Look Out? Building a BRT line in California is No Simple Matter

A proposed bus rapid transit system for Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro raises excitement as well as fears.

A bus in front of a BART rapid transit station in downtown Oakland. Yonah Freemark

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This is part one of a three-part series about the proposal bus rapid transit system in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro California.

Early this August, I found myself standing in the midst of a small crowd in downtown Oakland, California, ready to welcome in this country’s newest center-city bus circulator. A line of politicians waited to express their excitement about the latest local development tool. The “B” Broadway shuttle, they claimed, would encourage new interest in construction here even as it encouraged mobility for the downtown workforce.

As the gathering made clear, there is plenty of support for better public transportation in the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet the struggle over how to move transit forward in this region has been a case study in conflict. There are few places in the United States where there are more dramatic disagreements about the subject, where more people are so emotionally affected by — and so willing to make their opinions known about — decisions about bus and rail service.

Ground zero is the bus rapid transit link (BRT) proposed for the East Bay. Running seventeen miles from downtown Berkeley, through downtown Oakland, and terminating at San Leandro, the project would be one of the longest and most expensive bus systems ever built in the United States. And it would transform the way people get between these cities, offering an express bus alternative to the BART rapid transit rail line that runs along a similar corridor.

Despite being under consideration since 1999, the $235 million BRT project is still in the planning phases. This in spite of favorable reports from the federal government (as well as the promise of millions of dollars of funds from Washington), plus the expectation that it would bring in thousands of new transit riders. It is generally considered one of the most promising transit projects in the country, as least from a cost-benefits perspective.

Joel Ramos of Transform, a transit advocacy organization, told me that “It would be a tremendous improvement from the way people are taking transit right now.” The current bus line that runs along the corridor, he argued, “has packed ridership, at any time of the day. We have such a need for better transit.”

If built, the BRT system will be able to provide some serious advantages over the existing bus operations offered by local transit agency AC Transit. Along much of the route, buses will run in their own lanes, separated from street traffic; at intersections, they’ll be ushered through with signals designed to change for the buses; stations will be built with large canopies and level boarding onto vehicles; and the number of buses running will be increased, making it easier to take the system without using a schedule, especially since lighted boards will inform customers when the next bus is going to arrive.

The improvements could be effective enough to reduce travel times significantly and eventually double the number of users, bringing the number of people riding the buses daily from around 20,000 today to 40,000 or more. “When you have better frequency and better reliability,” says Ramos, “You get higher ridership.” Ramos cites a number of successful BRT projects to make his case, arguing that cities from South America to Ohio have found the mode of transportation to be highly attractive to the average person.

Yet opposition from citizen groups in Berkeley has put into peril the project. Business owners suggest that the bus lanes will diminish their customer base. Neighborhood groups claim that there are more effective uses of money. Others suggest that the project has only happened because of the convoluted transportation politics of the San Francisco Bay Area. The fact that AC Transit continues to face a difficult budget situation because of the recession looms in the face of any expansion program: Will the organization be able to afford to operate an improved line?

Arguments on both sides have their merits, but what is clear is that no one will be fully content with the result, no matter the outcome. There simply is no simple way to invest in a major new transportation project without creating significant adverse side effects in the process.

Over the next few posts, I’ll describe the controversies over the project, and I will frame its development in the national perspective, highlighting how problems faced by transportation advocates in the San Francisco area are relevant to people across the U.S.

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Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he is the research director of the Land Use Lab at Urban. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation, and governance.

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Tags: infrastructuresan franciscobus rapid transitoaklandbay areayonah freemarkgrassroutesberkeley

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