Public Comment

Berkeley: Transit-Free Zone

By Charles Siegel
Monday May 10, 2010 - 09:28:00 PM

The city council has killed BRT in Berkeley. It is time for the city to update the "Nuclear-Free Zone" signs at its border by adding "Transit-Free Zone." 

Though it no longer is a live issue, it is worth taking a moment to correct some errors about AC Transit's proposed project in the editorial and an opinion piece in the latest Daily Planet. 

The editorial claims that BRT cannot work because buses do not run on schedule. But buses don't run on schedule because they get stuck in traffic, and BRT would have let them stay on schedule by separating them from traffic. Currently, AC Transit expects delays of up to 15 minutes in bus service. With BRT, it would have expected delays of up to 5 minutes. 

For this reason, it is also wrong to complain that BRT would not attract riders because it saves only a couple of minutes of travel time for the average trip. Yes, but it might also save 10 minutes of time waiting at the bus stop. Keeping on schedule is particularly important to commuters, who have to get to work on time, and BRT would have shifted many commuter trips to the bus. 

The opinion piece claims that BRT would only increase transit ridership by 1.5%. But that figure, taken out of context from the EIR, calculates how much this project on one route would have increased transit ridership in the entire East Bay. BRT would have increased ridership on the route by 50%. 

The opinion piece also claims that BRT would not work because it would not have grade separation at intersections, as BRT does in Bogota and Curitiba. But the new BRT line in Cleveland, called the Healthline, does not have grade separation, and it has increased ridership by 50% and has helped to revitalize the city economically. The BRT project is very similar to ours: the street is a similar width, and it even passes next to a university. 

The opinion piece also claims that BRT would have caused congestion. But the EIR showed that it would not have caused a significant degradation of level of service at any intersection in Berkeley. 

Finally, the editorial claims that we do not need BRT because we will have electric cars in 20 years. Let me make a few responses to this claim. 

First, there is general consensus among climate scientists that greenhouse gas emissions must peak in this decade to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Twenty years is an optimistic estimate for when electric cars will become widespread, but even it is too late. 

Second, I ask readers to imagine what they would think is the city proposed a plan to insulate houses to reduce energy used in heating, and someone objected that we don't need it because we will all have electric heaters in twenty years (and maybe all the electricity that powers them will be clean in fifty years). Everyone who is serious about controlling global warming knows that we must shift to clean energy as quickly as possible and we must also reduce the amount of energy we consume. It is not good enough to say that we will have clean energy decades from now. 

Third, shifting to a more balanced transportation system is one of the best ways to reduce energy consumption, because it will actually make our cities more livable. 

I think most of us choose to live in Berkeley rather than in Pleasanton, because we like having walkable neighborhood shopping districts and a walkable downtown rather than shopping malls built around parking lots. But we also hear constant complaint about parking and traffic congestion because these walkable streets work best when there is more use of public transportation and automobiles are not so dominant. BRT would have moved Berkeley back toward its roots as a streetcar suburb, where public transportation was a larger part in the mix. 

With this decision about BRT, Berkeley has shown that is behind the rest of the nation on transportation issues. 

When George W. Bush was president, he supported only one method of reducing emissions from transportation: electric cars. 

The Obama administration is pushing hard for cleaner cars, but it is also pushing hard for what Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood calls "livable cities" - which he defines as cities where you do not need a car. 

After the Obama administration overhauls the federal "TEA" transportation law, there will be more funding for public transportation than there has ever been in the past. There will be many more transit proposals, and maybe even Berkeley will catch up. 

Charles Siegel is a Berkeley resident and environmental activist.