Reuben Duarte: Why Berkeley is Wrong on BRT

11 May

This is the first in a two-part series of guest posts about Berkeley’s vote on BRT. Today’s post, by Reuben Duarte, looks at BRT through an environmental and planning lens. Tomorrow’s post, by Joel Ramos, will focus on what happened and what’s next, particularly as it relates to Oakland.

This guest post was written by Reuben Duarte, who serves on the board of East Bay Young Democrats, is a Waterfront Commissioner for the City of Berkeley, and is a transit advocate and planning enthusiast. This post was originally posted on the East Bay Young Democrats website.

Two Thursdays ago, the Berkeley City Council voted on the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) plan for AC Transit’s East Bay Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project.  The Council essentially had three options: 1) “Full Build”, as recommended by the city staff, which would mean dedicated lanes running up Telegraph Avenue and “island” bus stops, where passengers could board the bus in the middle of the road, much like you see in San Francisco on Market Street. 2) A “Reduced Impact Alternative” as prepared by Mayor Bates and other councilmembers, which was a watered down version of the Full Build option, but still included dedicated lanes and islands.  3) A so-called “Rapid Bus Plus” (RBP) option which, in essence, is a no-build option because it removed all dedicated lanes and made no lane reconfigurations on roads.

After impassioned, and sometimes theatrical testimony by the public, the Berkeley City Council succumbed to NIMBY pressure and rejected any elements of full-build and endorsed only option three, the so-called, “Rapid Bus Plus” plan.

Before I go into the issues of BRT, let me quickly address the importance of the LPA and why you should be upset that Berkeley has practically killed the BRT project for everyone else.  In very simplified terms, the way a project like this goes is that AC Transit puts together an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on how they want the project to run.  In this case, they give their preferred route for a BRT system from San Leandro to Oakland to Berkeley.  This is then sent to each city for review.  Each city then decides what they believe is the best alternative for their city, the LPA.

You need to understand that the EIR is a legal document and can’t really be changed once submitted.  For example, Councilman Kriss Worthington of Berkeley was critical of the BRT system because he believed it should connect to the Berkeley Amtrak station down University Avenue.  Now, regardless of how you feel about adding a University Ave. section to BRT, because AC Transit did not study University Ave. in its EIR, it legally cannot study implementing it as an option now.  It would have to start a brand new EIR that included the University section, essentially starting all over.

Some will argue that BRT isn’t dead because the vote passed was a vote on a study of BRT and not the actual construction of it.  But because it’s a regional project, BRT needs a decent amount of consensus among the cities to be implemented.  Because Oakland City Council has endorsed the study of a full-build option and Berkeley has now rejected full-build in favor of no-build, if AC Transit went ahead and built the system as Oakland and Berkeley want, what would happen is that you would have dedicated lanes in Oakland along Telegraph Ave. until you reached the Berkeley border where it would switch to normal configuration from dedicated lanes to non-dedicated lanes.  This would also affect regular traffic because drivers would need to merge into one lane going each way on Telegraph once entering Oakland.  The result would be a less reliable and slower BRT in Berkeley where buses and cars would clump at the border and would cause ripple affects to the entire system, thus making the entire system less feasible.

Having said the above, there were several key issues that opponents used to fear monger and get their way.  The key issues were over parking and business along Telegraph. However, these and many other concerns over BRT are unfounded.

BRT is Consistent with the Passage of Measure G, the City’s Adopted Climate Action Plan and the Defeat of Measure KK

At the Berkeley City Council meeting, you would have thought half the city was up in arms over the proposed project.  However, this would be a miss-perception, as one intrepid public speaker pointed out during his public comment.  In 2008, Berkeley residents overwhelmingly rejected Measure KK, a city ballot initiative that would have required voter approval before any agency dedicate a street lane for higher-occupancy vehicles (i.e. buses).  But because of Measure KK’s thunderous defeat, the speaker pointed out it would be a mistake to construe the opposition in attendance as a true representation of the opinions of the city as a whole, and he would be right.

In 2006, Berkeley residents overwhelmingly approved Measure G, setting an 80% reduction target in greenhouse gasses.  Last year in 2009, the City Council approved Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan where a goal of the plan is to ensure “public transit, walking, cycling and other sustainable mobility modes are the primary modes of transportation by residents and visitors.”  BRT would have allowed Berkeley to achieve this goal and Telegraph Ave. is just the sort of corridor that should be tailored for use by transit-riders and pedestrians rather than private automobiles.

BRT Would Reduce Greenhouse Gasses

A better public transit system means more transit riders and fewer automobiles on the road.  With the projected number of 50,000 daily riders by 2025, BRT could eliminate 10,000 daily auto trips.  Not only does this help to mitigate the lower auto-capacity on Telegraph Ave., but it helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the use of private cars pushed into the atmosphere.  Improved transit that is faster and more reliable would encourage drivers to take the bus to jobs in Downtown Oakland and San Leandro and vice versa into Berkeley.

BRT Would Improve Conditions for Cyclists on Telegraph

One of the groups speaking in favor of BRT was the cyclist community.  They recognize the resulting reduction and calming of traffic conditions along the Telegraph corridor will allow for improved bike lanes with better bike access and rider safety, thus promoting an additional alternative to the automobile.

BRT Would Have Brought More Customers to Vendors

Opponents of BRT made grandiose arguments suggesting that BRT would kill businesses, especially the street vendors on a four block stretch of Telegraph between the UC Berkeley campus and Dwight Street.  They implied customers would not patron if there were no private automobiles.

I found this argument odd because as a former student of UC Berkeley, I can say that the primary patrons are 1) students and 2) those that walked or took the bus to Telegraph.  Very few people actually drive to Telegraph then park, largely because there isn’t any parking nearby already.  So the street vendors eager to suggest the death of their business as a result of BRT would have actually increased their customer base had BRT been implemented because a faster, more reliable transit system would encourage more people to use it.  That is, unless street vendors exist off the fuel exhaust of private automobiles.

Further, BRT would not have removed parking on Telegraph Ave. in this four-block area because there isn’t any parking to remove.  The only available parking on Telegraph itself is a few loading-zone areas that would have remained under Berkeley’s Staff LPA. The rest of the parking is in existing lot, garage or street parking on adjacent streets that would have remained unchanged under the plan.

BRT Could Spur Economic Development on Telegraph

While many opponents hailed BRT as the end of civilization in Berkeley as we know it, they failed to point to any tangible example of civilizations end as a result of BRT.  On the other side, however, almost every single proponent of the BRT project pointed to an example, either in the US or abroad, where BRT existed and actually improved the streetscape and local economies.  For example, a city like Cleveland, OH had implemented a similar BRT system connecting their downtown core to one of its universities.  The corridor they chose along Euclid Avenue was largely seen as an underutilized area.  But after BRT was built in 2008, at the height of the economic recession, the area experienced an economic boom of $3.3 billion in new developments and economic activity.

Also, a common example was down in the often transit-criticized city of Angels with Los Angeles’ Wilshire BRT project.  Compared to AC Transit’s project, LA’s Wilshire BRT project called for dedicated lanes along the curb of Wilshire Boulevard but only during peak commuter hours.  I bring this up because it was briefly suggested by Councilmember Kriss Worthington at the meeting on whether a “peak-hour” lane could be used instead of 24-hour dedicated lanes.  This, I personally don’t have too much of an issue with and would have supported, had the council been willing to actually look at anything more than a no-build option.  But they didn’t so… I guess it doesn’t really matter now.

Majority of Shoppers, Workers and Residents Don’t Drive Into Downtown.

A friend of mine made an interesting argument against BRT in an attempt to explain why councilmembers representing areas far from the BRT corridor would oppose it.  He suggested that residents in the hills and in North and West Berkeley would lose the most with BRT because they are more likely to drive into Downtown Berkeley and Telegraph, thus, would need readily available parking.  This is a good argument only if you can prove that the majority of customers in Downtown Berkeley drive in.  However, this isn’t the case.  In 2002, Berkeley City Council requested a UCB Dept. of Urban & Regional Planning studio study to look at this very issue of parking.  The study showed that over 60% of workers in Downtown Berkeley take non-auto modes of transportation and only 37% said they reach downtown by car.  Further, 70% of shoppers use non-auto to get to Downtown while only 20% drove.  In 2007, there was a second UCB study that confirmed the findings, showing 63% of visitors used non-auto modes of transportation to Downtown while only 34% use a private car.

The studio study determined the problem with parking shortages in Downtown Berkeley are in large part the result of visitors who stay in excess of parking limits, facilitated by broken meters and meter “feeding”.  While it is easy to say that this study focused on Downtown Berkeley vs. Telegraph Ave., the overall issue of parking, as addressed in this study, should show that eliminating parking is not a death blow to Berkeley businesses since most customers don’t drive to shop.

In the end, the Berkeley City Council chose to stick with a more auto-oriented Telegraph Avenue.  It is disappointing when a city that claims leadership in the fight against global warming and the use of alternative transportation and shown all the clear benefits of BRT; when given the option to truly lead by example would cave to the pressure of anti-development NIMBYs who just don’t want to build anything anywhere near anything.  Residents, in Berkeley and in the other cities that would be served by BRT, should be ashamed when a city like Los Angeles is showing more attention and progressive thinking towards public transportation than Berkeley.

2 Responses to “Reuben Duarte: Why Berkeley is Wrong on BRT”

  1. Len Conly May 13, 2010 at 10:26 pm #

    Reuben,

    Thank you for this excellent post on the depressing outcome of the Berkeley City Council meeting of April 29. The Council’s failure to ask AC Transit to study the full build LPA with dedicated lanes proposed by the transportation staff means that the citizens of Berkeley will be unable to learn about the impacts that BRT would have in Berkeley on traffic, parking, and greenhouse gas emissions. They were not being asked to approve the building of BRT, only to study it. Their decision was incredibly shortsighted and irresponsible, especially in light of the fact that 50% of Bay Area greenhouse gas emissions result from transportation.

    On paper, the City of Berkeley is a transit-first city; with this vote the Council has shown callous disregard for bus riders and essentially repudiated that policy.

    Len Conly

  2. Jame May 19, 2010 at 9:41 pm #

    These arguments are pretty hysterical since Telegraph is a pretty crappy street for drivers today. The campus facing blocks are one way and congested. There is no parking, no street parking to “pop into” one of those student serving stores. In terms of the blocks between the Oakland line and campus area, there isn’t a reason to drive to many of those places. This is nonsense.

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