Berkeleyans for Better Transportation Options
email@example.com • P.O. Box 5489 , Berkeley , CA 94705 • (510) 849 1630
April 4, 2008
Dear Planning and Transportation Commissioners, c/o Jordan Harrison <firstname.lastname@example.org> :
We, the 19 signers of this letter, respectfully urge Commissioners, Staff, and Councilmembers to take the following actions regarding AC Transit's Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal:
Designate no “City preferred alternative” or “locally preferred alternative” route for BRT.
Declare the “no-build alternative” (that is, existing Rapid Bus service) to be the City's preferred alternative
Call on AC Transit to entirely remove bus-only (“dedicated”) lanes from consideration within Berkeley , on grounds that their detriments evidently outweigh their benefits.
Call on AC Transit to instead study alternatives for enhancing “Rapid Bus” service on the Telegraph Avenue /downtown- Berkeley corridor, without dedicated lanes.
We list certain alternatives below – in some detail – and summarize them here. Any of the following alternatives could yield greater benefits than bus-only lanes, with fewer detriments:
Purchase more efficient (hybrid diesel-electric) buses; purchase and intelligently schedule a flexible-sized bus fleet; purchase buses that run on cleaner, lower-carbon fuels; demand that regional transit providers simulate a single transit agency (free transfers); demand that regional transit providers offer meaningful (30%+) discounts on advance purchases of multi-ride ticket books or passes; demand that AC Transit implement fleetwide proof-of-payment, to speed systemwide boarding and performance; endow the creation of free shopper shuttles; make transit free to ride, either in selected areas or systemwide.
We believe that these alternatives are consistent with the City Council's 10/23/07 reference to your commissions, urging you to identify new BRT-related issues and to consider broader alternatives. By avoiding the detriments of unwarranted bus-only lanes, we find these alternatives to be more consistent with the Berkeley General Plan's first goal (“Preserve Berkeley's unique character and quality of life”) and fifth policy (“Support Local Businesses and Neighborhood-Serving Businesses.”)
In short, our message is: Don't destroy the city to “save” it.
We are a group of Berkeley residents who seek city and regional transportation policies that simultaneously achieve three goals:
Produce meaningful environmental benefits.
Enhance public transit's accessibility, convenience, affordability, and equity – make transit a “first-class” choice.
Make no one worse off. In particular, do no harm to the city's economic or cultural vitality, nor to our neighborhoods' livability.
Rationale for Removing BRT
We believe that BRT technology has great potential as a cost-effective option for areas that lack existing rapid-transit service. We believe it is especially warranted where newly developed areas, or unused rights-of-way, can accommodate BRT without negative impacts. However, the conditions we list here are critical.
After studying AC Transit's April 2007 draft EIR for this project, we find that AC Transit's proposal squanders almost all of BRT's potential benefits, through a combination of duplicative routing and poor planning. This is why AC Transit is offering Berkeley more detriments than benefits.
Indeed, AC Transit's BRT proposal could undo years of Berkeley policies designed to protect neighborhoods from commuter impacts, and to promote local-serving businesses. To paraphrase the late Johnnie Cochran, Esq., “If net benefits don't show, you must say no.”
The flaws we have noted include these:
AC Transit's proposed route would run just one to six blocks beside the existing BART tracks, for its entire length. The International Blvd. segment would run immediately beside BART. This is an absurdly duplicative route, which provides no meaningful enhancement to the region's fragmented rapid-transit system.
In virtually any other major urban area, transit planning would be performed by a single agency – which would never make such a major investment right along a principal corridor in a limited subway network. Mature transit planning would instead fill rapid-transit gaps that are major points of origin for single-occupant vehicle trips.
BRT “stations” would be as much as 1/2-mile apart. This is nearly as far apart as BART stations (an average 1 mile apart in Berkeley and North Oakland ). This represents limited access and convenience.
BRT fixed “stations” could trigger state laws that require upzoning over a substantial radius around “transit villages.” The effects could reach deep into adjacent neighborhoods –radically changing a residential quality of life that Berkeley has long sought to shelter from the overall effects of commuter traffic on its arterials. Do not underestimate the potential for backlash from such upzoning. (Recall the response to the proposed redevelopment zone around the Ashby BART parking lot.)
AC Transit's draft EIR found that BRT would significantly increase congestion around 9% of the intersections studied. This implies immediate detriments to neighborhoods adjacent to Telegraph Ave. , by creating incentives for more cut-through traffic.
BRT would eliminate some 981-1,116 parking spaces along its entire route (some 14%-16% of all parking in the impacted area, including adjacent residential streets). On Telegraph Ave. from Dwight Way to Woolsey, it would eliminate 75% of existing parking. For Berkeley 's struggling Telegraph Ave. and Downtown business districts, this needless loss of storefront parking would be a severe and unwarranted new threat. For adjacent neighborhoods, it would be yet another unwarranted detriment.
BRT could obstruct or degrade local-bus service on this corridor. These are the workhorse routes upon which longtime riders depend.
AC Transit is committed to equipping this route with full-size (indeed, extra-long) Van Hool buses that run on rather dirty, conventional-diesel powertrains. Many passengers (and bus operators) complain that these vehicles pose accessibility barriers, and are even unsafe. These conventional-diesel buses represent neither clean nor efficient technology.
AC Transit's own draft EIR predicts only "negligible" impacts on energy usage by 2025 (page 4-152) and only minimal reductions in six air pollutants (by a factor of 0 to just -0.0003; page 4-131). The EIR did not study greenhouse-gas emissions at all, but from the preceding data, one can extrapolate virtually no greenhouse-gas reduction either. These data reveal the proposal as, at best, a huge missed opportunity on environmental grounds.
Worse, this BRT proposal's net environmental impact could actually be negative. The draft EIR's transportation analysis acknowledges that halving the number of mixed-flow lanes would induce new traffic congestion along much of the proposed route. But its air-quality and energy analyses failed to consider the impacts of this artificial congestion. By slowing non-transit vehicles to less-efficient speeds, BRT could actually produce net detriments in greenhouse-gas emissions, overall air quality, and energy consumption and efficiency.
Why these neutral to negative environmental results, despite assumptions that BRT would switch some motorists to transit? Because, the EIR says: "Buses are not as energy efficient as autos" (page 4-151). Who knew? In fact, full buses are highly energy-efficient. But AC Transit is proposing to run large diesel buses, nearly empty, at 3-5-minute headways during off-peak hours and much of the evening. This is a wasteful rolling mirage to collect federal subsidies.
Even the "rapid" is missing – AC Transit forecasts only modest speed gains, when compared with current bus service. On a (highly unlikely) long trip from Berkeley to San Leandro 's Bayfair BART, AC Transit estimates time savings of 0-19 minutes. (In one scenario, BRT actually takes longer.) But this is relative to a current trip length of 59-78 minutes. On nearby BART, you can already make this trip in 30 minutes. On the shorter trips that most riders would likely take, time savings are even slighter – averaging only about 1-1/2 minutes per trip.
BART is not only faster for almost all trips, but its fares are lower for the most likely (moderate-length) trips. Electrified BART trains are also a cleaner ride, with zero emissions produced locally. And BART has substantial excess capacity, especially on the Richmond-Fremont line that serves this corridor. Off-peak BART trains currently have as few as 3-4 cars, out of a possible 10. BART could readily scale up to handle increased demand along the corridor.
AC Transit's BRT proposal therefore emerges as an extremely poor use of some $250-400 million in very scarce transit funding. One could almost throw a dart – blindfolded – at a bulletin board full of alternative transit investments, and get greater greenhouse-gas reductions for this amount of funding. It's a lot of money, and unlikely to be seen again soon.
Candidly, we question AC Transit's capacity to manage this complex project. The agency is lurching from one scandal to another. It already has the region's highest basic bus fare, its lowest farebox-recovery ratio, and tenuous finances. It is already discussing raising its $1.75 fare to $2.00.
With the cost overruns inevitable on any large construction/engineering project, there is a real risk of accelerating AC Transit's long-term downward spiral of higher fares and reduced overall service. We worry about the complete cancellation of more routes, and about fares' becoming unaffordable across AC Transit's whole system. Again, these results would punish vulnerable riders who have no other options, and would reduce ridership among people who have such options.
Even if AC Transit can build a BRT system, we must question whether it can produce the operational improvements it claims. Since AC Transit inaugurated the 1R “Rapid Bus” along the same corridor last June, published accounts have offered anecdotal evidence that service has underperformed Rapid Bus standards from elsewhere – and indeed, underperformed AC Transit's own 72R Rapid Bus route.
Anecdotal evidence that we have so far collected from longtime riders is similar. For example, they complain that 1/1R buses are significantly, and predictably, slowed by the boardings of large groups of students at predictable stops and predictable times of day. Yet AC Transit seems not to have scheduled extra (let alone extra, limited-stop express) buses to accommodate these students' predictable travel patterns.
This is a very old complaint about AC Transit – that it has spent decades simply placing new vehicles and technology onto historic streetcar routes, without ever comprehensively examining its current or prospective riders' evolving needs. Such basic market and operations research lacks the glamour, costs, and detriments of novelties like BRT. It is simply the nuts and bolts of running a dependable, attractive transit system.
Alternative, Superior Transit Enhancements
If Berkeley is serious about enhancing its livability, economic vitality, and environmental sustainability, it needs to call for better-conceived transit enhancements that will genuinely address transit's accessibility, convenience, affordability, and overall attractiveness. It also needs to demand transit options that will directly reduce the city's environmental impacts.
More broadly, the City needs to aggressively lead in defining its transit needs – not just blindly follow fragmented, and self-interested, proposals from competing transit agencies that currently have little incentive to cooperate. In this case, it needs to demand that AC Transit meet community needs – not subjugate the community's welfare to a highly intrusive subsidy scheme that would primarily benefit only this one scandal-plagued, underperforming transit agency.
The region's real challenge is nothing less than rapidly transforming a 19th-century transit system to meet 21st-century needs. While virtually every other metropolitan region unified its transit system under a single agency a century ago, the Bay Area still has nearly 30 separate transit providers that cooperate incompletely – and that sometimes (as with AC Transit's BRT proposal) actively compete for the same resources and riders.
Here are some transit initiatives where Berkeley could lead in thinking globally and acting locally. Almost any single one of these alternatives would offer greater benefits and lesser detriments than BRT would:
Demand that AC Transit aggressively purchase more-efficient buses. The best diesel-electric hybrids (the Orion VII) can be up to 35% more fuel-efficient than the conventional-diesel Van Hools that AC Transit stubbornly insists on buying. Every extra passenger-mile per gallon means fewer greenhouse-gas emissions per passenger-mile. These hybrids also reduce particulate emissions by as much as 90% compared to conventional diesels.
The Orion low-floor hybrids also offer a more accessible ride than the Van Hools, thanks to floor-mounted (not platform-mounted) seats that accommodate people with limited mobility. San Francisco has ordered at least 86 of these hybrids. New York City is deploying 1,000 of them. Toronto has deployed 150 and ordered another 490 – enough to soon replace nearly half of its old conventional-diesel fleet. So why is AC Transit still buying Stone-Age buses?
Demand that AC Transit purchase, and intelligently schedule, a flexible-sized bus fleet. Smaller buses (e.g., 30-foot vehicles) could efficiently maintain high service frequency during night hours and on low-ridership routes. Among full-size buses, even the best hybrids get no more than 4-1/2 miles per gallon of diesel. Transit providers that are wed to running these large buses, even when nearly empty, are failing to moderate climate change. They are failing to even protect their own operating budgets against steady rises in fuel prices. Vehicles should be sized to match their measured ridership.
Demand that AC Transit aggressively purchase buses that run on cleaner, lower-carbon fuels: biodiesel, natural gas, or hydrogen fuel cells. (For example, Toronto 's entire bus fleet now runs on a biodiesel mix.)
Demand that AC Transit customize its bus orders to optimize greenhouse-gas reduction. For example, air-conditioning significantly degrades the fuel efficiency of even hybrid buses. So, in our moderate climate, we should seek to order buses that can be ventilated in simpler, more energy-conserving ways. Also, a study of New York City 's hybrid buses shows a significant trade-off between fuel efficiency versus nitric oxide (NO) emission reductions. If the City has resolved to prioritize climate action, we – and regional transit and regulatory agencies – may need to make some hard choices between aggressively reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, versus emissions of conventional pollutants. (NYC transit source: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/avta/pdfs/heavy/bae-orion_he_buses.pdf . )
Demand that regional transit providers either merge, or start simulating the single transit agency that virtually every other metropolitan area enjoys. The basics of simulating a single agency are coordinated route planning, and free transfers among providers' vehicles. Virtually every other major urban area long ago abolished arbitrary double fares for riders who need to transfer between different vehicle types.
To build ridership, demand that regional transit providers offer meaningful discounts on advance purchases of multi-ticket books, or multi-day or monthly passes. On Canadian transit systems, a 30% discount has long been standard on advance purchases of a 10- or even 5-ride ticket strip.
Demand that AC Transit implement fleetwide proof-of-payment, to speed systemwide boarding and to thereby speed up its whole network. Proof-of-payment does not depend on the expensive, and trouble-prone, automatic vending machines that AC Transit proposes to deploy only on a limited BRT route.
Across most of Europe , riders purchase low-tech, unstamped tickets in advance. They can typically buy them from their choice of merchants, often newsstands or other small shops. Riders then self-punch them onboard buses or streetcars, or when they step onto a subway platform. Their punched ticket is their transfer.
Endow the creation of free shopper shuttles, to facilitate shopping locally without driving.
Make transit free. Options here include a publicly subsidized fare-free zone; a policy of requiring large employers to subsidize transit passes as an alternative to subsidized parking; or publicly funded, prepaid transit passes for the general public, honored by both BART and AC Transit (the perennially discussed “ Eco Pass ”).
Thank you for considering these arguments for removing a deeply flawed and divisive BRT proposal from consideration, and for instead advocating aggressive and visionary transit enhancements that will genuinely promote Berkeley's broadly shared goals.
/s (19 signers):
Carol and Peter Berkenkotter
and other members of Berkeleyans for Better Transportation Options and
Advocates for Voter-Approved Transit