiting the Bay Area for a few months is trying to support herself by cleaning out houses for people who are moving—a good gig, one which she’s good at, which takes her all over the place. And she’s also trying to get along without a car, a noble endeavor for sure. Besides that, she’s incredibly energetic and fit, able to walk many blocks or even miles if necessary to make the right connections. But oh, her tales of woe! 

For a job in El Sobrante, for example, she has to connect in Orinda between a BART train and an AC transit bus, and if one or the other is off schedule—and there’s no way to find out—the better part of an hour is added to her journey. And getting to the Oakland Hills? Don’t ask. 

Each of the many, many transit agencies which “serve” the Bay Area has its own payment scheme, too. Keeping track of the various fares, and which ones require exact change, is a job in itself.  

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In London last summer we bought “oyster cards”, electronic marvels which could just be waved in the general direction of a device on all buses and trains, and the appropriate amount was automatically deducted from a prepayment. Seattle has them—why don’t we? 

Then there’s the simple trip to downtown Berkeley. As AC gears up for mega-bus monstrosities, it’s surreptitiously cutting back on local routes. There’s always been a much appreciated bus stop right in front of my house, for various lines that over the years travelled different routes, but always went through the downtown, and now it’s gone, vanished.  

Just in time for my old age, I need to walk six more blocks to catch a bus downtown. I’m lucky to be mobile now, but no one can count on that forever. 

The idea is that customers would surely be willing to walk a few more blocks in returned for catching a big bus that could complete its route a few minutes faster. Wrong! The total travel time is what matters, not to mention the exertion required if the bus passenger happens to be aged or otherwise infirm.  

My favorite moment in the hearings on the BRT EIR (one more time, Bus Rapid Transit Environmental Impact Report) hearing before the Berkeley City Council was when someone asked how many miles per gallon those big diesel double-long buses get. AC’s expert somehow just didn’t have the data on that at his fingertips when asked. Later an audience member came up with the answer: 3. That’s right, THREE miles per gallon. It might even be all right if those buses were full of people, but when they’re transporting one or two, as they most frequently are, it’s disgraceful. 

Another favorite hearing vignette was Councilmember Susan Wengraf’s parsing of a report she’d read about how AC transit service could be improved. She pointed out that one of the suggestions for on-time scheduling was that the buses should really leave their barns on time at the beginning of their route. Well, yes, that would be a good start. Perhaps if buses ran on time more people would want to use them. 

Doesn’t someone have the smarts to come up with six passenger electric cars which could run regular shuttle routes? No, that’s too easy, and wouldn’t create any revenue for the construction industry, anxious as ever to feed at the public trough at every opportunity. 

And while we’re on the subject of construction opportunities, it’s widely believed that one motivation for BRT backers is that it will create “transit hubs” near which it will be possible to override local zoning in the interest of adding density, per a state law backed by Mayor Bates when he was in the Assembly. The actual effect of that law hasn’t yet been litigated, as far as I can determine, but the fears expressed seem plausible on the surface at least. 

In many ways, public transit in the Bay Area is too easy a target, a sitting duck for potshots from every direction. My favorite sustainability guru, David JC MacKay of Cambridge University, is still bullish on transit if it’s done right. In his marvelous book Sustainable Energy—without the hot air he sums it up in a big diagram on page 128 of the energy requirements of different forms of passenger transport.  

Bottom line? “The race is over, and I’ve announced two winners—public transport and electric vehicles,” he says. But that’s when transport is done right, so that people want to use it. Every proposal has to be evaluated on a per-passenger-mile basis. To get Californians out of their personal vehicles won’t be easy, and the “if we build it they will come” cargo-cult planning at AC transit can’t do the job.  

Electric cars, on the other hand, might be no more than 20 years away. MacKay says “Hurray! To achieve economical transport, we don’t have to huddle together in public transport—we can still hurtle around, enjoying all the pleasures and freedoms of solo travel, thanks to electric vehicles.” For the sake of California and the world, I hope he’s right.