East Bay Bus Rapid Transit Receives Support from Oakland as Berkeley Hesitates

» 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

21 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • As someone who’s actually working on this project, and who sat through the Berkeley meeting you describe — I’m endlessly amazed at your ability to keep track of the details in so many different places, Yonah.

  • PRE

    This project should be LRT but I guess that’s a fantasy. I would also suspect that almost everyone going from downtown Berk to SL would take BART so that’s probably not a good comparison. I don’t think that most people will ride the entire length but would be enticed out of their cars to ride shorter lengths.

    • Matt Fisher

      Just say YES to East Bay BRT. Just say NO to stonewalling on BRT. This is needed NOW, not TOMMOROW.

      And yes, in this case, LRT is impossible because sadly, the money just isn’t there. ;-(

      • Matt Fisher

        Oops, I’m sorry. I should have meant that it is currently impossible because the money currently isn’t available. Still, there is no reason to clamp down on BRT in this case. I believe it is a good idea to build the East Bay BRT project.

        –Matt

    • Dan Berez

      PRE- Remember that “[enticing] people out of their cars” is not the only important part of new public transit projects. Unlike most of the public transit projects being built in California, this project appears to improve service in a region full of transit dependent riders at a low cost.

      • Wad

        The high costs of this BRT project come when AC Transit has to pay low costs now but a lot later.

        If the 50,000 boardings do materialize, the operating costs are going to spiral out of control. That is far too much for buses to handle. Heck, that would be a wildly successful light rail line.

        High operating costs shouldn’t be confused for an investment in mobility for low-income riders.

  • Maybe someone knows the answer to this question. Have planners considered a BRT scheme that would involve partial dedicated lane and partial mixed traffic? That is the kind of scheme we are considering here in the urbanized area of Dane County, Wisconsin.

    As someone who used to live in Berkeley, I can understand the reservations. Some of Telegraph is quite wide and would have no problem accommodating an exclusive lane for buses. But the street near the University of California is much more narrow, bordered by all kinds of businesses and would be hard pressed to dedicate land solely for bus use.

    BRT should be beneficial for everyone. The business owners on Telegraph are good people and need to be listened to.

  • Matt Fisher

    I believe the East Bay BRT project is a good thing. As someone from Ottawa, the home of the Transitway and someone making up 20% of the city’s population who rides the bus every day, I believe that just as BRT is good for Ottawa, it will be good for Oakland and Berkeley. It is a cost effective project and is needed RIGHT NOW, NOT TOMORROW. There is no reason to sit and gripe about how BRT is a perceived threat to our “way of life”.

  • david vartanoff

    So, why would a transit dependent person like me not support the BRT project? Recently AC Transit put out a study of the 1Rapid detailing delay hot spots and measures to improve it. If ALL of those and a few others were adopted, the 1R would meet the time/efficiency of the BRT without spending $235 million to pour concrete.
    The claim is made that buses will be both faster and more reliable if given exclusive lanes and yup scale “stations”. (and here http://sf.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/4_19/012010_image001.png some graphics showing how far 20 minutes will get you from 14th’B’way in downtown Oakland according to their plans. I experience faster service already with both the R and evenings the local.
    The BRT “all in one/no local” plan envisions MORE stops for the BRT than the current rapid but no local stops. AC only runs the Raipd now daylight M-F(Saturday International/E14th only no Telegraph) yet my trips home from downtown Oakland are consistently faster on evening locals than daytime Rs and much faster than the advertised BRT timings.
    I have argued elsewhere that on Telegraph, striping the lanes for buses only in rush hour would be more than sufficient. I invite readers to loiter along Telegraph watching traffic.
    So, yes this pro transit person thinks the project is not worth the estimated price.
    AC’s study shows the downtown Oakland as a major delay area, but BRT will NOT get exclusive lanes there. OTOH, the 1R does major transfer business SB @ 12th/B’way where delay is mostly slow boarding/fare paying which could be fixed by deploying rear door loaders, placing TVMs at the stop and phasing in POP. When the articulated buses were delivered, many came POP ready w/translink readers at middle/rear doors. but they were removed.
    The same delay issue exists in Berkeley both at the UC campus stops and downtown BART station. Most times when I am riding, (I live one block from Telegraph–the 1/1R is my bus of choice) the majority of riders at these Berkeley locations have Cal flash passes or translink–again rear door loaders can speed boarding– TVMs not needed because very few single cash fares are collected.
    When the 1R was introduced, we were told it would get signal priority. AC’s study p 61 hints that many are inoperative. If they were all working buses would be delayed less.
    The Telegraph commercial strip is another delay center. Here however, the problem is Berkeley city policy. When I questioned a Parking Control Officer as to why he did not ticket delivery/street vendor vehicles blocking traffic he replied “mayor’s orders.”

  • Dan S.

    I am also impressed with all of your details. Thanks for giving Berkeley a post today. One more detail that needs to be mentioned is that the full BRT plan includes level boarding while the Berkeley alternative does not. Yes, this means that as a rapid bus enters what is otherwise handicap-friendly Berkeley, the bus driver will have to get out of his seat, lower the front end of the bus, let the ramp down, activate the loud beeping, etc. I was the only one of three BRT supporters at the Berkeley meeting that mentioned this detail and I was the only supporter who didn’t get booed and hissed.

  • Susan, the project would include a mix of dedicated lanes and mixed flow. The question is how much of each. Telegraph near the UC would remain mixed-flow under all current alternatives, although some would convert it to two-way traffic. Earlier proposals for a transit mall or a southbound bus/delivery lane were dropped largely in response to comment from merchants and vendors.

    • Matt Fisher

      Steve,

      I agree. This bus rapid transit project is the best that can be done at this moment. The money for rail just isn’t there. BRT can do everything rail does at a fraction of the cost.

      Matt Fisher
      Ottawa, Canada

      • Matt Fisher

        Okay, again, it’s just a gut feeling, but both Ottawa and Oakland are not going to be well served by rail in the short term, so BRT is a sufficient alternative. And if successful enough, it can be converted to rail in the future.

  • PRE

    Screw Berkeley. Just build it to the edge of the city and call it a day. Or better yet spend the money on a downtown streetcar in Oakland and around Lake Merritt.

  • poncho

    berkeley just likes to protest for the hell of it.

    telegraph by UC is pretty dead anyway and swarming with homeless and protesters, are there even any retailers left to complain?

    i wonder if the reaction would be different if it was LRT?

  • david vartanoff

    Not sure what Telegraph Ave you were on. Plenty of Cal students strolling yesterday as I left campus to catch a 1R. And people in stores!.

  • Charanga

    Yonah, thanks for the many details, and at least acknowledgement of ways in which the anti-BRT folks’ views contain truth. I’m a BRT-supporter and a daily commuter on the 1/1R buses on Telegraph from Oakland to UC Berkeley.

    I wonder how granular the data collection has been with regard to trip origins and destinations. I’ve heard of projects like Citysense that track the movements of volunteers:

    http://www.sensenetworks.com/citysense.php

    I see *lots* of UC Berkeley on the bus everyday. Because many of them are from out of town, I wonder how many of them are active on this issue. Students, are you reading this? Are your voices being heard?

  • david vartanoff

    As we debate the fine points of BRT, the reality is here
    http://www.actransit.org/aboutac/bod/memos/1ce904.pdf
    see page 17 of the pdf, 9 of the second doc for service reductions to take effect in August. Note especially ELIMINATION of 1R service north of Downtown Oakland entirely and the Saturday 1R service south(east) to San Leandro. So much for the promised 5 minute headways after pouring all the concrete. Ending the 1R puts us back to a decade or so ago when the headway (if on time) was 15 minutes baseday. Given current schedule adherence, I will be walking a great deal more.

  • Jim Bullock

    Here’s another reason to be against AC Transit’s BRT proposal: It’s ineffective. As documented in the draft EIR, the project would attract very few new transit users and have no impact on energy use or pollution.

    BRT systems have worked well in other cities and, I suspect, could be effective in the East Bay as well. But this proposal, at a cost of $250+ million, is not projected to accomplish anything. So why spend the money?

  • Paul Deuter

    BRT is bad public transit. It is depressing to realize that supposedly pro-transit people are killing transit by inventing ineffective transit proposals. BRT is the worst of the worst. It will only steal riders from BART and current AC Transit bus lines. While AC Transit is planning the BRT expansion, they are also scaling back in other places due to insufficient funds. If BRT goes forward, I predict that AC Transit will begin scaling back BRT service before they can even get it built!

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