The Berkeley City Council recently voted against studying the impact of a full Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service on Telegraph. Oakland is now considering how to adjust its Locally Preferred Alternative for the upcoming impact review now that it won’t connect to continuing service beyond North Oakland. Many of the concerns that ended consideration of dedicated lanes and signal priority in Berkeley are shared by business owners and patrons along Telegraph, and there is a real chance that North Oakland will not receive any BRT service.
Losing BRT in North Oakland would assure that the inevitable increase in traffic congestion will reduce the reliability of public transportation. Not only would this be a setback for the East Bay’s public transportation users, but it would also hurt pedestrians and bicyclists. This is especially unfortunate because many of the Berkeley public opposing BRT did so in the name of pedestrians and bicyclists. As a concerned pedestrian/bicyclist and an urban planner, I feel it is important to correct this misconception before it further damages BRT in North Oakland.
I had the pleasure of attending the April 20th Berkeley City Council meeting. The speakers that opposed BRT generally focused on the impacts to businesses and the danger to non-motorists. Regarding non-motorist safety, one public commenter at the Berkeley meeting based his argument on the danger of cars, and by extending and increasing to buses (which are just larger, less-manageable cars, in his explanation), attempted to justify sole reliance on cars as the safest option. In this and other comments, priority signal timing emerged as threats to pedestrians and bicyclists. As a pedestrian and bicyclist, I appreciate the concern, but it’s unnecessary. Buses are not exaggeratedly wild, careening cars. They follow the speed limit. “Priority signal” doesn’t mean a bus can run red lights and send pedestrians in the crosswalk screaming; it means the bus can signal ahead to lengthen the green or shorten the red portion of the light cycle. It can’t change the length of the yellow or the “all clear” portion of the red, and it has to allow enough time for pedestrians to clear the crosswalks, as required by the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov).
Many expressed concern for removing parking to accommodate the BRT. One small business owner shared her concern for maintaining a vibrant Downtown Berkeley. These concerns seem to conflict. A vibrant community isn’t made of parked cars and traffic – just look at a suburban shopping mall. A community feels vibrant when people are outside their cars. Pedestrians and bicyclists can stop to window-shop and purchase the wares and art along Telegraph. Encouraging people to experience Telegraph from the pedestrian-scale will do more to make a vibrant community than doing nothing to prevent ever-increasing congestion.
Maybe walking and biking enthusiasts in Berkeley took the idea of BRT for granted. More reliable and frequent transit just makes being a pedestrian and bicyclist easier. The number, variety, and quality of goods, services, and employment along the full proposed BRT corridor is considerable. Another resident commented that people only take public transit because they’re “conscientious or because they don’t have a choice.” Personally, I found this to be the most concerning comment of all. I walk, ride my bicycle, and take transit because they’re less stressful ways of getting around than driving. Also frankly, these modes all have a much better view than someone else’s bumper. With improved transit service, more people could eliminate their reliance on vehicles to casually navigate the route and enjoy their community while letting someone else do the driving.
Not every element of BRT drew opposition in Berkeley. Consensus emerged around level platform boarding. As one BRT supporter commented, it isn’t dignified for anyone to bear the mumbled frustration and averted gaze of a bus full of passengers forced to wait as a bus is lowered (loudly) for a fellow passenger with a wheelchair, stroller, or other need for assistance. I’m fortunate that I’ve never been in that position, but I know I’d be more likely to enjoy my mobility and explore my community if I could avoid being the center of such a spectacle.
The impact on local businesses is a contentious and debated issue, and I want to focus here on impacts to pedestrians and bicyclists. But it’s worth pointing out that similar systems across the country and around the world are improving the economic vitality of their corridors, including the Cleveland system (cited by the BRT design consultants as being the most similar domestic system) which is regarded locally as a resounding success. To ignore the consistent and positive influence of reliable public transportation on economic vitality in favor of emotional and unsubstantiated claims is to succumb to fear mongering.
North Oakland has until June 6 to convince AC Transit that it wants to study the option of building BRT on Telegraph. By refusing to even study a “full build” scenario, Oakland would formally acknowledge that it values cars over public transportation, and is willing to make decisions without complete information. But if North Oakland is going to improve its transportation options, it needs to consider the range of benefits from BRT for people who walk and bike. If you want to encourage pedestrians and bicyclists in North Oakland, contact Oakland Councilmember Jane Brunner (firstname.lastname@example.org) and remind her that we are all pedestrians.
Ruth Miller is a member of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland.
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