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Questioning AC Transit's BRT Proposal

AC Transit's BRT is a waste of money being proposed by a transit agency that can't make its current system run on time.

 

I've been thinking about AC Transit's Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal and can't help but question its necessity. There are several factors at play that undermine the plausibility for this venture and are worth considering before moving forward.

AC Transit proposes numerous benefits to be had from this new service, including increased patronage, reduced global warming by getting people out of their cars, and speedier trip times.

All well and good, but what of the current system in place?

The streets being considered for BRT are the stretches of International Blvd and East 14th Street between Oakland and San Leandro. This is one of the busiest corridors in the Bay Area and is already being heavily serviced by AC Transit.

Along with the numerous buses that use various portions of this stretch of roads, there are two dedicated bus lines in the 1 and 1R. The R line, in particular, is touted on the AC Transit website for its use of "leading-edge technology and unique on-street improvements to reduce travel time."

Scheduling for the R claims to be approximately every 10 minutes, while the 1 claims to be every 15 minutes or so. Combined with the other lines sharing International and E.14th, and suddenly you're looking at a very well-serviced street.

Indeed, going a step further, if the tech on the R line is "leading-edge", what exactly more will BRT bring to the table, bleeding-edge technology? And if that's the case, why can't the new tech simply be added onto the currently existing buses to make their trips through intersections equally as fast?

One particularly key piece of information not included on the AC Transit website is that the buses follow their respective schedules inconsistently at best. It's very common to see the 1R show up in pairs of twos (and sometimes threes), followed by an incomprehensible lapse in service for 30-35 minutes, and beyond.

Calls to 511 to inquire about these odd delays and conga-lines of buses result in denials of knowledge of any inconsistencies and "technical issues". These are the same people coming to us with their hands out and promising faster trips.

Considering the number of BART stations running parallel to this proposed route between SL and Oakland, BRT becomes even more senseless. A dedicated line in the middle of the street might seem like a speedier way to get around, but nothing beats BART, especially when it doesn't have to ever stop for traffic lights. As long as you plan your departure from BART to sync with an AC Transit departure, you can already get to your destination in an efficient time frame.

Also, though less detrimental to San Leandro, the businesses running up and down International stand to lose quite a few customers by having parking in front of their storefronts removed. As recently documented by CBS 5, many business owners are fearful that forcing customers to find parking around the corner and walking all the way back to their stores will turn away a significent amount of shoppers. What's the point of marginally improving commute times and shuttering businesses?

Ultimately, BRT is an expensive proposition that doesn't significently reduce travel time and will add to street congestion by removing a lane for each direction of traffic. If AC Transit can't competently run the buses it already has, how can they be expected to make BRT work any better?

I'd much rather see money diverted to reinstating bus service that's been cut and altogether removed throughout the AC Transit system. This alone would help people in out of the way locations get to where they need to go a lot better than making a minute improvement to service of a line that is already flooded with buses as is.

If AC Transit adhered to their own schedule the 1 and 1R would be more than enough to make their currently existing buses an economical and convenient alternative to driving down E.14th Street and International.

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Robert Marrujo July 16, 2012 at 06:36 PM
BRT will never be able to tout itself as a competitive alternative to BART because it's physically impossible for it to offer anywhere near as fast a trip between Oakland and SL. It is a looong drive from the corner of E14th and Davis to the heart of downtown Oakland by city streets, whether you have the middle of the street cordoned off for a bus line or not. Unless BRT can fly, it has to cover the same distance as the existing buses do. And unless BRT is capable of leaping above traffic, it's going to have to yield to traffic lights like the current buses do, even if at a lesser or similar rate compared to the 1R. Factor in the issues I noted above in regards to driver accountability and bus safety, and BRT is not a winner by any means.
David July 16, 2012 at 06:53 PM
Joel, What is the median trip time on the 1R? Where are the most frequent boardings/off-boardings? How much time would be saved with the BRT on the "most frequent" trip/trip distance? How much "growth" in population along the corridor does AC Transit think is going to happen, and why, given the declines in population along that corridor in the past 10 years? Given all that, how is this proposal cost-effective?
Leah Hall July 16, 2012 at 06:54 PM
Community Road Advisory: If you do spot a deer in the road, slow down but do not floor your car's brakes. This gives the animal time snap out of its "shock," thereby "unfreeze" and run away, giving you time to move around it.
Joel Ramos July 16, 2012 at 07:12 PM
Marga, BRT will be good for and attract riders from every neighborhood within a 10 minute walk to E.14th St., including much of Northern San Leandro. If one's transit is sure to arrive every 5 minutes instead of maybe every 12 minutes (the way it does now), we can be sure that more people will find it to be an attractive choice over a car that one would need to drive and find parking for. This is what builds ridership and attracts people out of their cars in other BRT systems across the country. With stations located along the route more closer together than where the "Rapid" bus stops now, BRT will be a game-changer for how people get around that live close to E.14th St.
Joel Ramos July 16, 2012 at 07:25 PM
David, The BRT stations will be at the same place or closer to where 90% of the current riders take the bus today. And travel time DOES account for walk time. 5 minute headways is REALLY significant in both attracting ridership and reducing total trip time. The growth projections are based on ABAG's and MTC's numbers. Granted, some places may have exprienced reductions from past peaks in numbers, but car ownership is rising and rising, and traffic is getting worse and worse. At some point, we'll need to do something else to better use our infrastructure. Finally, the cost of of providing transit trips per passenger will go down with this project, because of increased efficiencies. This would actually reduce the need for our government agencies to have to borrow or create "austerity measures" (a.k.a. budget cuts), which result in service cuts and or fare hikes for transit. With San Leandro's BART TOD plan and other job-center prospects, we'll need to do more with what we have, and BRT allows us that option.
Robert Marrujo July 16, 2012 at 07:28 PM
Marga also raises a very good point that exists for both AC Transit as it is now and as it will be with BRT, which is that access to E14th and International is extremely limited for anyone not close to either street. As I mentioned above, it seems more prudent and logical to focus funds towards reinstating and expanding service to outlying, further away areas that don't have readily available access to buses. As it stands now, the 1/1R are both great ways of getting near a BART station, but there are a lot of people who just can't get to these buses because they're too far away. BRT does not resolve this issue because it doesn't expand the service of the 1/1R.
Joel Ramos July 16, 2012 at 07:29 PM
Robert, BRT is not meant to compete w/ BART. It's for people traveling between or to BART stations. Please see the other newer comments. And with dedicated lanes (where they are most needed), BRT will stay clear of traffic. It becomes cost effective because the travel times and cost per passenger are reduced (there is less where and tear and or idling loading passengers). This translates to efficiencies which can then be re-invested to provide more service, for less money.
David July 16, 2012 at 07:34 PM
18 of 23 Census districts from San Leandro to Lake Merritt along the E.14/Inty corridor have lost 5-15% of their population over the past 10 years. That's more than what some might call "some." Decreased cost per passenger? You really think I'm stupid? Even IF this project were to come in on budget (which we all know it won't), AND even IF this project were to result in the incremental 6,000 riders/day, taxpayers are paying $1,000 per passenger per year for 40 years, before we count increased operating costs. Now, remind me again what the farebox recovery number is for AC Transit? There is no way this project will be cost effective. It will be a continuing bleed on taxpayers (who support AC Transit) forever.
Robert Marrujo July 16, 2012 at 07:40 PM
I still take issue with your claims. Trying to minimize the rise of people turning to cars by implementing BRT is not the answer. Again, we're talking about reducing travel time by amounts that are borderline negligible and by no means guaranteed when a system is already in place (BART) that is always going to be faster and is already easily accessible by using the buses that are currently going down E14th and International. Your qualms with the future are legitimate, but BRT is not a viable answer.
Robert Marrujo July 16, 2012 at 07:49 PM
Again, you can't bend the laws of physics to make the trip any shorter, and unless BRT is going 80 mph in the sky over intersections, any time-savings created from cordoning off of the middle of the street would be minimal, at best. If anyone wants to travel to or between BART stations, the currently existing schedule already works, it just needs to be better secured and monitored by AC Transit to make it more efficient. Your projections paint a pretty picture but don't acknowledge the reality of the situation.
Joel Ramos July 16, 2012 at 07:55 PM
Robert, Again, AC Transit has said that for anyone trying to get up and down the entire corridor, they should take BART. This project is not for those riders. However, it will be competing for people who are taking short trips in their cars, like TO the BART station or up and down the corridor for shorter trips. While a reduction in travel time is certainly appreciated, it's the reliability that is so nice and attractive about BRT (which it gets from dedicated lanes in the places where it's most needed). Having a bus show up every 5 minutes and getting one to one's destination in a quicker manner than transit does today is what has attracted riders in other cities to BRT.
Marga Lacabe July 16, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Joel, pretty much anyone in San Leandro who would be willing to walk 10 minutes to BRT, is likely to be just as willing to walk to BART. Indeed, the furthest BRT stop in San Leandro is a 20-25 minute walk from BART, which means that for most people in San Leandro, walking to BART is likely to take less time than walking to BRT, waiting for it and then riding it. Believe me, I'm the laziest person you'll ever meet. All my friends will tell you how I hate walking - but unless a bus trip will save me a guaranteed 20 minutes, I won't take the bus. And by guaranteed, I mean taking into consideration all the possible delays. Yes, you will minimize those with BRT, but you will not eliminate them. The other issue you don't consider is cost. Driving and parking at BART may be a pain, but it only costs $1. BRT fare will be $4 a day - and you only save a bit if you buy a monthly pass. Now, my guess is that if you are living in south Oakland, you are cost conscious. I know I am - indeed, often times I walk to save those $4. It does sound to me like you are assuming that because things worked one way somewhere else, somehow they should work that way everywhere else. And that is a very foolish assumption - in particular, when it seems you have not looked at the particulars of the population you are meaning to serve (or not serve).
Marga Lacabe July 16, 2012 at 08:52 PM
Joel, what are these "shorter trips" that you envision anyone taking? If you have a car, under which circumstances do you see yourself spending $4.20 pp to take BRT rather than driving? And if you don't have a car, you're using 1/1R anyway, so it's not changing anything.
Leah Hall July 16, 2012 at 09:54 PM
Thank you, Joel. I think you are looking at this from the appropriate perspective, in which one needs to take a few steps back in addition to zooming in on the particular things that make San Leandro fabulous and unique. We are a sweet little city. I have lived in cities with great transit sytems, and in fact our family never needed 2 cars until moving to San Leandro. In parts of Berkeley and Oakland, it is actually quicker for some folks to get to work in SF than folks who live on the penninsula. This is a result of good transit and proximity to BART. In my own family, I doubt we will ever get down to less than one car, but it would be great if that investment was only needed for weekend chores and outings - not commutes and daily services. The added benefit of high transit scores is personal fitness. Cities with poor transit scores tend to have the highest rates of obesity and weight related chronic disease (though ethnic background and nutrition also plays a role).
Robert Marrujo July 16, 2012 at 11:57 PM
Joel: I'm sorry, but there's just not enough here to support the cost associated with this venture. 5 minutes? Really? An entire new system that MIGHT shave 5 or so minutes off of the estimated time listed on the schedules is worth all of this overhaul? No. It's not. People will not shift their entire lives around and abandon their cars en masse simply because the exact same bus route that already exists is a supposed-five minutes faster. I ask again, do you ride AC Transit now? The 1/1R? Have you ever seen the people who ride this line, been through East Oakland and into the Fruitvale and beyond? Do you know the region? Do you have anything other than the press releases and statistical assumptions you keep referencing to justify fixing a system that's not so broken it can't be fixed? I don't see any sense in spending millions of dollars on a project with minimal improvements to what's already there, not to mention the potential losses businesses owners stand to suffer from having the parking in front of their stores removed.
Joel Ramos July 17, 2012 at 12:26 AM
As a DAILY rider on this line, I know the 1/1R simply isn't working now, and AC Transit's efforts to change it are resulting in wasted money on empty buses bunched up against full buses. That money could be going to supplementing effective services on other lines, or better frequencies on this line. Again, BRT is the best shot at improving transit and creating an alternative for cars. No one on this blog has suggested a different, viable alternative, which implies that you feel that the status quo is working. There are reasons why so many people don't or can't take the bus. While BRT won't solve all the issues, it will help with some of them. With an eye towards the future and with keeping the 19,000 daily riders on this line in mind, it's my hope that a compromise will be adopted...which is what the City Council voted on last week....dedicated lanes up to the monument. From there, we can see if running in mixed use lanes for only the remainder of the route will be short enough to keep the buses from bunching through the rest of Northern San Leandro
Francis Chen July 17, 2012 at 12:29 AM
To put things into perspective, I reference transit consultant Jarrett Walker to clarify this debate. When people need to move from one place to another, (i.e travel), it is motivated by a need to do something ;it is a derived demand. People value access to the place that they need to do something at, whether it be grocery shopping, going to work, going to school, going to the movies, etc. etc. Thus, the ability to access a destination is more important than the ability to move from one place to another. Bringing this point back to BRT, having a bus arrive every five minutes will definitely reduce travel times since you do not have to wait for the bus, especially since the bus has its own separate lane. However, depending on the person, will it allow you to access the destination you want at a shorter travel time than other modes? This ultimately depends on which population you are trying to serve. For the people who already live on the corridor and who already use BRT, this means that they can see their travel times reduced. However, what about the people who live on the corridor and who do not use BRT? What % of people have destinations that could easily be accessible (travel time, distance) with the implementation of BRT?
Francis Chen July 17, 2012 at 12:44 AM
Robert is right in answering this question: who lives in the region? If we want to spend less time traveling (walk/car/bus/bike/rail/etc.), its not about transit frequency, but LAND USE. How close are the origins and destinations of people who you are trying to serve with this transit line? How can you plan regionally such that the distances between origin and destination are much closer to each-other? Joel, you bring up valid facts, but if this issue of land use isn't addressed within the BRT corridor, its success in bringing people out of cars is very limited. I think it's very important to make sure we understand our (community's) goals for BRT, if we are talking about BRT. If the goal is to reduce travel time, BRT can definitely guarantee that. However, if our goal is to get people out of their automobiles and increasing transit ridership, BRT has less of an impact on that than land use. Now, I'm not saying BRT is a bad thing. BRT can be successful, only if land use and transport planning ARE connected. I haven't been following the planning process very well, but I know for a fact that land use is a rarely discussed topic. I think it's a very valid point that cost is brought up. It's very hard to see the cost-efficiencies if we don't know THE faces of the riders, as well as the "potential riders". To emphasize: what are your goals for BRT? I do agree that transit is a great sustainable option, but only if planned correctly with land use.
Joel Ramos July 17, 2012 at 01:08 AM
Francine, BRT has always been planned as the local connection to the anticipated new land-use / density to be built around the BART station. You're indeed correct. We do see land use as being critical to build ridership. People need to be able to live and work closer to the corridor if we expect them to depend less on a car. To see Oakland's LAND USE plan for the BRT corridor, see here: http://www2.oaklandnet.com/Government/o/PBN/OurOrganization/PlanningZoning/DOWD009112 See San Leandro's Plan for development around the SL BART station here: http://www.sanleandro.org/pdf/todstrategyfinal.pdf
Francis Chen July 17, 2012 at 01:19 AM
Joel, thank you for answering my question. I'll look into this more closely
tony santos July 17, 2012 at 02:41 AM
Boy, what garbage-where were all of you when BRT when first discussed in the late nineties-how many of you were living in San Leandro? The prime mover of BRT in San Leandro was Garry Loeffler-how happy is he today? Some of you should ask him why he supported BRT and got Council to go along with him? Council policy was to terminate BRT at downtown BART station-AC wanted to extend the program to Bay Fair Bart-blocked by Shelia Young and shurline Grant. Also Vargas is correct; there was better bus service years ago then there is today-only point, learn why these thing adopted, read all the past reports, including AC EISs and Council reports from the past-who knows you may find reasons for past actions. Last fact, AC had full funding to introduce project; that money I assume will be lost-if it isn't already.
David July 17, 2012 at 02:49 AM
Marga brings up a point I forgot to bring up. $4/day is a gallon of gas. A typical car can drive 15-25 miles on that cost. Throw in registration and insurance, and I pay another $500/year on my $2000 car. So if I'm burning $2/day in gas, commuting 10 miles r/t, plus amortized car cost and annual insurance cost, I'm ahead of the game AND I have a trunk. AND I can carry passengers. AND I don't have to wait anytime for a bus or walk to a bus stop. There's really no way this is a cost-effective use of funds.
David July 17, 2012 at 02:51 AM
It was a bad idea in the '90's, it's a bad idea now, and I don't care if the money is "lost"--it's federal taxes and the Feds need to spend less too.
David July 17, 2012 at 02:54 AM
Joel, here are two alternatives, one of which I posted here and one I posted elsewhere: 1) Make the 1R free. Other cities like Portland have "free transit" corridors, why not try it here. See how much ridership increases. See if business picks up, see how much faster the bus goes and how increased speed compares to this massive spending plan. 2) More creatively: Provide an electric bike/scooter sharing/use plan for the corridor, pick up/drop off at points along the corridor. Fee is the same as a bus trip. For $100M (less than half the cost of this project), you could buy scooters for every rider. Get out of your 19th century transit thinking.
Leah Hall July 17, 2012 at 03:43 AM
Said it before and I'll say it again, what a fabulous town! ;-)
Leah Hall July 17, 2012 at 04:47 AM
and BRT San Leandro gets a unanimous City Council vote tonight! "The San Leandro City Council votes 7-0 to give final approval to the BRT, which AC Transit calls Better Rapid Transit." -SL Patch Facebook page
Paul Vargas July 17, 2012 at 05:15 AM
Loeffler was incapable of independent thought. This was another Jermanis stupidity. He and Ellen Corbett were behind eliminating lanes on Bancroft and E. 14th St. Loeffler was just the parrot for Jermanis' plan.
David July 17, 2012 at 12:34 PM
Another "victory" for 1950's technology! Leah, you're so "progressive" !
Paul Vargas July 17, 2012 at 12:43 PM
I'm under the impression that Gary Loeffler lives in Idaho. Hmmm a state that embraces the Second Amendment. Remember Gary was against guns and The Traders. Another useless hypocrite who screwed over San Leandro, took the money and ran.
Robert Marrujo July 17, 2012 at 05:24 PM
David: Haha, that's what I was thinking. International, when it was E14th, had a street car waaayy back in the day that ran a good distance.

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