Tag Archives: bus rapid transit

Newsom & Garamendi might be the high speed rail governor and BRT congressman

 (Cross posted at Living in the O.)

At the California Democratic Convention a couple weeks ago, Gavin Newsom met with a couple dozen bloggers to talk about his campaign for governor. I was excited going into this meeting, especially since I knew exactly what question I was going to ask. It was the same question that AC Transit Director Joel Young asked at a Newsom town hall in March: what are you going to do about the fact that the state has entirely stripped funding from local transit agencies? You might remember that Newsom basically dodged the question and launched into a speech about how great high speed rail is. So this time, I was determined to get a better answer.

And surprisingly, I was somewhat impressed with his answer. He explained that coming from a city and county, he understands the needs of public transit agencies. While stimulus funds are available for capital projects, none are available to run buses, which is problematic. (Of course, this isn’t entirely true – some funds are being used for operating expenses – but it was nice to hear that he understands the need for operations funding.)

Newsom then said that California is a prosperous state and that it’s all about priorities. Except somehow he managed to skirt by without saying what his priorities are! His comments suggested that he would prioritize public transit, but he never actually committed to this. This was a theme throughout the blogger meeting – Newsom displayed a firm understanding of the issues at hand but managed to not make many specific policy promises.

My favorite line from Newsom about transit issues came not in response to my question but in an answer to Calitics’ David Dayen’s question about prison issues. Newsom said (among other things), “Building prisons is like building highways; within a few years, they’re 90% filled up.” Yes, a major candidate for governor understands that building highways is fruitless because they only generate demand and never fulfill it. Of course, he didn’t promise that he would place a moratorium on new highway construction or do anything else to stop highway expansion.

I left feeling pretty good about Newsom’s answer. Though he didn’t make specific policy promises (except on high speed rail), he at least didn’t entirely dodge my question.

But I became a bit less impressed yesterday, after reading Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi’s post on Calitics about High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Up until a few weeks ago, Garamendi was running for governor, and if he had stayed in the race, he would have blown Newsom out of the water on transit issues:

While some have raised concerns that HOT lanes give wealthy commuters special access – and this is a criticism I take very seriously – I would argue that broad access and equity in services are best achieved with a package of transportation solutions that includes the expansion of longer distance rapid transit bus service throughout key corridors in East Bay and South Bay counties. The most effective and profitable rapid transit routes reaching more inland regions of the Bay Area will have to be implemented along the proposed HOT lane network to provide a reliable enough commute to convince riders to leave their cars at home. There is nothing rapid about gridlock.

Rapid transit buses, which along city streets allow bus commuters to avoid most traffic lights, have been shown to be popular and effective in the Bay Area and should be considered a low-cost solution in areas where a more speedy public transit commute is desired but rail is impractical. A study of a busy seven-city 14-mile Bay Area route by the Federal Transit Administration determined that the rapid transit line reduced end-to-end travel time by an average of 12 minutes, leading to a 21 percent reduction in time previously spent on local service non-rapid bus lines. Ridership across all areas of the corridor increased by 8.5 percent as a result of the rapid transit line, and most significantly, around 19 percent of rapid transit riders previously used a car for their commute along the corridor, a reduction of around 1,100 auto trips per day.

Garamendi touched on two issues that are near and dear to my heart: taxing drivers to pay for public transit and BRT expansion. If he was still in the race for governor, I’m pretty sure I would have signed up for his campaign immediately after reading this. Though Newsom gets larger public transit issues, it’s clear from this blog post that Garamendi understands the nuances of public transit issues.

But transit advocates don’t have to decide between Garamendi and Newsom. Garamendi has jumped into the race for Ellen Tauscher’s congressional seat in CA-10 and is the fruntrunner in the race. Which means that East Bay residents might soon have a high speed rail governor and BRT congressman.

For an excellent and comprehensive write up of the Newsom bloggers meeting, check out Robert Cruickshank’s post at Calitics.

Protect Bay Area Transit: Stop MTC from Wasting Stimulus Funds

 Cross-posted at Living in the O.

As Robert mentioned in his post this morning, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) will be voting this Wednesday on how to use federal stimulus funds. While they’ve scrapped one of their initial wasteful proposals, the Transbay Terminal train box, they are still proposing to use $70 million for the Oakland Airport Connector. V Smoothe summarized the proposed project and its history last week at OakBook:

BART’s Oakland Airport Connector is a proposed 3.2-mile elevated tramway that would ferry passengers from the Coliseum BART station to the Oakland Airport. Since the agency did not have enough funding to finance the project in full, they began seeking private partners to help build the rail line. All three interested parties dropped out of the project last year, citing concerns about profitability. At the time, BART officials said they would drop plans for the elevated train and begin exploring more affordable ways of providing a reliable connection between the station and the airport, such as dedicated bus lanes.

But then of course Congress passed the stimulus package, and MTC staff proposed to use $70 million of the funds to revive the Oakland Airport Connector project.

Now, I can understand why the Oakland Airport Connector is such a tempting project. I’m going to be taking BART to the airport this Friday evening, and a quicker and more reliable connection would save me a lot of time. The problem with the project as currently proposed is that it’s incredibly expensive, and like so many of BART’s projects, relies on ridership statistics that are entirely unrealistic. (They’re predicting that more people would use this connection than take BART to SFO!)


Another problem, as TransForm explains, is that the Airport Connector is not “shovel ready.” Meanwhile, transit agencies around the Bay Area are struggling, especially since the state has pulled all funding from public transit statewide. These local agencies, including AC Transit, desperately need these funds to continue providing an adequate level of service and to avoid raising fares. Even spread out among the regional transit operators, $70 million would have a huge impact.

The best part is that even if MTC decides not to provide this $70 million to the Oakland Airport Connector, BART already has sufficient funds to solve the problem of slow bus travel from the Coliseum BART station to the Oakland Airport. That solution is Bus Rapid Transit. BRT would take buses out of traffic and shuttle riders quickly and reliably to and from the Oakland Airport. And BRT could be completed in much less time and with far less money than the current proposed connector, shifting the $70 million to where it could make an impact now.

MTC staff seem pretty stuck on this idea so it’s up to us to convince the MTC that the needs of local transit agencies should take precedence over another pie in the sky BART proposal. Here’s what you can do, via TransForm:

Join us on Weds., Feb. 25th at 10am at MTC (101 8th St., across from Lake Merritt BART) in telling the Commissioners to direct new funding to critical public transit needs, not the costly Oakland Airport Connector. It’s important that we coordinate our message for maximum impact. Please let us know if you’re coming and get a copy of talking points by contacting Joel Ramos.

If you can’t make the meeting, email your comments opposing the use of recovery funds for the OAC to John Goodwin at MTC now at [email protected].

Eric at Transbay Blog agrees about the Oakland Airport Connector and provides more background on this project and the MTC’s funding proposal.

Berkeley Initiative Could Endanger Future Transit Projects

(Cross posted at Living in the O.) 

I’ve written before about why Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a great transit and environmental solution. AC Transit’s BRT project may be being held up by the Berkeley City Council and Planning Commission, but we’re making headway on that front, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the City will ultimately vote to move BRT forward.

Unfortunately, there’s a very vocal minority of Berkeley neighborhood activists and merchants that want to prevent bus riders from San Leandro, Oakland and Berkeley from benefiting from faster transit. They must be worried that the City will soon recognize the environmental and community benefits of this project, so some of the opponents have decided to circumvent the council and go straight to the voters.

On March 19th, Dean Metzger and Bruce Kaplan of Berkeley filed a request for a ballot title and initiative summary for an anti-BRT initiative (PDF) that they presumably hope to get on the November ballot. This is just a first step, and who knows if they’ll be able to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot, but the initiative is bad news for the East Bay. It’s also just bad policy.

From the Findings and Purpose section:

The purpose of this measure is to enable the people of the City of Berkeley, by majority vote, to decide whether City streets or portions thereof shall be converted to transit-only or HOV/bus-only lanes, prior to dedication of such lanes.

Regardless of any issues one may have with AC Transit’s current BRT proposal, this is just bad planning. This initiative would mean that anytime the City wanted to convert lanes to transit-only lanes, the decision would have to be made by the Berkeley electorate. Even if the dedicated bus lane only extended one block into Berkeley from Oakland or another neighboring city, Berkeley residents would have the final say. Projects could be held up for months or even years if an election wasn’t approaching (I don’t see the city holding special elections for this issue).

But it gets worse…

When a change [in land use or transportation] is modest or uncontroversial, it is appropriate to rely on elected representatives to make these decisions, but if the change is significant or potentially harmful, the citizens should have the opportunity to decide their own future directly through the ballot.

This is just ludicrous. To me, this reads that the filers believe that deciding on dedicated bus lanes is the only land use decision that is “significant or potentially harmful” to the city. Does this mean that building permitting decisions are insignificant? How about zoning decisions? If Metzger and Kaplan have so little trust in their elected officials to make good planning decisions, why not strip the Planning Commission of all of its rights and duties and conduct all planning decisions by ballot initiative?

Normally, I’d just shrug something like this off – after all, the vocal minority of NIMBYs that controls much of Berkeley politics is one of the main reasons I moved to Oakland (well, that and the exorbitant rents). But this initiative would effect the entire East Bay, holding up transportation upgrades that are sorely needed. If we’re ever going to lure a significant portion of the population out of their cars, we need to invest in transportation and ultimately accept significant changes to our lifestyles. One might think that this environmentally friendly issue is something that “liberal” Berkeley would support, but that remains to be seen. Whether this initiative makes it to the ballot and whether it passes has the potential to show the true colors of Berkeley residents.

Why Is Berkeley Fighting Mass Transit?

As those of us who have had the wonderful opportunity to live in Berkeley understand, the city isn’t always as liberal as it’s cracked up to be. The city consistently fought against affordable housing, homeless shelters – it even threatened to stop BART from being built unless it was built underground (a battle Berkeley finally won).

In these instances Berkeley has shown that it is no different from other parts of California that oppose progressive urbanism. Homeowners who are convinced that they can maintain a 1950s style urban landscape even in the face of population pressure, housing costs, and environmental/energy crises tend to dominate public discussions about urban change, and insist that their views be privileged over all others. This is true in supposedly liberal, progressive Berkeley, as much as it is in the San Fernando Valley or – dare I say it – Orange County.

It’s from that regressive mindset that, as today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports, a proposed bus rapid transit project is being blocked by Berkeley residents.

That’s what AC Transit is proposing for its busiest route in the East Bay, the 15-mile-long stretch from Bay Fair BART Station in San Leandro to downtown Berkeley.

The $400 million bus rapid transit project would look a lot like light rail, with elevated stops in the middle of the street and dedicated lanes free of cars. Buses would run every 10 minutes and sail through intersections.

But the project may hit a roadblock in Berkeley, where some neighbors and merchants are lobbying furiously against it, saying it would worsen traffic and be the death knell for the beleaguered Telegraph Avenue shopping district.

And if Berkeley rejects the plan, the entire project is imperiled – which leaves some people in town wondering how one of the region’s most green-thinking cities could say no to public transit.

There’s more…

The article quotes some locals opposed to this visionary project:

“It’s a gigantic waste of money,” said Mary Oram, a longtime Berkeley resident who lives south of the UC campus.

“To me, it looks like they’re preparing for light rail. Light rail is wonderful if you’re in the middle of nowhere, but we already have BART just a few blocks away. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Oram and other opponents said AC Transit buses aren’t brimming with passengers through Berkeley, while merchants worry that customers will shop elsewhere, deterred by the traffic or lack of parking if the city decides to eliminate parking along Telegraph to create an additional lane for cars.

I don’t think this person really understands much about public transportation. Light rail is NOT terribly useful “in the middle of nowhere” – instead its best use is actually in densely populated urban areas. Like Berkeley.

And yes, BART is “a few blocks away” but it serves a totally different corridor. The AC Transit line that connects Bay Fair BART to Downtown Berkeley BART is already one of the system’s most popular lines, largely because it serves corridors BART does not. Anyone who has traveled along International Boulevard / East 14th Street, or Telegraph Avenue, is well aware of how isolated they are from the BART system.

More important is the effect on Telegraph Avenue. The Southside neighborhood in Berkeley has fallen on hard times of late – imagine my shock when last weekend I discovered that Cody’s had closed! – and part of this is in fact because it’s not terribly easy to get to. Driving down Telegraph is already very difficult, and parking is nearly impossible to find, especially on a busy weekend.

Mass transit, such as bus rapid transit (BRT) is directly designed to address these problems. By providing dedicated lanes, it allows the system to avoid traffic. That in turn allows it to be quick and reliable. And that is what attracts riders, who above all else prize those factors when deciding to use public transportation.

Ultimately, cities like Berkeley need to embrace this if they are to have a meaningful impact on climate change, on energy independence. The views of Berkeley residents who oppose these projects are shaped by their faith that the 1950s can last forever – that California’s urban landscape can continue to be dominated by low density, by traffic, by cars. This is simply not the case, and one would assume that of all places, Berkeley would understand that better than others.

Sadly, Berkeley doesn’t seem to understand it. If density’s main problem is traffic, wouldn’t a BRT system be a sensible method of cutting down traffic? Doesn’t Berkeley need to lead the way in the state, becoming a model to other cities in the fight against climate change?

As long as a small but powerful group of homeowners continues to get their way, imposing their unrealistic belief that the 1950s are still viable and desirable, cities like Berkeley will continue to struggle to break free of the auto-dependent lifestyle, will have an uphill battle in trying to bring in alternative forms of transit. And if Berkeley cannot be convinced to join the 21st century – how are we to convince the rest of California to do the same?

I’ll give the last word to a Berkeley urban planner who understands the importance of this issue:

“The City of Berkeley would have to be out of its mind to turn down a multi-million-dollar investment in public transit,” said Robert Wrenn, a city transportation commissioner and proponent of the rapid bus plan.

“We’d be the complete laughing stock. It would be a great embarrassment to the city.”