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A sign says "Crosswalk closed-used other side," and traffic cones cordon off the center of the street on International Boulevard.

New AC Transit low-emission bus line aims to cut commuter wait time

on October 17, 2019

On an overcast Tuesday morning, traffic crawled around a group of construction workers as they repaved a portion of International Boulevard. Soon, two of street’s four lanes will be reserved for bus service. After almost three years of construction, a fast, low-emission bus line is on track to begin service here later this year. 

Orange traffic cones peppered International, as construction workers paved streets, erected new traffic signals, and constructed stations for a $216 million Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line that will eventually traverse nearly ten miles, from Uptown Oakland to the San Leandro BART station. A fleet of hybrid-electric buses will decrease riders’ wait times from 12 minutes to seven, according to the AC Transit website.

Silvia Rodriguez stood at a stop, waiting for a bus that would take her to downtown Oakland. She doesn’t take this route much anymore, but she used to, back when she lived in Fruitvale and commuted to work every day. “Those buses were bad,” she said. They took “too much time.” For the roughly 25,000 riders who take the bus through the corridor each day, a faster bus system could make a big difference.

A backhoe pours and moves concrete as construction workers pave
Construction workers pave part of International Boulevard as part of a project to install a Bus Rapid Transit system in Oakland and San Leandro.

Cities from Curitiba to Cleveland have implemented the BRT concept: It functions a lot like a regular bus line, except the buses get their own lanes and traffic signals, so they avoid congestion, mimicking the speed and structure of light rail. But unlike trains, which depend on tunnels and fixed rails, BRT projects usually don’t require massive upheavals of existing infrastructure. It’s a “cost-effective alternative to the exorbitant cost of building light rail transit,” AC Transit’s media affairs manager Robert Lyles wrote in an email.

When it’s completed, BRT will offer on-time, reliable service, said Joél Ramos, who spent 12 years as a regional planning director at TransForm, a nonprofit whose staff advocate for affordable, walkable housing and transit. Ramos says he helped organize support in favor of BRT and “built community awareness about the project” amongst residents who lived near the route. “Bus service for people who have to depend on it and don’t have the choice of a car is often very slow. It’s often unreliable. Most of the time, it’s rather undignified, and it’s expensive in its own right,” said Ramos. But BRT should reduce travel times.

According to AC Transit’s 2012 Environmental Impact Statement, buses in the Berkeley-Oakland-San Leandro corridor travel less than 10 miles per hour, on average, and complete only 30 percent of their trips on time. Ramos said the BRT “would effectively take a 45 minute ride from East Oakland to downtown Oakland and turn it into a 30 minute ride each way.”

Because BRT service hasn’t started yet, AC Transit representatives can’t estimate how much the service’s low-emission buses will reduce greenhouse gas production. “We do, however, expect measurable reductions,” Lyles wrote. Of major industries in Oakland, transportation and land use contribute the greatest percentage of greenhouse gases, according to the City of Oakland’s 2015 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Report.

Between 1999 and 2001, AC Transit staff conducted a study to determine which parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties could benefit from new transit. They decided to focus on a high-use corridor between UC Berkeley, downtown Oakland, East Oakland, and San Leandro. But the Berkeley City Council opted out of the project in 2010, after merchants complained that construction would limit on-street parking and hamper business.

In the following years, AC Transit staff revised their original plan. Construction was supposed to begin in 2014, but it didn’t get started until 2017. AC Transit now plans to begin service along the route at the end of 2019.

Some merchants along the route say the construction has disrupted business because it has diverted lanes and traffic, preventing customers from parking in the area. Surrounded by wooden crates full of tomatoes and pineapples, Pablo Martinez rang up customers at the International Produce Market on Wednesday. Across the street, at the intersection of International and 39th Avenue, a construction crew installed wiring for a new traffic signal.  

Martinez has owned the market for nearly 19 years. “I understand this project is for good, for a good future,” Martinez said of the new bus line. But the construction has also affected his business, he said, because his customers don’t have anywhere to park. “I used to get clients from Hayward, or Berkeley,” Martinez said, “and they don’t show up.”

A sign in a window that reads "Los negocios están ABIERTOS durante la construcción"
A sign in the window of a hardware store alerts customers that business will continue during construction.

Across the street from the produce market, Gilbert Alfonso leaned against a red Chevrolet truck in his car repair shop. “It’s a nightmare for me because they’re closing me up for days and customers won’t come through here,” he said, referring to the construction just outside his business.

Alfonso has owned Trans-Mag Transmission for 42 years. “They’re going down from four lanes to two lanes, and my advertisement is my sign,“ he said, referring to the enormous, red, hand-painted letters that advertise the auto shop to passersby. “I figure I had 200 cars go by in a day. Now I have 100 cars go by in a day,” he continued. “I lose business.”

According to a parking study conducted by transportation consultants Fehr & Peers, neighborhoods along the BRT route lost 302 parking spaces, or 10 percent of all parking, to construction. AC Transit also created two new parking lots.

“AC Transit and the City of Oakland collaborated in extensive public outreach to residents, merchants, and property owners along Oakland’s International Boulevard,” Lyles wrote in an email. “Ultimately, all parking was reviewed and approved by the city’s respective departments and the Oakland City Council.” Oakland city officials also created a Business Sustainability Program to help merchants who lost business due to BRT construction.

Jacob Wang owns the Family Depot store, a convenience store near the Fruitvale BART Station that offers everything from hats and glittery hair clips to rainbow unicorn balloons. He also says that business has suffered, because there’s no parking in the area. He wishes construction would go faster. But he saw a picture of the BRT—an architectural rendering of what the finished bus line will look like. “It’s beautiful,” he said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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