» Despite high marks from the Federal Transit Administration and a promise of aid, the planned construction of dedicated bus lanes between Berkeley and San Leandro continues to rile certain members of the community.
It’s hard to pinpoint a situation pretty much anywhere in which the construction of a new rapid transit line does not incite significant local opposition. Transit improvements, as we all know, produce wonderful benefits for both the systems’ users and communities as a whole, but their implementation also results in some negative side-effects.
To suggest that people who argue against building a rail or bus line are just “anti-transit” is typically a simplification.
Thus the decade-long campaign to prevent the construction of a bus rapid transit corridor between San Leandro, Oakland, and Berkeley along the east side of the San Francisco Bay should not be quickly dismissed. The continued outrage expressed by business owners and residents near and along Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, where buses would get their own lanes, is not founded on ignorance: it is the expression of a fear that things will change.
Indeed, if AC Transit gets its way and builds the 16.9-mile East Bay BRT line, the surface transit connections between the three affected cities will be altered significantly. With overall travel times decreasing by 18% compared to existing limited-stop buses, the BRT will allow commuters to get from downtown Berkeley to downtown San Leandro in 67 minutes, compared to 86 today. Ridership is projected to expand from about 20,000 on the 1/1R routes today to 50,000 daily by 2025, enough to knock out about 10,000 daily auto trips.
Buses could begin running in 2014 if all goes as planned.
Along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and International Drive in Oakland and San Leandro, AC Transit wants to install independent bus rights-of-way with stations positioned in the median of the street. The total cost of the program, with new buses included, would be around $235 million, of which the federal government pledged 32% earlier this year (and gave the project excellent scores for cost effectiveness). The San Francisco Bay Area’s regional transit funding authority attempted last year to postpone the BRT project in favor of a three-mile rail connection to the Oakland Airport, but that project was shelved (at least temporarily) by the FTA in February because of civil rights concerns.
It’s hard to argue with the need for improved transit in the East Bay; despite BART regional rail playing an important role, the very large distances between its stations lower its effectiveness in transporting people who live between stops to other areas between stops. In other words, while most people hoping to travel directly between downtown Berkeley and downtown San Leandro will continue to do so on BART — a 25-minute trip — others living in areas less accessible to the rail system may find themselves attracted to quicker buses.
The fact that the two routes parallel one another is therefore not a disadvantage. They play supporting roles in the area’s larger transit system, fulfilling the needs of different riders making different trips.
With a huge jobs center in the midpoint of the line, attracting sufficient ridership shouldn’t be a problem: Downtown Oakland has 70,000 office workers (the same, for instance, as in center city Charlotte), and at the northern end of the line, U.C. Berkeley’s 50,000 students and employees (as well as 13,000 other jobs in downtown Berkeley) will be quite a pull. The streets on which buses will run vary from vibrant, medium-density retail strips to run-down, auto-oriented sprawl.
It’s for those reasons that Oakland’s City Council unanimously endorsed the project’s route through that city last night. Not only will better transit offer the possibility of restored life to forlorn areas of a not-so-wealthy city, but the city’s citizens will also find themselves far closer by bus to other areas of the East Bay.
But enough about Oakland: Its citizens aren’t protesting! Rather, a little iron-clad steamship of Berkeleyites representing the Telegraph Avenue business district — the people most likely to be affected by the project — has been vehement in making its perspective on the BRT project known. Even as Oakland was approving the project, Berkeley’s own city council sat through hours of arguments against the line — holding off on an up-or-down vote for next Thursday.
AC Transit needs approval from each respective member city to construct the dedicated lanes.
Many of those arguments, from a hyper-local perspective, make sense: BRT will reduce capacity for automobiles on Telegraph Avenue, it will eliminate large numbers of parking spaces, it will mean less business for the stores that are there — at least during construction. Thus the opposition and their push for an alternative project that they claim would be just as acceptable: bus operations with all the amenities that typically come with BRT, like signal priority, next bus information, and off-board ticket purchasing. Except, of course, the independent rights-of-way, the primary feature that allows BRT to be rapid.
It’s possible that AC Transit could implement the new lanes in Oakland and San Leandro alone, leaving buses to their slow fate in the most northern sections of the corridor.
But Berkeley’s constituency is larger than that of those who look out today on Telegraph and accept its currently auto-oriented state. For nearby residents who need to get to jobs in downtown Oakland or further south, faster buses will be bring an incredible relief and encourage those who drive to try transit. For the non-negligible number of people living in many of Oakland’s neighborhoods more than a half-mile from a BART station, the BRT line could provide much faster commutes to jobs in Berkeley.
Will their voices be heard over screams from Telegraph Avenue constituents afraid for the future of their businesses?
Image above: Rendering of BRT in Berkeley, CA, from AC Transit