The complaint I hear most often about AC Transit’s BRT proposal is that it mimics the BART line. I find this claim utterly bizarre, and my immediate inclination is to dismiss such concerns as coming from people who obviously don’t use transit to travel the route and don’t really understand much, if anything, about bus service. And while it is true that this talking point doesn’t actually make any logical sense, and I don’t think public agencies should make decisions based on the will of the completely uninformed, I want to see BRT have buy-in from as broad a constituency as possible. So, in that spirit, I’m going to try to explain here why AC Transit wants to put BRT along Telegraph and International.
It’s pretty basic, really. The answer is because that’s where people are and where they want to go. And do go. In cars, on BART, and, yes, also on the bus. In fact, so many people use the bus to travel along the corridor, that the trips AC Transit passengers make along this corridor on Telegraph, Broadway, Shattuck, and International account for almost 20% of their entire ridership. Um, did you catch that? Nearly one-fifth of all the rides on all the AC Transit buses – and remember, it’s a big freaking district (PDF) – happen on this corridor. And to put that number in a little more perspective, you might be interested to know that AC Transit buses on this corridor carry more people than the entire light rail system in Santa Clara County, and the entire light rail system in Sacramento. It’s a lot of people. And if all those people thought, for whatever reason, the BART served their needs better than the bus, they’d be taking it instead.
So, who are all these people using these buses? And where are they going? Mostly, they’re people who live along the route. 320,000 people live in this corridor, and 40% of all Oakland residents live within half a mile of the proposed BRT route. And while the route covers a wealth of entertainment and culinary destinations, the reality is that most of them are going to work. How handy, then, that the route hits almost all of the East Bay’s major employment centers.
And since I know my readers are a curious bunch, here they are, in order of the number of jobs they supply: Oakland City Center, Oakland Kaiser Center/Uptown, UC Berkeley, Downtown Berkeley, Oakland Chinatown/Old Oakland, Oakland County Buildings/Laney College, Pill Hill, and downtown San Leandro. Now, that isn’t all of the East Bay’s major employment centers (Oakland Airport, San Leandro industrial area, for example, aren’t served), but it is almost all of them. Plus, you’ve got 42,000 combined students at UC Berkeley and Laney College.
So we’ve got a whole lot of people needing to get a whole lot of places. Problem is, mixed-traffic operation means than bus service just keeps getting worse. Rising traffic congestion reduces bus speeds, and with it, reliability. The problem is only augmented by steadily increasing ridership, which, due to the way people accumulate at stops while waiting, slows the bus down and degrades service speed and reliability even more. After a while, degrading performance leads people to stop using transit, because they can’t trust it to get them where they need to go. So the goal here is two-fold: improve service for existing transit users AND draw drivers onto the bus by offering reliable and time-competitive service. And that’s something you simply can’t do on this route as long as the bus operates in mixed traffic.
Since the service demand along this corridor is so great, it wouldn’t make any sense for AC Transit to make their first major investment anywhere else. I hear people talk about San Pablo, but the fact is that San Pablo just doesn’t have anywhere near the same level of demand or need. The population density is significantly smaller than along Telegraph – less than half in many spots – and it doesn’t hit the major employment centers of downtown Berkeley, UC Berkeley, or Pill Hill. The street also has enough spare capacity that congestion hasn’t degraded bus service in quite the same way, so BRT there wouldn’t provide marked improvements over enhanced bus service (the 72R) in the way it will on Telegraph.
The only logical options for the northern portion of the route are College Avenue/Broadway or Telegraph Avenue. AC Transit’s major investment study estimated that a Broadway alignment would result in more riders (300 more boardings per day than Telegraph, which is essentially negligible), but using Telegraph would result in significantly reduced construction, congestion, and parking impacts. Also, it would cost less. Telegraph also yields better improvements in travel time and service reliability (mostly because of that insanely congested single-lane stretch of College).
So I hope that makes it clear why we would want to put BRT along Telegraph/International in the first place. Now, a little bit about BART. For starters, only a few points on this route actually have BART service. There’s a big difference, and one that a lot of people don’t seem to understand, between routes being similar service being similar. The BART stations along this line are as much as three miles apart from one another. Here’s a map:
For a bigger version, click here (PDF).
Let’s go back to the ride that inspired my reliability post*. I was traveling from downtown Oakland to 46th and Foothill. That’s like, a three block walk from my bus stop at 46th and International. The closest BART station is Fruitvale, at East 12th and 34th, over a mile away. That might be a fine walk for some people, but it isn’t one I’m particularly eager to make in four inch heels, and one I’m even less interested in making when I’m returning home after dark. And it’s the same way for all sorts of people with all sorts of destinations all along the route. I’ll say it again, because I just don’t think it can be said enough. If service on the 1 route actually duplicated BART service, it would not be one of the bus highly used bus routes in the entire Bay Area.
So, no, the line really doesn’t duplicate BART. Yes, it mirrors the BART route, in the exactly same way that the freeway mirrors the surface streets of Telegraph and International. But if you tried to argue that the freeway renders makes Telegraph and International unnecessary for cars, everyone would laugh at you. As they should. (Actually, since there are more frequent opportunities for freeway egress than there are BART stations, the streets are more redundant than BRT following this line of reasoning.)
People who live in downtown Berkeley and work in downtown San Leandro are not likely to stop using BART and ride BRT to work instead. BART is designed for distance commuting. But there are plenty of people who live along the BRT route who right now drive to say, MacArthur BART and ride it to their jobs in downtown Oakland. BRT would likely poach some of these riders, and that isn’t a bad thing. As Art pointed out in a comment on my last BRT post, BART is experiencing serious capacity issues during peak hours, so the system would actually benefit if AC Transit could relieve some of the more local burden.
*: I was happy to see the reliability was the word of the week with respect to BRT last week. If you missed them, make sure you check out Becks’s post about Jane Brunner’s BRT meeting and dto510′s sweet op-ed in the Berkeley Daily Planet. For another perspective on the subject, check out the BRT post on Oakland Space Academy.