AC Transit, Bus Rapid Transit, East Bay, NIMBY, Oakland

East Bay BRT Hits Snag at Lake Merritt

Courtesy Flickr member in2jazz.

The Berkeley Daily Planet mentioned last week a problem point in the planning of the proposed East Bay bus rapid transit route, which would run from Berkeley to San Leandro via Telegraph Avenue, downtown Oakland, and East 14th Street. The issue concerns the new street replacing the expressway around Lake Merritt, which connects downtown Oakland to East 14th Street and Lakeshore Avenue. One component of Measure DD is to replace the messy twelve-lane expressway and its speeding cars with a slower six-lane city street, improved pedestrian and bicycle access, and also to add a new park on the west end of Lake Merritt. Of course, buses as well as cars would move more slowly through here, and the combination of having half the traffic lanes and the introduction of new pedestrian signals could cause delays in excess of two minutes at rush hour. Rebecca Kaplan, vice president of the AC Transit board, noted: “That is enough of a delay to destroy the entire purpose of [bus] rapid transit.”

As is often the case with the Daily Planet, the language of the article is cast so as to make BRT seem like a failure. The article references quotations of indignation about the lack of dedicated right of way on 12th Street, and in doing so, it misleadingly makes it seem as though this fact is a brand-new development. It’s not. The EIR, in fact, has already indicated mixed flow for this stretch of road, and it has long been known that bus-only lanes would be suspended here. So the BRT project is not all of a sudden a lost cause because of this “revelation”, as the tone of the article would imply.

In any event, Berkeley NIMBYs are almost foaming at the mouth in glee at the news of this snag, hoping that a difficulty in Oakland could mean the end of the whole project. To date, complaints have been raised in Berkeley and San Leandro, at either end of the proposed route — but the majority of the line and its riders are in Oakland, where there has been little to no complaint about the “destructive chaos” that will allegedly ensue after BRT is built. The Daily Planet continues to print reader letters containing rants that are disconnected from reality:

It’s time for AC Transit to change its approach and begin to work with the people in the communities it serves to find out what transit improvements they would prefer—instead of just working with insiders who stand to benefit from the construction of BRT. Either that, or it’s time to consider recalling the entire AC Transit Board.

Oh? So what exactly does “working with the people in the communities” mean? Does it mean granting the NIMBY community its every desire, at the expense of the greater East Bay? Does it mean leaving bus service in its current sorry state and continuing to punish transit riders? Does it mean that we allow a few short-sighted NIMBYs — whose priorities are largely driven by their ability to drive and park their own car with ease — to jeopardize a project that would improve mobility and help to redefine and revitalize the East Bay’s most colorful and distinctive neighborhoods and activity centers, many of which are directly served by this corridor? If so, I could hardly blame AC Transit officials for wanting to ignore the communities, but the fact is, they have not been ignoring them at all. They simply happen to disagree with the Berkeley NIMBY contingent, but I can hardly blame them for that.

But let’s return for a moment to the snag near Lake Merritt. In terms of the proposed BRT route, the problematic stretch of 12th Street lies between the International/5th Ave stop and the 11th-12th Street/Madison stop. Local buses not using the transitway would align onto the slower reconstructed 12th Street so that they could directly serve the new boulevard, and signal priority could be investigated to aid the smooth passage of those buses. But since the rapid buses would merely drive on 12th Street without stopping, could they just avoid this stretch altogether? Consider the following idea for a possible reroute:

Satellite base map courtesy Google Maps.

The pinmarks represent BRT stops, and the light blue box outlines the problematic stretch of 12th Street. Marked in red is the default route that has been studied, via 12th Street. Marked in yellow is an alternative route. Under the alternative, buses headed north to downtown Oakland would turn left onto 4th Avenue, use East 10th Street and 5th Avenue to jigger around Laney College, and then turn north onto 7th Street/East 8th Street, right on Farallon, left on 8th Street, right on Oak Street, before turning left onto 12th Street towards Broadway. In the other direction, buses coming from downtown would follow 11th to Madison Street, turn right on Madison, left on 7th/East 8th Street, and then left on 5th Avenue, all the way to East 14th. Both 4th and 5th Avenues have two travel lanes, so to preserve dedicated BRT, both streets would be turned to one-way operations: 5th Avenue eastbound and 4th Avenue westbound, each with one bus lane and one car lane. This alternative is a bit convoluted, but if 4th and 5th Avenues are turned into one-way streets, bus-only lanes would be possible for almost the entire stretch of the route.

The 7th Street route is about 1/2 mile longer than the 12th Street route and under normal traffic conditions, would add a couple minutes to travel times — so it’s not ideal at all times of day, but it would be more reasonable if traffic backups on 12th Street really will be that substantial. A halfway solution in terms of both time and distance, marked in purple on the map, is East 10th Street. East 10th was considered in the EIR but was ultimately rejected because of street constrictions and lower predicted ridership. The 7th Street route is more convoluted, but it almost entirely avoids buses running mixed with cars. Mixed flow is something I like to avoid on principle, but it is especially worth bearing in mind here — if traffic really will be that bad on 12th Street, enterprising drivers will look for alternate routes, and at least some will probably end up on East 10th Street. This will adversely affect any buses running in mixed flow there.

A compromise solution that perhaps makes the most sense is to reserve the 7th Street alternative for peak hour trips or to avoid traffic jams, and then use 12th Street as the default route the rest of the time. Notice that because there are no BRT stops in this stretch, there would be no rider confusion as to which stops should be used at which time of day, and no additional station infrastructure would need to be built.

Admittedly, this alternative travels the less picturesque back end of the lake, and certainly, the 12th Street route is more direct and intuitive — not to mention faster, except in actual traffic jams. If planners can make 12th Street work, that would be preferable. But if these traffic jams turn out to be daily events, and if it causes rapid buses to bunch up just as local buses do now, then BRT will be no better than a regular bus, and reliability along the greater line will be affected. If that is the case, might it not be worth it to investigate an alternative route? Having buses bunch up at traffic snarls undermines the whole point of bus rapid transit.



9 thoughts on “East Bay BRT Hits Snag at Lake Merritt

  1. Alternatives 3 and 4 do have a stop at 2nd Ave.

    Posted by Aaron Priven | 6 February 2008, 4:45 pm
  2. Yes, that’s true, not all versions skip right through the first 5 blocks of East 14th. But you’ve already figured out my implicit bias here: I would prefer a plan doesn’t stop quite that much.

    Posted by Eric | 6 February 2008, 7:43 pm
  3. I don’t understand. Under the current plan, do the buses have a dedicated lane over the bridge or not?

    Posted by Cap'n Transit | 6 February 2008, 8:18 pm
  4. @ Cap’n: buses do not have a dedicated lane on that one portion of 12th Street.

    Posted by Eric | 6 February 2008, 8:22 pm
  5. Thanks. Okay, so with six lanes, who decided that the buses couldn’t have two?

    Posted by Cap'n Transit | 6 February 2008, 9:02 pm
  6. It’s a capacity issue, but there probably won’t be a dedicated median right before the 12th Street stretch, so there’s also an access issue. It’s a tricky spot.

    Posted by Eric | 8 February 2008, 12:17 pm
  7. BRT or not BRT why would anyone ride the 1R end to end? Because AC and BART do not have a legitimate transfer/joint fare system as for instance NY, Chgo, SF for FastPass only. Back when BART opened AC had a series of express routes which gradually died because they mostly were duplicated by BART. It took BART nearly a decade to become reliable enough, but once that happened the AC routes were history. Chronically underfunded AC has lurched from service cut to fare rise trying to survive meanwhile discouraging the choice riders who have the political clout to get more funding. So now they are trying to build a better network of bus routes to entice riders back onto the bus.
    That said, while one part of AC has pipe dreams of ultra moderne buses gliding along curbed off lanes stopping at infrequent stations equipped with TVMs and Nextbus displays, the reality is another round of fare increases/service cuts/ridership losses proposed for this summer. While POP enabling door buttons were installed on all of the Van Hools (and extra doors for even greater ingress/egress potential) the current and foreseeable future has transfer surcharges which make POP more difficult to deploy. and the buttons are not turned on.

    Next issue, market/ridership/service level problems
    So after the consultant’s study of the early 90’s detailed the half dozen major trunk routes, AC began a very tentative program on the San Pablo Avenue corridor. The first version was more articulated buses; next came the halk low floor/ half standard units. Painting this segment of the fleet in a low visibility dark green scheme was supposed to give the route a special ‘brand’. Ridership did not significantly increase. The next layer was the renaming of the Limited to Rapid with newly bought Van Hools and slowly a few tentative BRT features.
    The surveys hired by AC claim a net increase of riders in the corridor citing some former drivers.
    Now we also have the 1R from Berkeley to Bayfair.
    Results are at best mixed from this rider’s view.
    First off, the Nextbus signage, even though the service was delayed 9 months by union management squables, was incomplete and is still missing in many places. Second, the East Oakland and North Oakland/Berkeley segments have very different load characteristics. While articulated buses are often well loaded east of downtown, they are often nearly empty heading north in off hours. AC recognised some of this by having the R M-F north M-Sat east, but what does that indicate for spending millions on “stations”?
    Even if you dismiss anyone from Berkeley who opposes BRT, the question remains what level of bus service on Telegraph is needed by the market?
    AC Transit ridership has not signicant grown since the late 70’s. In the 80’s an SF Examiner column had total ridership at 240k today AC’s site shows 227k and the earlier figure reflected much leaner service in the Fremont area. To paraphrase on of the Directors at a recent meeting, we raise fares riders decline three years later we have barely gotten back the lost number and staff comes to us for another fare increase, repeat, repeat. This isn’t working.
    So this transit dependent victim of AC says no more money down the drain for cute station crap, figure out how to get MTC to turn loose more subsidy money, because on a per capita figure AC is efficient it just needs to recover.

    Posted by david vartanoff | 15 February 2008, 3:59 pm
  8. Not sure why you think that the stations are “cute”; this BRT line is reasonably minimalistic even as BRT lines go. Of course, they could save a chunk of cash by dispensing with them, but they carry plenty of benefits, and more comfortable stations with basic amenities do a better job of “branding” than just a new color scheme.

    Posted by Eric | 16 February 2008, 9:41 pm


  1. Pingback: Random Oakland Thoughts « Living in the O - 11 February 2008

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