At last night’s special meeting, the City Council decided to pass the so-called reduced-impact plan and the no-build option forward for study. The full-build option, which had been revised by city staff, was not passed for study. The reduced-impact plan would involve no dedicated bus lanes on Telegraph and Shattuck.

Last night’s decision was not to build or stop BRT; it was merely to decide which schemes went forward for final environmental impact review and study.

An amendment to study the full-build option, proposed by Councilmember Darrell Moore, was rejected by a 4-2-2 vote.

Lance Knobel

Lance Knobel (co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine in Britain,...

Join the Conversation


  1. PS – If you like Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, call the authors of the report. Say, “hey, I am fighting a BRT proposal in SF Bay region. I gather from your report that you need highways, carports, cities on the urban fringe, etc, for BRT to work really well. Did I get it right?”

    And, say, “the crazy people doing the EIR said there could be 10,000 people who give up their cars for transit. Is this figure plausible?”

    Call them. And get back to us.

    If you prefer, we can do it as a conference call and I will bet you dinner about the results.

  2. Thomas,
    I think we are getting to the heart of the issue here. You don’t believe that ridership will increase by 250%. I agree with you. Who ever put out that statistic misread the EIR. (I have to say it is one ***** of a document to read.)

    Let’s break down potential riders.
    1) There are people who currently ride the 1R
    2) There are people who currently ride other AC transit routes on that corridor or nearby corridors
    3) There are people who currently use other transit (BART, etc)
    4) There are currently bikers, walkers, etc, who could use transit
    5) And there are people who currently use cars

    I think we would both agree that the first four are not so important. What we really care about is the number of people who get out of their car to take the bus

    (Well, I also care a little about people who would have taken other buses on Shattuck or College, because having more feet on Telegraph would be great for the street and for business, etc.)

    The 245% increase is not a figure to pay attention to. That figure is if they eliminate local service. It is like saying if we get rid of BART, use of the Transbay bus will skyrocket. Of course! Transbay bus use probably goes up 500%, or more. Who cares. Of course it will go up. And that figure is meaningless. It is correct, realistic, and meaningless.

    Let’s talk about the real figure we care about, people who currently use their car and would stop. The actual figure is between 4,500 and 9,300

    So who are these 4,500 to 9,300 people?
    Of course they are spread out over the entire route, but here is some of the uses. Basically, some of the people who live near and work near Telegraph or downtown Berkeley or Oakland, but live more than 0.25 or 0.5 miles from BART. Potential riders include: 30,000+ students at UC B, 15,000+ employeers at UC B, 13,500+ downtown berkeley employees, 70,000 oakland employees. We are at over 150,000 and we have not even talked about people using it to get to BART, to get to San Leandro, to get to point south or smaller destinations.

    There are over 260,000 residents in the corridor. Is it possible that 2 to 4 percent will chose transit if it is fast, reliable, safe, etc. Yeah, that seems realistic to me. And that is what the models predict.

    To end…
    Some other statistics to bolster the point that BRT can lure car drivers. According to the US DOT (Under Pres. Bush)…In Phoenix, 33 percent of BRT riders never rode a bus before BRT. In Las Vegas, the RTC’s “MAX” system is responsible for at least a 35 to 40 percent increase in ridership along its corridor of operation. And this from Mass Transit “BRT systems have been shown to attract choice ridership and increase total corridor ridership. As much as one-third of BRT riders have been shown to previously use private automobiles. Corridor ridership gains of 20 to 96 percent have also been recorded.”

    Finally, if you don’t believe anything I say, call a transportation planner and say, I don’t think BRT makes sense in a dense urban area like the east bay and that the transportation models are way off, and see what they say.

  3. @Thomas: The projection by AC Transit computed the net increase to be ~10k new trips over a 20+ mile corridor — not 30k as you allege. The FTA validated this figure.

    As for why we don’t see 10k riders mobbing city council: some of the 10k potential riders are future growth (it is a 10 year projection). But mostly, the reason is that unlike typical Berkeley limousine liberal, bus riders have work, family, school, and other obligations that make it difficult to attend late night meetings.

  4. Josh,

    In response to your challenge I went snooping around (non-Berkeley-specific) BRT *proponents*. I wound up focusing on the “Institute for Transportation and Development Policy” who are supported by pretty much everyone. Those guy’s seem to not be entirely nuts. They appear to be leaders in BRT advocacy – globally. You got any problem with *them*?

    Now, I think a weakness of their BRT Planning Guide is that they don’t take pains to spell out, concisely, “when *not* to push for BRT” but their guides are useful anyway – you can read the “when not to” between their lines.

    So let’s start with a very simple thing: demand. Local BRT proponents are relying on projections of something like 2.5x as many riders as the current system. A 250% increase in public transit utilization! Amazing! Can you characterize these alleged 30K riders for me? The one’s traveling that corridor but who will give up their cars for this?

    Looking at the ITDP report on BRT, my sense is that if you really want big impact from a BRT system, it should be a system that takes over a couple of lanes on the local high-ways – with large car ports on the periphery of the cities. Intra-Berkeley – and even in the proposed BRT corridor inter-city, we have almost none of the conditions that led to success in a few developing nation examples of BRT winningness.

    Where are the 10,000 people (a third of the projected increased ridership) just waiting to abandon their cars for a 20 minute shorter trip from San Leandro? Where are they coming from? Where are they going? What’s their motive? And why aren’t they jam packing city council meetings holding up signs in favor of BRT? Where are the 10K in Oakland looking for a 10 minute shorter trip and otherwise sticking to their cars?

    I wonder what % of car trips through Berkeley are from 13 down to *80. BRT ain’t gonna touch those.

  5. I would love it if BRT opponents who claim to be environmentalists or pro-transit could find some regional smart growth, environmental or transit groups are on their side. TransForm, which is a coalition of 120 of those groups, supports BRT with dedicated lanes.

    Additionally, I would love it if the people who are so convinced they have a better solution for public transit (little jitneys and what not) to find a transportation planner who is their side.

    Good luck, because you will find almost no regional or national sustainability groups on your side and almost no city planners who agree with you.

  6. “Seeing how concerned you are with potential disruption, though, I somehow doubt this is what you actually want. Rather, it seems to me that in your view, any transit improvement that impacts private automobiles or parking is heresy. You seem more than willing to point out any drawback to transit, be it legitimate, minor, or imaginary; yet you are completely content to ignore all of the negative impacts of private automobiles.”

    I’m sorry I’ve left you with that impression. That is not my view at all.

    My gut sense (and that’s *all* it is) of Berkeley’s geography and geometry and political context leads me to a fantasy transit solution along these lines:

    A large priority ought to be to better connect the residential areas to the commercial areas and campus, the less reliance on AC Transit the better. As an inexpensive short-term step, I think we should explore licensing privately operated semi-scheduled / semi-on-demand shuttle-sized transit intra-city and perhaps spilling a bit over into neighboring cities as intra-jurisdictional deals permit. I think longer term we ought to explore putting tracks down the middles of University, Sacramento, San Pablo, Bancroft, perhaps Euclid, perhaps Solano, perhaps Shattuck, perhaps the broad avenue portions of Telegraph, and … hehe – the ones that will really annoy car folks: perhaps Ashby and Alcetraz. I also think we ought to look into taking the shared low-occupancy vehicle infrastructure (similar to today’s car sharing services) much further. Finally, we should really double down on establishing peripheral car parks near highway links, and serving those well with intra-city / intra-region transit.

    “I’m left to conclude that you, like many opponents of BRT, either have an impossibly high standard for what we should even study, or–more likely–y’all are all but unwilling to consider any attrition of the automobile”

    That’s apparently because you stereotype too easily. I think that the wealth of options that we might choose to spend money on studying is overwhelmingly large. Being selective about what to study is very important and, for me, none of the BRT proposals pass the sniff test. Attrition from automobiles is just fine with me: I haven’t had a car now for several years – the last time I bought a car was in 1989. I don’t much need one around here. A street-legal “golf cart” (souped up enough to actually make it up into the hills) – well, that’s something I do desire. Generally, though, I tend to think that people who’ve arranged their lives around the concept of cheap car transport are in for a pretty big surprise in the coming years.

    “I’ve said my peace and counted to three.”

    And you raised valid points to consider and, while you’re critical of me, weren’t rude about it or anything. Likewise, I hope. Some of us aren’t quite polarized in quite the stereotypical ways, that’s all.

  7. BRT capital costs are significantly lower than those of LRT, but their relative operating costs vary between cities:

    But, once again, we won’t have much of an opportunity now to study how BRT might have fared in Berkeley.

    That said, Thomas, I think you have a great idea–I think we should restore light-rail service to Berkeley and maybe even give it dedicated lanes.

    Seeing how concerned you are with potential disruption, though, I somehow doubt this is what you actually want. Rather, it seems to me that in your view, any transit improvement that impacts private automobiles or parking is heresy. You seem more than willing to point out any drawback to transit, be it legitimate, minor, or imaginary; yet you are completely content to ignore all of the negative impacts of private automobiles.

    Proponents of improved transit have provided abundant evidence, much of it strong, that we should at least study dedicated lanes for buses on Telegraph. You seem to suggest that only projects that are all benefit and no cost can even be so much as studied. I’m left to conclude that you, like many opponents of BRT, either have an impossibly high standard for what we should even study, or–more likely–y’all are all but unwilling to consider any attrition of the automobile. As such, maybe we’ll just have to agree to disagree; I’ve said my peace and counted to three.

  8. Max, If you web search for things like “BRT failures” you’ll find plenty. Typical issues include under-projected operational costs and over-projected ridership.

    It’s often a bit apples and oranges when comparing cities. For example, it’s unusual to implement BRT by taking over so much road space on relatively narrow, parking-challenged streets in historically busy retail corridors. People say that Pittsburgh’s BRT is often regarded as a flop but much of that system comprises newly built dedicated bus-ways — so a direct comparison is hard. Still, you can find no small number of cities that have tried BRT and gone over to light rail or otherwise abandoned it.

    Some generic things one can say about BRT: buses wear out faster than trains; buses cost more to operate and even BRT lacks the capacity of a rail line; buses tear the heck out of road-ways, making life worse for cyclists and costs higher for cities; it’s a good bet that fuel costs are going to be very volatile over the next several years; ridership on BRT systems often disappoints.

    Add to this the major impact the proposed project on some of our tenuous retail corridors; AC Transit’s less than stellar performance numbers compared to other regions; and a lack of any clearly defined constituency to be served by these new lines – and I’m sorry, I just don’t see why (other than for cynical reasons) people are pursuing the thing at all.

    Restoration of light rail to Berkeley (and Oakland, for that matter) is probably mostly a pipe-dream at this point in history – but that’s a damn tragedy if you ask me. The City boarders were originally drawn partly in response to the patterns of commerce once supported by the privately operated rail that unified several unincorporated districts. That is, Berkeley started with a built environment “skeleton” that was all about light rail, then lost its spine so to speak, and now puzzles over what went wrong. Water under the bridge, spilt milk, whatever you like but it is something to think about.

  9. I don’t think we can say Berkeley is a City that prides itself on environmental protection any longer. That, it appears, is a thing of the past.

  10. I’d like to take this opportunity to dare all the anti-BRT folks out there to show me one example of where BRT has been implemented and where all the catastrophic results foretold by the anti-BRT wing nuts have actually happened.

    Better yet, show me where a single one of the catastrophic consequences that are being suggested have ever happened.

    You can’t. When BRT gets build in a city, it works. It helps. People like it or love it.

    I think half the reason Berkeley business owners opposed this was that they didn’t want it to be easy for “undesirables” to get to berkeley, and they didn’t want it to be easier for Cal students to get out of Berkeley.

    Narrow minded, short sighted, and a campaign against BRT filled with outright lies. Bad hippys!

  11. I find any comparison with Portland difficult. Portland is a city that strongly supports and provides resources for neighborhood cohesiveness. Neighborhoods have vital commercial districts in all areas, not just the upscale neighborhoods. The city maintains an official structure for neighborhood councils actively addressing land use and crime prevention issues. Berkeley operates in fear of the residents/business of being engaged in decision making. Berkeley is an insider game with little middle ground. Gee maybe that is the primary reason for Berkeley dysfunction, the city officials intentions are not sincere and lack integrity. Portland takes pride in each neighborhood, Berkeley plays communities against communities, and has different standards for service for each island.

  12. Well, I’m a pretty committed bike and public transportation gal, who uses my car little in the dry season. That said, as an architect I know environmental studies are not cheap. I really think the people objecting to this don’t understand what “study” means. It doesn’t just mean more talk – it means fund and commit a large amount of money to the EIR and associated reviews. It is not sensible to do that multiple times. It makes sense only to study politically viable options. Studying every possible option just wastes a huge amount of money. Seems to be the full-on BRT option would be a hard sell to the business community, making the reduced impact option an easier sell, so I totally understand this.

  13. Sadly, the Council’s decision may not only harm the city’s reputation as environmental leader, but its credibility as well.

    It was the Council itself which voted to fund the consultant to formulate the LPA, and direct staff to work with stakeholders on the LPA. Many citizens and organizations volunteered huge amounts of time to participate in a process where there was at least an expectation of a completed EIR. Many have been participating in this for more than a decade (when the General Plan was updated and the transit corridor concept was first adopted). The City even went through two referendums (three if you count Measure G).

    So now that Council has pulled the rug out, it is going to be hard for the city to rebuild trust. Citizens and groups will be loathe to participate in sham public processes – esp. as this is not the first time City has failed to abide by adopted Plans.

    I also fear it will also be damaging to morale in the Transportation and Planning Divisions. The City already had a number of departures from very dedicated professionals, frustrated over Berkeley dysfunction. With so many other cities (NYC, Portland, SF, etc). doing really innovative work to promote walking, biking, and transit, why remain in Berkeley where politicians are too fearful to even do an EIR?

    @TN asks: “what will AC Transit’s service look like in the future?” The prognosis is not good. The increasing automobile congestion on major arterials means the agency has to keep throwing more and more buses and drivers onto the road, just to maintain existing headways. BRT would have fixed that problem, freeing up considerable resources.

  14. BRT has much more than a superficial air of plausibility; it’s been successfully implemented in a number of cities across the country. Does that mean it will work it Berkeley? Not necessarily. But it’s not the crazy Uncle Bill Bob idea you make it out to be and its success elsewhere makes it worth studying here. I’m not going to try to convince you with personal anecdotes–have them though I do. Rather, just look at LA, where their BRT line has already significantly increased bus ridership and gotten people out of their cars. If we can get Los Angelinos out of their cars, it doesn’t seem such a big leap that the same can be done in Berkeley.

    Also, I think your criticism of AC Transit is largely unfounded, maybe even a bit malicious. While not without its hiccups, the system runs very well considering all. Furthermore, AC Transit was widely praised by the public and transit advocates for the thoughtful, pragmatic, and sensitive way in which they presented, adjusted, and implemented the recent service changes and cuts.

  15. Eric,

    I don’t know that I agree about this burden of proof stuff you mention other than this: I can suggest transit options for the city to invest in, you can, ac transit can, and my insane uncle-in-law billy can come up with some as well. All of them have a superficial air of plausibility. Should we spend taxpayer money studying each and every one? I’m not arguing at all that an EIR or if you prefer EIS is imperfect. Sure, it’s imperfect in ways everyone knows but its valuable. But EISs aren’t free. Given several proposals, we have to pick and choose the tiny subset we can afford to study. Why does your favorite BRT proposal merit study? I don’t see how, realistically, any of those proposals will have any substantial environmental or economic impact other than a lot of cost. I don’t start from a position of particularly trusting ACT to be competent and do start with a bias of seeing them as organizationally self-serving. I don’t see how BRT leads to any particular benefit for the public. I tend to think that any plan that relies on ACT is already way to complicated to do much good. Again, give me an example of who is going to be dragged out their car by BRT in Berkeley… and some suggestions about how many such people there are.

  16. @Thomas Lord: I’m saying we should study all the alternatives–as was suggested by Mayor Bates and, in actuality, a plurality of the council. Since you are saying we *should not* study all the alternatives, I would say the burden of proof is on you. How about you provide some vivid and realistic scenarios where just studying BRT wreaked havoc. You’re asking me to answer the sort of questions an EIR would attempt answer, this in order to prove to you that we should do an EIR. Hmmmm, Catch-22, anyone?

    You seem arguing that because EIR/EIS is in imperfect, we should never use them to study things–unless of course it’s something that you personally support. I would be satisfied–moreover happy–to study the full range of options, irrespective of which I currently think would be best.

    @TN: Many of your questions are good ones, and should influence any decision regarding what gets built. One thing I can point out in terms of costs is that AC Transit expects that the increased costs of operation would be mitigated by greater fuel efficiency of the buses, higher ridership, and by reduced wear and tear on the buses. To what extent additional costs would be recouped is a question that I think few, if any, people in this discussion are expert enough to answer.

    As far as public discussion on the future shape of transit in general, there are many forums virtual and in real-world where these discussions are occurring, including but not limited to: the SF MTA, the MTC, TransForm, SF Streetsblog, A Better Oakland Blog, Transbay Blog, Curbed SF, and many more. The more the merrier, so please join in!

  17. I don’t have an opinion on whether AC Transit’s version of BRT is the right choice or not. Certainly faster bus public transit is a necessity if the Eastbay is to become less car dependent by attracting more people out of cars and onto busses for their trips.

    It worries me that BRT by itself has seemingly become the sole focus of the public discussion of future plans for AC Transit. Much faster bus transportation along major corridors with demonstrated demand for trips makes sense in the abstract.

    The question is how much it is worth. AC Transit has a limited budget. That budget is currently getting much, much smaller. A new round of service reductions totalling 8% is being planned for this summer for the fiscal year 2010-2011 on top of the nearly 8% cut that was just recently implemented last month. The outlook for the 2011-2012 is pessimistic. But the proposal for BRT from AC Transit assumes that the service along International Boulevard/Telegraph Avenue will be significantly increased under BRT. The proposal calls for a bus every 5 minutes. (The current frequency is about 2 busses every 15 minutes along the 1/1R route during peak hours.) The projected increase in ridership along the corridor has little likelihood of generating enough fare revenue to completely offset the additional operating costs of increased service even though the fares cover more of operating costs on this line than they do on many other lines. The preliminary EIR showed only a modest increase in projected ridership with BRT in this corridor even with the improved service. This means that in the context of shrinking transit agency budgets, cuts in service will need to be made elsewhere in the system to compensate for the increased operating costs for BRT.

    So what will AC Transit’s service look like in the future? What will happen to local cross town service or night and weekend service? Improving the service along major travel corridors during peak hours is a fine idea. But how will the continuing operating costs of those improvements affect the shape of services not on those major corridors?

    I’d like to hear a public discussion of the shape of the near future of bus public transportation in our area as a whole and not just one project along one corridor.

  18. So, Eric —

    “Studies” at the governmental level are, of course, not free. Nor are they politically neutral – they are not peer reviewed science, they are political artifacts. You can’t just skim the conclusions, decide they support your view, and claim them as facts.

    This issue is a case of universally incomplete knowledge. Anyone who says they *know* the impact of any of the BRT alternatives is, well, lying and/or deluded. As a society – we have to guess and we have to bet. Given the costs (definite and predictable beyond the definite) of *any* of the proposals – it’s a hard bet to judge.

    So we’re gambling. As gambling men, I like thought experiments on an issue like this. I wonder if you’ll help me with one, ok?

    Please give me some scenarios of who exactly is helped today or tomorrow by BRT to live greener? to take a car off the road? what have you? Alice or Bob is living in such and such a place and today they drive but after BRT they…. what? What do you think these plans will accomplish? Give me some vivid and realistic examples. Public transit is a great notion in the abstract – I couldn’t agree more. A.C.T. — not so sure they do a particularly good job of realizing that potential. And I can imagine a lot of far better alternatives, albeit unconventional alternatives. Tell me who you think BRT is going to drag out their car or how it will otherwise have positive impact – based just on you guesses.

    A study starts with a hypothesis. What is your hypothesis for BRT? Mine is that it wastes a lot of money has next to no impact on bus ridership and, in some options, a lot of negative impacts on road use and commerce. I think it comes down to at best playing a role that would be far, far better played by a few bio-diesel semi-private shuttles at strategic times of day. What makes you think otherwise? What suggests the desirability of a study of BRT. Overly loose analogies to other cities won’t stand up much here – specifics matter. Give your hypothesis and a persuasive case of why I should believe your hypothesis might be true.

  19. I guess we’ll never really know because the city declined to even *study* the impacts of a dedicated lane. If suggesting that we should study the option of giving buses dedicated lanes (as they have in many other cities) makes me a nut, then throw me in a can and call me cashew.

    BRT may yet have been shown to be an unworthy or unnecessary project, but some city council members were so yellow-bellied they were to afraid to even take the chance than an EIR might show a major benefit to dedicated lanes.

  20. Eric and Josh, while I respect and join in the most abstract version of the public-transit-positive values you express, I think you’re both kind of nuts here, on this issue.

    It’s really, really far from a foregone conclusion that *any* of the BRT plans have any real chance of “green” impact yet certain that they impose a decent amount of disruption. From the most earthy crunchy perspective I’m sure we can do a lot better, at lower cost, fast, cheaper, and better if we put our minds to it.

  21. Josh, I may have just been imprecise in my writing. I agree last night’s decision puts the full-build option out of the running, but the “reduced impact” scheme could still go ahead. So we may have some form of BRT, however badly reduced it’s likely to be.

  22. Well that is a shame. So much for Berkeley being a transit first city. It is kind of ironic that Berkeley is the least sustainable of the cities involved (Oakland and San Leandro). The article is wrong that if you don’t study something it means you can’t build it.

  23. This was a shameful result for Berkeley, a city that prides itself on not just environmental protection, but–even more importantly–on the value of information, rationality, and open-mindedness. To decline to even *study* the option of granting dedicated lanes to transit is a betrayal of Berkeley voters and grand hypocrisy of the sort Berkeley is often (and in this case, rightly) criticized for.

    In light of the overwhelming passage of Measure G and the down-in-flames failure of Measure KK, it is appalling that the council vote went as it did–and on an evening when an oil slick was fast approaching American shores no less!

    I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so disappointed in Berkeley as I do today.