Bunching, Overcrowding & the Need for BRT

6 Aug

Yesterday morning, I was headed to downtown Berkeley for, somewhat ironically, a transit meeting before going to work. I looked at NextBus and saw that I was just about to miss a 1 and a 1R down Telegraph and the next bus (a 1R) wouldn’t arrive for another 20 minutes.

Sometimes NextBus is wrong (I don’t think all the GPS devices on the buses work), but when I wandered down to the stop on Alcatraz and Telegraph 15 minutes later, it became apparent that there had been a 20 minute gap. There were about 15 people waiting for the bus! Even for the morning commute, that is a lot, considering a bus should arrive at least every 12 minutes.

We all boarded the bus (which took quite some time), and it was packed – I mean 51 bus packed or for those who don’t ride the bus, BART morning commute packed. Once I got on the bus, it was a fairly quick ride to downtown Berkeley – probably about 12 minutes. So I had no problem making it to my meeting on time, but I’m sure some of my fellow bus riders ended up being late because they hadn’t prepared to wait for the bus for 20 minutes.

This brings me to the real problem with the current 1 lines. The problem is not speed – it’s reliability. Once you get on the 1R it’s always fast, but you’re going to have to wait an unknown amount of time to catch it. You might wait 30 seconds or you might wait 20 minutes so your 15 minute bus ride can end up taking you anywhere from 15 minutes to 35 minutes, which is unacceptable for most people.

The main cause of this unreliable schedule is traffic, which effects buses in several ways:

  1. Buses get stuck in traffic, just like cars do.
  2. After pulling over to a bus stop, buses often have to wait several seconds to safely merge back into traffic.
  3. Once a bus gets behind schedule because of traffic, the effect snowballs – it is late to pick up the next set of passengers so there are more passengers to pick up which takes more time. So as it travels down its route it gets further and further behind schedule.

All of this leads to one of the most annoying realities of bus riding – bunching of buses! After the 20 minute delay yesterday, another 1R pulled up 2 minutes later and a 1 pulled up a minute after that. So while the bus I was riding was packed, I’m guessing the buses behind us were close to empty, which certainly isn’t a good use of resources.

Luckily, there’s a solution to these problems, and it’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). With dedicated lanes, buses won’t have to compete with traffic and will avoid delays associated with pulling over. And bunching will hopefully be a thing of the past, which means fewer overcrowded buses and fewer nearly empty buses. Unfortunately, we still have a few years to wait before BRT becomes a reality, and a ballot initiative to defeat before that. Still, I can’t help but dream about how different my transit life will be once there are lanes dedicated to buses.

(I wrote this post before leaving my office and on the way home, I had almost the same experience. A long time in between buses, hopped on a 1, a 1R passed a few minutes later, and then another 1R, and by the time we reached my house all of the buses were within a couple blocks of eachother.)

8 Responses to “Bunching, Overcrowding & the Need for BRT”

  1. Ken August 7, 2008 at 2:38 pm #

    can’t wait for BRT to become reality.

    the main impediment to oakland-berkeley brt was NIMBYism in berkeley. which is ironic considering they are considered quite “green” on many fronts.

    with gas prices where they are, i expect this NIMBYism to subside and eventually give way to full BRT and hopefully LRT.

  2. Rob August 7, 2008 at 9:24 pm #

    While BRT is an answer, it is not necessarily the best answer to the bus bunching problem. Ask the Telegraph area business owners what they think of the BRT plan. Most are against it. Opposition to the BRT plan is not about NIMBYism, it is about maintaining a walkable, livable, neighborhood; it is about supporting local businesses. While taking the bus is better for the environment than driving yourself to work in an SUV, other options include biking, walking, carpooling, or living near where you work. Those of us against BRT aren’t necessarily against things “green”, we just approach being green in a different way.

  3. Jame August 7, 2008 at 10:17 pm #

    Actually the bunching is the reason I don’t like the bus. 🙂

    My friend heard a rumor…some bus drivers love bunching. It means less work during your shift. So sometimes I think it is on purpose. I think BRT will onlt solve 50% of the problem. But 50% is better than nothing.

  4. Becks August 8, 2008 at 8:10 am #

    Rob – Thanks for your comment. I understand the concerns that the business owners have, but I just don’t think that they will pan out once BRT is built.

    The neighborhoods will still be just as walkable so I don’t think they’ll lose any nearby business. Right now, traffic and parking in the Telegraph area of Berkeley are horrendous – I know I avoid it whenever possible. If I could get to those shops quickly and reliably, the Telegraph merchants would see a huge increase in shopping from me and people like me who don’t want to wait a half hour for a bus but also don’t want to spend a half hour looking for parking. Looking at other cities that have implemented BRT, I think there’s every reason to believe that merchants will see increased and not decreased business due to BRT.

  5. Chrisfs August 10, 2008 at 2:35 pm #

    Bunching is an annoying thing, I see it with the 51 buses on 12th St. (Van Hool , ugh!!)

    However, I think BRT on Berkeley Telegraph is not a good idea. The street is rather narrow as it is and delivery trucks and UPS vehicles stop in the middle of the street making traffic that much worse. Dedicating a lane of the already narrow street to buses only would simply add to the traffic nigthmare. Also since it’s rapid transit, doesn’t that mean reduced stops, so the bus wouldn’t stop too many places, it would simply drive through Telegraph, so locals wouldn’t get that much extra business. I could be wrong on that assumption, but that’s what it sounded like to me, when I heard about it. Perhaps it could use a side street next to Telegraph ?

  6. brian August 11, 2008 at 5:35 pm #

    I look forward to BRT on Telegraph, and hope all the returning students, who will be out in record number voting for Obama, will vote for BRT as well if the NIMBYS get it on the ballot.

  7. art August 12, 2008 at 12:07 am #

    Chrisfs, the local bus will also continue to run so there will still be service available to intermediate stops–but yes, the BRT will have limited stops that are further apart (much like the 1R now). However, there is a stop at each of the business districts along Telegraph, so these will be quite well served. I used to live in one of the neighborhoods that is organizing against BRT, and my impression was that their opposition stemmed largely from parking concerns: business owners, for instance, are afraid that without street parking out front, they would lose business (a fear I agree is likely unfounded, since you can’t assume you’ll find a parking spot *now*–and also the stretch of Telegraph that would close completely is primarily student-serving anyway, so I don’t think they’ll see much impact for their clientele). Residents are afraid that with crunched parking and traffic on Telegraph, people will take to the side streets. However, I find this fear a little bit silly in a city that has a strong history of permit parking and traffic calming. Near College and Ashby, for instance, a number of the side streets are blocked or have resident-only access to deal with exactly this problem, and it’s quite effective. In the short term, there may be people trying to get around on the side streets, but in the long term, I expect that we’ll see fewer people driving, period. In cities I’ve lived in that had reliable transit, most people I knew opted to take transit unless the trip involved a purchase that required a car–and I expect we’ll see that pattern here, too, once people adjust to BRT. (Right now, there really aren’t too many–if any–businesses on the section of Telegraph that may close that sell goods large enough to require a car–it’s largely restaurants, bookshops, music stores, clothing stores, etc. Perfect for a pedestrian way!)

  8. Joel August 13, 2008 at 1:50 pm #

    In respect to double-parkers, cars could be allowed to briefly enter a dedicated BRT lane to pass double parked cars / street merchant loaders / UPS trucks, etc.

    In respect to reduced stops, the stops would be placed where AC Transit currently recieves the most riders. Sometimes stops will be closer together (as in downtown areas), but in less dense areas (like East Oakland), they will be further apart.. The stops would be placed closer together than the current 1R stops. Interestingly, AC Transit has observed that most people with disabilites walk the extra distance to catch the 1R despite the distance between stops, because of the time savings they get from shorter trip times and decreased wait times.

    Most streets considered to be more “walkable” are those with no more than one lane of car traffic in either direction on them. Think about all the “walkable” neighborhoods in the Bay Area:
    Rockridge / North Oakland
    Piedmont Ave.
    Noe St. (Noe Valley, SF)
    Chestnut St. (Marina Dist. in SF)
    Irving Street (Inner Sunset, SF)
    24th St. (Mission District, SF)
    All of them have one lane of traffic in either direction, and maybe a turning lane at intersections. This gives pedestrians a safer feel because cars that stop for pedstrians aren’t “passed on the left” by cars in parallel lanes. Cars that are traveling behind cars that are stopping for pedestrians can’t see the pedestrians that the vehicle in front of them is stopping for. This sometimes leads to the following car to go around to the left of the first (stopped) car, endangering the pedestrian who might be stepping right into the path of the now accelerating second car. This is what traffic engineers call a “double threat”, and it is why busy streets feel less walkable.

    Additionally, two lanes of travel give a car driver more freedom of movement on a street, which leads to higher speeds. We tend to drive much slower on a narrow street than we would if we have two lanes available, like we do now on Telegraph Ave.

    When you design a street for cars, you get cars. When you a street for people, you get people. Matter of fact, look what happened to merchants in NYC when they took all the cars away!: http://www.streetsblog.org/2008/08/11/what-does-summer-streets-mean-for-business/

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