Bus Rapid Transit 001

Last Saturday there was a meeting regarding AC Transit's Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposals hosted by Jane Brunner. Despite being reminded by Future Oakland and Living in the O, I missed the meeting. This topic has interested me for a while, and is one I've been learning about and forming opinions on for some time, but I wanted to attend this meeting to make sure I wasn't missing something. Because the opinions I have been forming are dangerously similar to a typical Berkeley conservative nimby, and frankly I am not at all comfortable with that.

Fortunately, Living in the O provided a great rundown of the meeting the next day. And Wednesday a post at A Better Oakland moved me toward BRT like nothing I'd read yet. As I mentioned in comments at both blogs, I am skeptical. But I am also a huge supporter and user of public transport, and willing to be convinced I have it wrong. So consider this a snapshot of where my head is at right now.

My first exposure to AC Transit's BRT proposal was through graphic design. I noticed the bus signs for the Rapid service, probably on the 1 and 72 routes, because they are so dang ugly. On this you can't change my mind, no matter how many cupcakes you give me.

My second experience was much better. Several weeks ago, on a weekday late morning, I needed to go from Uptown Oakland to San Pablo Park in south Berkeley, located between San Pablo and Sacramento Streets just north of Ashby. Now this isn't a trip I normally make, so when I got to the Uptown Transit Center (UTC) I looked at the map and figured out I could take the 72. I didn't bother to check NextBus or the posted schedule, because I find neither seem to correspond with the other, and often around town the schedules posted at individual stops don't correspond with those online. Thus the only schedule-related thing I typically do with AC Transit is note the headway and pray I'm on the short end of it.

As luck would have it, the first bus to arrive was a 72R. It was wonderful. We flew down San Pablo, not once pulling over for someone just resting at a random bus stop. Now because the online schedule for the 72R does not list individual stops (arrgghhh!) I don't know how much time I saved, but for the 72 that trip is scheduled at 19 minutes, I'm guessing mine was more like 12 minutes. There are two ways to look at that, both valid. On the one hand I only saved 7 minutes, on the other, my transport time was reduced by 37%, though when you factor in my walk on either end and wait time for the bus, it was probably more like 15% (7-8 minutes on either end, with a 5 minute wait). But regardless, it was great.

There are so many aspects to the AC Transit BRT proposal it is hard to know where to start. So let me just begin with the route. It is redundant to the BART Richmond-Fremont line. Now at that link, you'll find some decent arguments for why it is not redundant, but regardless of your take, the redundancy issue is the reason why it was a mistake to make this the first route. I agree with those who argue that BRT can fill a need between BART and standard local bus service. The problem is that there are several major East Bay corridors (San Pablo, MacArthur/I-580) that don't have BART service. And so, if AC Transit was interested in vastly improving transit service in the EB, it would have located the first BRT line there. They didn't, and this goes to my next point.

AC Transit is simply not making good decisions right now. I've already discussed the choice of the first BRT route and the graphic design of the Rapid, and the Van Hool debacle has already been well documented, but there are others. Some people seem to disagree, but NextBus rarely works for me. I often take the 15 or 18 lines home from the downtown Oakland YMCA in the early evening, and on occasion I'll get there and it says the next bus will be 25 minutes out, even though the headways are supposed to be 15 minutes. Before, I would turn around and go to BART. For me the timing is about the same, but the bus shortens my walk, and I don't fear my safety so much as I'm lazy. But then one time after seeing 25 minutes or so on NextBus, the bus showed up as I was walking back to BART. And now, though I see 25 minutes or some crazy number that doesn't even correspond to the posted headway somewhat regularly I just wait, and sure enough, mostly a bus arrives in 5-10 minutes.

And AC Transit has schedule problems beyond NextBus as well. I used to take the F line into San Francisco fairly regularly during my morning commute. Again the timing is about the same as BART, but it is a lot nicer getting a seat and seeing the beautiful SF Bay in the morning, rather than standing in a tube at the bottom of it. But the schedule posted at the bus stop doesn't correspond to the schedule online. I've noticed this at other bus stops around town as well. Of course for the F line I quickly learned which one to believe (online), because I was a regular user of that line. But the schedules posted at bus stops aren't for regular users, they are for people find themselves needing to get someplace they may not ordinarily go from a place they may not ordinarily be in, and who may be trying transit for the first time. Having the wrong schedules posted at bus stops makes an awful impression.

I already mentioned the graphic design of the Rapid service, but the whole of AC Transit's design program is just awful. Take the new Translink cards, which I find to be generally useful, but the graphic design is terrible. Aside from the insipid green psuedo-futuristic image that looks like it was pulled off clipart, nothing about the card tells me it is for the Bay Area, and not Los Angeles, Denver, or Kolkata. Now for the most part, this card can be hidden away in your wallet or purse. But unfortunately the Uptown Transit Center (UTC) cannot.

And the UTC is dreadful. Certainly, as Becks mentioned in comments at A Better Oakland, it is safer than the alternative of waiting a few blocks away, but why does it have to be so ugly? Regardless of what you happen to think of the architectural style of the shelters (me, not much), why do they have to be painted in the same green as nearly every other municipal project built in the last two decades? Why do I have to approach each shelter to find out which buses stop there, instead of being able to read the whole with some bold graphic initiative? And why do I have to wait to board the bus to pay, instead of paying ahead of time at some cool shelter like they have in Curitiba (image above). The answer to all these questions, as it turns out, is that the UTC was designed by FMG Architects, the same people AC Transit has retained to work on BRT, BART is using for Ashby Station, and apparently designed (to be fair, I haven't confirmed this but they have lots of similar projects) that awful parking garage in Dublin that everyone rightfully hates.

So I'm not hopeful for the physical designs of the new BRT system. I've been to two meetings now on Ashby Station, and I am floored by how bad they have both been. Aside from FMG's design abilities, these guys have awful presentation skills. They are defensive and condescending when criticized, and are always pleading that their designs are still in progress, and so can't be judged by the images they present. I remember using a similar argument in my first architectural studio at graduate school; it didn't go over so well.

Now if you squint at the image at top, you can see the BRT bus shelters FMG is proposing (inasmuch as they are willing to propose anything) and to me these look like standard issue shelters from 1993. BRT is going to have a huge impact on the neighborhoods whose streets are going to be ripped up and reconfigured, I think it is incumbent upon AC Transit to do better by them. I am thinking of what Minneappolis did when they built light rail. I can't find a decent link, but basically they hired the best and brightest local talent to design their shelters. And mostly, they are gorgeous.

A bus shelter is the perfect size and scale for an unestablished architect to try their hand. This kind of thing is done all over Europe, where small commissions are awarded to young, creative firms as a way to build local talent and prevent the stultifying suburban sameness that seems to accompany nearly every municipal project in our country. And larger projects are awarded by open design competitions. Renzo Piano, who designed the wonderful new California Academy of Sciences, got his start this way, winning the competition (with Richard Rogers and Peter Rice) to design Le Centre Pompidou in Paris at the age of 33. Thirty-three. And yet here, in the Bay Area, one of the wealthiest regions of the world, we get FMG Architects designing what seems to be dozens of crummy parking garages, transit centers, and government administration buildings. And so I fear the shelters and stations for the entire BRT system will be the same off-the-shelf municipal designs, with no sense of place because all of them will be essentially identical. I mean, gag me with a spoon!

I realize many people don't care much about these design criticisms, and find them frivolous or tangental. But one of the things people who love Oakland should care about is the experience of being in Oakland. And these criticisms go to that. I am concerned that BRT will make the experience of being in Oakland worse.

In addition to all these design crimes, BRT significantly reduces street parking in commercial corridors. I am not familiar with the whole of the route and how much parking will be eliminated and where, so I am just going to focus on the situation in Temescal, which I think I know fairly well. It is my understanding that the basic BRT street section in Temescal will be two bus lanes down the middle, with a median on either side, separating a lane of traffic each way, and no street parking.

There are plenty of people who argue that eliminating parking will hurt businesses and that moving to one lane of traffic each direction will cause terrible congestion. I am not one of them. I think congestion is good for cities like Oakland, and anyplace worth its salt has a "parking problem". Think about a couple of the best places in Oakland, upper College Avenue near Safeway and Grand Lake on a Saturday afternoon. Both are completely congested and hard to park at. So let me just say that I think less parking and more congestion in Temescal would be a good thing. But eliminating street parking is a huge psychological change in the makeup of the street. Instead of a barrier of cars protecting pedestrians on the sidewalk, they will be directly exposed to a lane of traffic, and those drivers will be more aggressive and agitated because congestion will be somewhat increased. And not only that, but there appears to be little room for a dedicated bike lane, which wouldn't be terrible (bike lanes are overrated), except in that case there may not be enough room for a typical vehicle to comfortably pass a bicyclist either, further exacerbating the situation. All of which is to say that sitting outside having a chicken sandwich at Bakesale Betty or eggs at The Mixing Bowl will become a significantly worse experience. And I don't think that is something enough people appreciate.

BRT supporters like to claim it as a boon to pedestrians and bikers in addition to bus riders, but that clearly is not the case in all places at all times. In Temescal, the pedestrian and bike experience will be worse. I am happy to argue with those who think this is a legitimate tradeoff. I disagree, but it is a debatable point. But I think if we proceed this needs to be recognized and mitigated (through better design?), and not just swept away with the assumption that what is good for bus riders is automatically good for pedestrians and bikers.

At the end of the day this all goes, to get a little teleological here, to what is the purpose of transit and what constitutes the good life as lived within cities. Many people argue for transit with the intention of increasing mobility, but a far better way to think about this is that we should be working on increasing access. For the last half century, our transport policies have unduly favored mobility, to the detriment of cities. Places like Oakland became mere pass-throughs, routes on the way to somewhere else. My fear is that BRT, rather than challenge this regime, reinforces it. In simple terms, perhaps it is time we begin to favor place over movement.

Though I've made some passionate arguments here, I want to reiterate that I am open to changing my mind. In fact I would like to do so, because as I mentioned, I am a huge supporter and user of public transport. But right now, as I currently understand it to be conceived, I think this AC Transit BRT proposal is a marginally bad idea. And not only for all the problems outlined above, but because there are huge opportunity costs to choosing it. As I mentioned in one of my earlier comments on A Better Oakland, what if we took this money ( I know, I know) and spent it instead on feeding better (way better) into the existing BART route. My guess is that it would go really, really far. Far enough (perhaps?) to provide a similar level of service as this BRT proposal with a lot left over for other transit improvements. I don't know, but I want to; tell me I am wrong.


Anonymous said...

I think BRT as implemented in Curitiba is brilliant, but I am also very skeptical of the AC Transit proposal. I didn't know about the AC Transit proposal until I stumbled upon the A Better Oakland blog two days ago, so besides what I have read there and on the AC Transit website, I admit I don't know all the details.

What I find most off putting is the cost. In Curitiba, one of the chief planning dictates is cheapness. The AC Transit BRT proposal has an estimated cost of $250 million. To put this in perspective, this is almost equivalent to the entire annual budget for AC Transit, and about 13 times the annual amount spent on capital improvements. To spend this amount on one bus line when the rest of the system is suffering from route closures and poor service is ludicrous.

One of the other design features of the transport system in Curitiba is that it is a comprehensive system which provides reliable point to point transport throughout the region. Besides the express buses which use the trinary road system (what AC Transit is calling 'BRT'), there are eight other types of routes including feeder lines, inter-neighborhood routes, and even inter-hospital buses. The entire system is designed to work efficiently as a whole. Express buses are a part of it, but the system would not work without the other parts also working efficiently.

The AC Transit system becomes less comprehensive each year. Until several years ago, there was a bus stop two blocks from my house and I would often take the bus. That route was closed due to budget constraints, and the nearest bus stop was then about 0.25 of a mile from my house. I still rode the bus, but less often. Now the nearest bus stop is 0.8 of a mile from my house, and because of this and other route closures it takes me an hour and twenty minutes to go by bus the five miles from my house to work. Or it would if I ever rode the bus. From talking to others, this is a pretty common experience. At this point AC Transit only seems to be working for the people who live along a still existing route and travel that route without having to change buses, or for those without other options.

AC Transit really needs to concentrate money and attention on improving the entire system before spending a quarter of a billion dollars on a 'Moon Shot' or 'Hail Mary Pass'. Ideas like moving pament off the bus across the system would shave a few minutes off every route, allowing resources to be redeployed to new routes or increase frequency on existing routes. This is the type of incremental change that isn't as glamourous as BRT, but yields big improvements for the investment.

Anonymous said...

Phenomenal writeup. You bring up issues that are actually substantive and don't smack of backwards NIMBYism, which is something I hadn't yet seen from any viewpoints opposing BRT(not that I've been looking that hard...).

I especially appreciated the points made about the effects to pyschic space for people on the sidewalk. Creating those "buffer zones" between streets, sidewalks and buildings (along with reducing curb cuts for driveways) are absolutely essential to encouraging walkable, populated street scenes(envigorating neighborhoods, reudcing crime, all that jazz). By pulling out all street parking, BRT would be stripping away that barrier between pedestrians and cars.

Even so, I don't think it's an insurmountable issue. Using planter boxes, trees, greenspace or public art can help create just as an effective pyschic space between sidewalk and traffic as street parking currently does. In fact, you could incorporate local artists in a bidding process to do just that, since they missed out on getting to design the shelters(per your awesome suggestion). If my memory serves me, most of the sidewalks in the Temescal are certainly wide enough to convert some space. Actually, considering the low heights of the buildings and how wide Telegraph is down there, limiting the sidewalk space might actually have a positive effect on pedestrian perception of the street.

The bicycle issue doesn't bother me that much either, but for different reasons. I've seen a perfectly workable solution in Alameda. Park Street can be comparable to the College Ave in its hustle and bustle. There is NO room for bikes on that street. But to accomodate bicyclists who want access to the same stores on Park Street, Alameda created bicycle lanes on the two streets that parallel Park Street to the north and south. I've always been of the mind that secondary streets work better for bicycles anway. There are fewer cars and they move more slowly, making it a much safer place to bike.

As a final aside: yes, the costs to get BRT started is expensive, but have you seen the per-mile expense estimates to build overhead BART track? BRT costs pale in comparison.

Raymond Johnson said...

Eric, You touch on another of my concerns, that part of the appeal of BRT is the glam factor, when the system might benefit much more from smaller, incremental changes spread across the system. This money from Washington is apparently only available for BRT, which I think is part of that, it is a lot harder for our reps there to take credit for those kind of changes.

Chris Kidd, I like your idea of planters and trees replacing parked cars as psychological barrier. It is just not clear to me there has been much thought given to this yet. I'm not sure that the opportunity has been missed to have young, creative architects work on this project, but I'm not hopeful it will happen. I've got to disagree on narrowing the sidewalks though. Pedestrian traffic will only be increasing in this area, and since we may be moving the psych barrier onto the sidwalks, we'll need the extra room.

Finally, after reviewing AC Transit promo video Becks linked to, it seems like they are looking at differentiated the individual stops, though the designs still don't look promising.

Anonymous said...

Finally, after reviewing AC Transit promo video Becks linked to, it seems like they are looking at differentiated the individual stops, though the designs still don't look promising.

You read my mind Raymond - I was stopping by to point that out. Also, remember that these are just initial ideas for the bus stops. And I happen to think that some of the models look pretty neat.

You've probably seen it by now, but if not, V Smoothe wrote an excellent post today explaining why this particular route was chosen and why it's not redundant to BART.

Anonymous said...

Glad someone finally commented on how ugly the BRT system stations are. It's like some bad architecture from the 60s.

I'm curious about the head-on collision scenario, too. How many buses have collided in Curitiba? Scary. Can't we get a physical separation barrier in there, and then do away with cars altogether?

Just gimme a physically-separated bike lane and we'll all be happy, and we won't have heart attacks until we're in our 60s, at least.

Also, no sane human wants to be chased by a gargantuan bus through the streets of Oakland and Berkeley.