Public Comment

BARTcar: Silver Lining from the BRT Cloud

Russ Tilleman
Wednesday August 31, 2011 - 10:06:00 AM

The debate over Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) may have felt like a dark cloud hanging over Telegraph Avenue, but now it looks like it might have a silver lining. The discussions about public transit triggered by the BRT proposal have led to a new project called BARTcar.

Somewhere in the BRT debate, someone suggested finding better ways to get people to and from BART stations. Time passed and some of us who were involved in the conflict formed a political activism group called Proper Action. We thought about ways to solve the problems facing our communities, and looked back on what was wrong with the BRT approach. Eventually, we came up with a proposal of our own for improving public transit. 

BARTcar is a plan to place large numbers of inexpensive electric cars in BART station parking lots. The cars would have card readers on them, and BART riders could run their driver's license through the reader and drive off with a car for about $5 for daytime or overnight use. The car we are proposing to use is the OKA NEV ZEV, a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) that looks like a small economy car. Its fully electric, with limited range of about 15 miles and a top speed of 25 mph. The OKA is not a high-performance automobile, but BARTcar is intended only to transport BART riders between their home and the nearest station, and then between a distant station and their destination. 

It's a simple idea with a lot of benefits. The cars are electric, they don't produce air pollution and the energy to charge them can be from renewable sources. They are small and can be packed closely into the BART parking lots— many more BARTcars than private cars will fit into a lot. Unlike buses, they are available at any time without any waiting, and they can go directly to the rider's home or destination. 

We have discussed BARTcar with public officials in the Bay Area and have received promising feedback. BART, the City of Pleasanton, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission have all expressed significant interest in BARTcar as a way to get commuters out of their cars and onto BART, providing a fully electric path from homes to workplaces. 

Just about everyone we've talked with seems to like BARTcar. But if we want to help the environment, we need to do more than talk about a good idea, we need to turn that idea into a good transit project. And to do that, we need to demonstrate interest from the public. The basic principle of Proper Action is that the people who live in a community have the best understanding of the needs of that community. People who transfer between buses and BART, people who walk in the rain to BART, and people who own a car just to drive to BART all understand the problem of getting to and from BART. They can readily understand what BARTcar would do for their commute, and if they want BARTcar, they have a right to ask for it. 

If enough people ask for BARTcar, it will happen, and it won't just happen here. The New York Times presented the Berkeley BRT debate as an example of the problems facing environmentalists in the United States. If we can make BARTcar an example of the solutions environmentalists can find, let's hope it will receive the same attention.