Opposition to a Bus Rapid Transit System is More than Just NIMBYism

Berkeley business owners suggest that a bus rapid transit line would ruin their sales and change the character of their street. In some ways, they’re probably right.

A bus on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where future bus rapid transit service will run. Yonah Freemark

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

“You would have three years of turmoil, and something that is worse at the end of it,” Craig Becker told me when I met with him at his establishment last month. Becker is the owner of the Berkeley institution Caffe Mediterraneum just steps from the University of California.

Becker’s argument is compelling if you believe its premise: Installing a proposed bus rapid transit line between Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro, California will not only interrupt the ability of small businesses to function but actually result in a less functional mass transit network after construction is completed. The line would run along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, right in front of Becker’s restaurant.

Vince Casalaina, former president of the nearby Willard Neighborhood Association, is also concerned about environmental effects; “If you’re going to put a quarter of a billion dollars into it,” he said, “It better do something about greenhouse gases.” Casalaina points out that the diesel bus line could actually reduce ridership on the mostly parallel BART rail line, which is electrically powered and therefore arguably cleaner.

If these facts are true — that the construction process will reduce activity on the street and that improved bus operations won’t provide better service for the typical user — than there is no doubt that the bus rapid transit project as currently proposed should not be built. After all, a $235 million investment is hardly a drop in the bucket.

The Berkeleyans for Better Transportation Options group has rallied for months to oppose the bus rapid transit plan proposed by AC Transit. The organization created an alternate proposal for better bus services, called Rapid Bus Plus, that incorporates most of the improvements suggested by the original plan, just with no bus lanes. They succeeded earlier this summer in convincing the City of Berkeley to deny the transportation agency the right to install dedicated bus lanes in the municipality. But they aren’t just the typical anti-transit crowd. When I spoke to both Casalaina and Becker, I got the sense that both were truly interested in improving public transportation. Their alternative bus plan isn’t unrealistic, and it really would help typical bus riders in the area get around more quickly, with more convenience.

Meanwhile, Oakland and San Leandro have moved forward on the AC Transit project. “Rocky” Fernandez, currently president of the agency, said “We are interested in building [the system] as far as we can,” but he seems resigned to the fact that the project’s full benefits will not extend into Berkeley.

Becker’s fears — that a new transit line would inevitably mean the destruction of local businesses because of street access difficulties — may be informed by the Bay Area’s experience with the construction of BART rapid transit decades ago. “There is a residual fear of new transit construction,” said Tom Radulovich, a member of the BART board of directors, representing parts of San Francisco. But Radulovich argues that the mistakes made then, which resulted in dozens of closed businesses thanks to a difficulty getting to and from shops on the street, could be avoided. “It’s not rocket science, it’s better management.”

It should be said that the investments proposed for Berkeley, mostly in the form of a bus lane and some improved stations, are in few ways comparable to the major destruction wrought on San Francisco’s Market Street in the 1960s. The most likely project interference is a few months of disruption in driving lanes along the street.

Nonetheless, the fears associated with the development of improved transit here cannot be easily dismissed, because the arrival of bus rapid transit probably would result in significant changes to the neighborhood landscape.

Planners make a big effort to emphasize how new transit investments will revitalize neighborhoods by bringing in more people and encouraging investment in nearby real estate. For existing small business owners, that’s not necessarily a good thing — especially in neighborhoods like that along Berkeley’s Telegraph that are relatively successful.

Increasing land values could mean higher rents and eventual displacement in favor of national chains. One or two-story buildings that now are ideal incubators for local shops could be replaced with denser development, sending the original renters out. And the biggest concern of all is that the existing demographics of the people in the area, the group of individuals who currently patronize the businesses here, will be replaced with another one that is less interested in the existing stores. People who currently come to Telegraph Avenue in their cars might feel less willing to do so in the future now that priority is given to buses.

So even in face of the BRT proposal’s benefits, there are some negative consequences that are almost unavoidable — even past the difficulties associated with the construction phase.

The Rapid Bus Plus proposal has its benefits in terms of transportation, as well: Limiting investment in this corridor could open up a set of financing tools for other transit improvements across the region. “Rapid bus does everything that BRT does without dedicated lanes,” says Casalaina. “Just installing a proof-of-payment system would save more time than dedicated lanes.” If AC Transit spread its $235 million across the entire system, providing minor improvements to many corridors rather than just major ones to the BRT line, it would provide benefits to a much larger group of people.

That’s not the end of the story, though. It’s not so simple to just redistribute planned funds to all bus corridors. And there are advantages to prioritizing investments in one corridor over others. More next week.

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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: san franciscobuilt environmentbus rapid transitoaklandbay areayonah freemarkgrassroutesberkeley

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