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

Rapid Bus Minus

BRT Proposal at Shattuck and Bancroft (Downtown Berkeley).
Proposed BRT at Shattuck Avenue & Bancroft in Berkeley.
Courtesy FMG Architects.

And so it continues: the ever-committed opponents of Bus Rapid Transit in supposedly progressive Berkeley have hatched a plan to stop BRT in the East Bay — “Rapid Bus Plus,” a brainchild of the group Berkeleyans for Better Transportation Options (BBTOP). Under “Rapid Bus Plus,” the comfortable bus stops and dedicated bus lanes that distinguish BRT would be removed. BBTOP instead suggests that AC Transit obtain Orion VII low floor hybrids, like those that the SFMTA obtained. These vehicles have not quite proven to be an unqualified success in San Francisco, but even so, new vehicles and cleaner fuels are collateral to a primary objective of dedicated lanes — namely, system speed and reliability. BBTOP also suggests that the signal preemption and NextBus technology currently used for the 1R and 72R be expanded to the full system, and that Proof of Payment (to be used on the proposed BRT line) also be expanded to the full system. These latter ideas are fine — certainly, it would be nice to see signal preemption in more places, and NextBus can go a long way toward reducing rider stress — but neither is a substitute for separating transit vehicles from automotive traffic, particularly on a high ridership route that serves a great many of the East Bay’s activity centers.

“Rapid Bus Plus,” then, suggests that the mildest types of improvement typically associated with BRT be expanded, but it continues the pattern of forcing transit vehicles to fight cars in traffic — increasing travel times and hampering reliability. Bus-only lanes, in BBTOP’s view, are “invasive” — a “sclerosis” of East Bay streets. BBTOP proposes that bus-only lanes be deleted from the BRT plan in areas where the transitway is “redundant” to BART. Naturally, according to BBTOP, one redundant example is the Telegraph Avenue corridor. Really? So the three BART stations that are on the so-called “BART/Telegraph Avenue Corridor” — MacArthur, Ashby, and Downtown Berkeley, the latter two of which are both a several-block walk from the Avenue — provide complete and comprehensive coverage, even though each of these stations is 20-30 blocks distant from the adjacent station? BART coverage is so thorough that substantial improvement to bus service is unwarranted, even though it would improve ride quality for many low-income and minority riders who have been disenfranchised throughout the years by slashed bus service? BART coverage in this corridor is so thorough that no one must even be riding this highly redundant bus route — right? This route, which happens to be the East Bay’s busiest? BBTOP very sloppily combines BART and Telegraph Avenue as though it is one duplicative corridor. It is not: BART’s regional service and AC Transit’s local service are complementary, but they serve different purposes. The number of origins and destinations that are an easy walk from BART are outnumbered by the locations that are too far removed to make BART a convenient or practical option. And even when BART is convenient, the lack of a monthly BART pass forces riders to pay for each individual trip — an expensive burden that it is especially difficult for low-income and transit-dependent riders to bear. The theory that BRT is redundant to BART is old and tired, having been raised repeatedly by BRT opponents in Berkeley. You need only ask one of the roughly 25,000 daily riders who choose the 1 or the 1R over BART to learn why that theory is incorrect.

So as to not appear to be completely against transit, BBTOP suggests that AC Transit leave Telegraph Avenue and Berkeley in peace and instead study other potential BRT corridors that do not “duplicate” BART — for example, the Iron Horse Trail in Contra Costa County, which is not even in AC Transit’s service area. It also suggests investigating BRT on Oakland’s MacArthur Boulevard. This latter suggestion is part of AC Transit’s planning vision, and MacArthur Boulevard does deserve improved service. But the Boulevard’s awkward interactions with Interstate 580 result in some stretches of constricted street that would not support full BRT as robustly as Telegraph would. MacArthur also has less infill potential and fewer riders than the BRT route currently on the table, so it makes sense to prioritize projects to benefit the greatest number of riders.

Amazingly, BBTOP hails Muni’s “venerable N-Judah” as an exemplar of how successful “Rapid Bus Plus” would be if it were implemented, calling the N-Judah “Rapid Bus Plus on rails” because it uses Proof of Payment but does not have a dedicated right of way for its entire route. Apparently, the folks at BBTOP have not actually ridden the N-Judah much, because if they had, they would realize that the line is unreliable precisely because it shares road space with automobiles on the surface, delaying and ensnaring LRVs at congested choke points, like in the Inner Sunset District. Travel times would be even longer without POP, but that hardly implies that the N-Judah’s current configuration is ideal, let alone a model for new transit lines. Providing LRVs with a dedicated right of way for the whole length of the route would greatly improve the quality of N-Judah service, and the same is true of East Bay BRT. Conveniently, BBTOP fails to provide detail about any of the many BRT success stories — and it sees no irony in dismissing Curitiba, Brazil, as a third world city in the same document that it advocates for the East Bay to maintain a bus system inferior to Curitiba’s.

BBTOP’s report contains many misleading turns of phrase, as well as incorrect assumptions that run counter to professional transit planning. It will not really do much good to parse and correct each sentence here. When we come right down to it, all BBTOP’s plan (if the rambling five-page PDF can be called a “plan” at all) has really done is slap a new name onto the same old desire to dilute at least the Berkeley stretch of the BRT route. It retains a couple BRT-like characteristics to give the illusion of a compromise solution, but it discards BRT’s crucial dedicated right of way. Would “Rapid Bus Plus” be an improvement over current service? Yes, but it would not go far enough — and it would provide little to no opportunity to transform the way the East Bay views buses and transit in general.



14 thoughts on “Rapid Bus Minus

  1. As much as I dislike BRT, I think its better than what these wackos are trying to do. This kind of proves a theory that I have, NIMBYs are NIMBYs no matter what. If it were a light rail proposal, they would say lets do BRT. But now that its BRT, they say just do rapid bus. And when its rapid bus, they’ll say lets just do bus. Always the next common denom until they can kill it, whatever it might be.

    Posted by The Overhead Wire | 19 May 2008, 11:02 pm
  2. Beware the wrath of the Berkeley NIMBY. Politics there is run by that special kind of person who was there in the 60s and wants it to stay exactly the same forever– which means that trying to change anything requires a massive political battle.

    Posted by countZ | 20 May 2008, 12:57 pm
  3. What is this? It reads like a plan written by a group of misguided NIMBYs who have never spent a day on public transportation. Some of their suggestions are outright laughable — “fleetwide” Proof-of-Payment? Because the old lady not having to flash her senior bus bass on Rte. 77 in South Hayward does wonders to speed up the trip along Telegraph! System-wide P-O-P but no ticket vending machines? Then how do passengers pay their fares?! Flexible-sized bus fleet, free Shoppers Shuttles and Orion VIIs? What does this have to do with speeding buses up on Telegraph Ave.? Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what happens when you let the road lobby take on transit planning duties. Why not let the executives at Chevron dictate the country’s environmental policies? The “report” is a joke — full of misconceptions, half-truths and outright lies. It does a disservice to anyone who wants a more livable community in the Bay Area.

    Posted by PvtEntrepreneur | 20 May 2008, 6:36 pm
  4. Yeah, chock full, isn’t it? Correcting the facts and assumptions of each and every sentence of that PDF probably would’ve required a few more posts. It didn’t take too long to realize that it doesn’t deserve that much effort.

    Re: Telegraph Avenue, their point seems to be that service is already “good enough”, so please leave us alone — and Telegraph is redundant to BART, remember? People can always just take BART instead.

    The couple of good ideas they do mention in the PDF only serve as an attempt to distract from the large quantity of ill-conceived ones.

    Posted by Eric | 20 May 2008, 6:49 pm
  5. This BRT controversy also unwittingly shows just how badly BART screwed up when they built it back in the ’70s. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if they had put the Concord line under Broadway and the Richmond line under Telegraph.

    Posted by countZ | 21 May 2008, 1:08 pm
  6. Yeah, I’ve also had the “rip out BART and start from scratch” urge more times than I can count. Put it on actual transit corridors, rather than freeway medians — but also standard gauge the whole thing. Unfortunately, we have to make do with what we’ve got. It would be nice if we had learned some lessons, but apparently we haven’t.

    Posted by Eric | 21 May 2008, 1:29 pm
  7. the comments about making due with BART unfortunately seem to be a challenge as well

    I was at the El Cerrito strip mall adjacent to the BART station today. When I think about that place or the rebuilt mall next to San Bruno station or the Costco next to South City I wonder if we can get anything right if we can’t even get simple land use down

    Democracy totally out of control. I can’t see the point in ever building another BART station

    Posted by Zig | 24 May 2008, 5:07 pm
  8. Eric – thanks for your analysis of the report. I’ve been so caught up in election season that I’ve had less time to spend on BRT. I agree with pretty much everything said in the comments above but wanted to add another reason why BBTOP’s positions are so ludicrous: The planned BRT project barely even goes through Berkeley. The vast majority of it is in Oakland and San Leandro. So if this vocal minority of Berkeley residents manages to kill the project, they’re mostly making life more difficult for transit riders in Oakland and San Leandro. But then again, I’m guessing these Berkeley NIMBYs care even less about out of city transit riders than they do about in city riders.

    Posted by Becks | 26 May 2008, 5:07 pm
  9. Actually, one need not be a NIMBY to oppose AC’s BRT plans. Let me first say, I am transit dependent account low vision, a regular AC and BART rider and live a block off Telegraph near Alcatraz–a ten minute walk to Ashby BART 3 or less to the 1, 1R stop. I will add that I have lived in both Chicago and NYC so I have experience of serious public transit.
    So, why do I oppose full BRT on Tele? because when I come back from my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Oakland in the 7-9 PM period there are usually less than a dozen riders on the 1 or 1R . In fact in the evening when 1R’s no longer run, given the few riders/stops the local is nearly as fast.
    Saturdays AC doesn’t bother to run the ‘R’s’ north of downtown Oakland because even they see the market isn’t there.
    Spending several hundred million $$ to build special stations/platforms which will be underused is a travesty given the severe route and frequency cuts coupled with constant fare hikes. Remember AC surcharges for transfers which are only good for a single use.. The ideal indeed as others have said is a BART/AC monthly like the Muni Fastpass because for MANY east bay trips one needs AC both to and from BART in order to get somewhere in a reasonable time. Because AC and BART do not cooperate in a rider useful way, AC is instead trying to reinvent the express network it had before BART opened. Those routes atrophied during the AC/BART Plus pass period–a brief era of a fare structure encouraging use of both systems to best advantage.
    Certainly, given BART’s poor route locations many roughly parallel bus services are needed., but auto interference on telegraph is only serious for short distances and mostly at the height of rush hour.
    University Ave has fardenser traffic particularly on weekends and has a recently built median which would be more useful as transit lanes.
    One further comment, staffing the “Rapid” w/ lumbering articulateds is a poor resource allocation because a standard 40′ bus is far more nimble shifting lanes and then pulling into stops.

    Posted by david vartanoff | 6 June 2008, 10:38 pm
  10. Hi David, thanks for writing in. This project and other BRT projects are not just about improving ride quality, but also about increasing capacity, and there is a long-term goal of intensifying land uses around fixed guideways. The more the project is diluted, the fewer long-term benefits it will have.

    Spending several hundred million $$ to build special stations/platforms which will be underused is a travesty given the severe route and frequency cuts coupled with constant fare hikes.
    The platforms themselves do not cost several hundred million dollars. The entire project will cost less than several hundred million dollars, even with significant cost overruns. And is your complaint only about Telegraph, which is just a fraction of the whole route? If so, this cost prediction seems especially exaggerated.

    In fact in the evening when 1R’s no longer run, given the few riders/stops the local is nearly as fast.
    This isn’t unusual in the Bay Area. Even on the heavily used Geary line, limited service doesn’t run past the early evenings (though it’s proposed to be extended as a TEP improvement), and it doesn’t run on Sundays at all. Similar situation for VTA’s 522 line along El Camino Real. When the line becomes more popular, perhaps the need to extend 1R service will arise.

    University Ave has far denser traffic particularly on weekends and has a recently built median which would be more useful as transit lanes.
    Well, I certainly agree University is another natural place for transit-only lanes, and in fact, I’ve marked it as such on the East Bay BRT build-out map. And hopefully we’ll get exactly that when the 51 is converted, though I suppose we’ll have to brace for another political fight.

    Posted by Eric | 8 June 2008, 7:09 am
  11. First, yes, I am most negative about Tele which is my own most used route. Second, my experience w/ the Rapid rollouts so far is that the shelters are loaded w/ stuff but very late being deployed and even later having Nextbus function. Sadly, the Nextbus displays aren’t yet at some of the more critical route junctions–example; when waiting for a northbound bus @Tele & 40th. For many riders either (18, 1,1r) will do but if the preferred were soon one would wait. We are still in 2008 dependent on staring down the street. The Emery go round system of a phone # for cell calls would be quicker to deploy cheaper both to install and maintain, especially at stops w/ no shelter.
    As to costs, the entire project IS in the hundreds of millions, although obviously the Telegraph leg is not the bulk.
    Yes the 38 local runs faster evenings (when it shows up!) but those buses are full; the 1 on Telegraph makes me worry that when I am older and much less able to just walk, it won’t be there because the ridership is so low. Striping the center lanes for the daylight hours w/ aggressive enforcement would give the buses priority in the critica hours at a pittance.
    A word about development along Tele, I have been actively involved in planning/zoning issues for over 30 years. supportive of density. Assuming that more residential above storefront buildings go up, there will be more potential transit riders. The capacity constraint is not the street it is AC’s funding base which this week was sabotaged by the Hummernator in the amount of $19 million embezzled from taxes voted in specifically for transit. That will engender another round of death spira fare increase/service cuts. In such an atmosphere how can I support overpriced bells and whistles?

    On a more detailed level, AC has a bad habit of very long routes with very different loads. The 1,1R are very heavily used East of downtown Oakland but most of those passengers are off before the bus gets to Telegraph–I am the exception. The full artic on E 14th is then half empty up to Berkeley. Given the punitive transfer rules it is hard to advocate for more rational route design, but clearly the equipment is out of balance w/ the ridership. Meanwhile BTW both riders and the Board member for Richmond are asking for bigger buses on the 72,M, on weekends. (The 72R has always been a 40 footer while the locals weekdays are mainly artics)
    A check of the FAQS on AC’s page admits to $250 million after making deals w/ the cities who might pony up more. If that is a legitimate current estimat $350 mill counting missing city contributiuons/ ovveruns + inflation seems more likely. That IS a lot to pay for saving 5 minutes to downtown Oakland from Berkeley. and another five to ten alng E 14h.
    BTW while this plan to take over lanes on E 14th has been plodding along, an entirely different beautification program has planted trees where there had been a parking lane–are you ready to cut down the trees for the cars?

    Posted by david vartanoff | 8 June 2008, 10:37 am
  12. Sorry for posting without the spell check

    Now working in Oakland I have to agree with David on this. I am interested in BRT but am not sure it is necessarly addresses the problem with AC and transit in the East Bay in general which IMO is fare structures and integration.

    And when has smart land use ever followed investment in transit in the Bay Area (other than downtown SF-and not taking about puny TOD)

    I think the 1R in my experience is quite adequate and pretty empty

    Phasing for BRT makes sense. We have some of the improvements already. Now lets see the the land-use and work on fares

    Posted by Zig | 22 July 2008, 4:47 pm


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