|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.