Bus rapid transit watch: East Bay update

Artist's rendering of BRT in Temescal, courtesy of AC Transit

The East Bay Express has this update on the effort to build a bus rapid transit route from Berkeley to San Leandro. At first glance it looks like the same old same old: Planners want to build (overly?) grand project, and the local merchants fear change. In this case business owner Randy Reed says it would eliminate 70 percent of the parking for his customers... you've seen this movie before right? Wrong, actually. According to EBX, Reed is all for transit and smart growth. Reed says he'd love to see the Temescal in north Oakland, where Reed Brother's Security is located, turn into a walkable neighborhood, where dense housing and commercial development replaces surface parking lots, and where a BRT really would be used to it's potential. He just wants to see it done right.

Intrigued, I called Randy Reed for a reality check. I wanted to know why, if he really was a smart growth advocate, he was so worried about this BRT. I also wanted to know why he was so worried about parking; that stretch of Telegraph is populated by strip-mall type retail with lots of off street parking. But according to him those lots fill up: "Temescal has been very very successful in the last 10 years," he said. But not so successful that he thinks it needs BRT service, at least not yet. It would make sense, he said, if north Oakland became a high density area, as is proposed in the city's master plan. But neighborhood activists are now pushing the city to institute a 45-foot cap on buildings (that's higher than the current zoning allows, but it's not exactly high density). "AC Transit is saying, 'If we build it, they will come,' but at the same time Oakland is scaling back the opportunity for growth," he said. "You can't have it both ways." Meanwhile, he says that AC Transit refuses to listen to business owners.

Spokesperson Clarence Johnson says AC Transit is trying to listen to everyone, and if there has been a breakdown in communication, it will do better in the future. "There's no proposal set in stone," Johnson said. "We will sit down with the communities involved and see what works for them." And Reed's assertion that BRT will eliminate 70 percent of street parking? Johnson says it doesn't make sense to make those kinds of projections because AC Transit hasn't finished it's design. It is imperative, he assured me, that that design is shaped to the needs of residents along the route.

Reed has a couple suggestions that seem to make a lot of sense: First, he thinks that BRT should start small. There's already a proposal to simply give an express bus the technology for signal prioritization (without building dedicated lanes). Start with that, Reed says, and see how it works. As Oakland grows denser the dedicated lanes could be built piecemeal. Second, he thinks that a dedicated lane could work on Telegraph as long as planners didn't take more space for bike lanes on each side. He points out that there are bike lanes one block away, on Webster, which runs parallel to Telegraph.

AC Transit's Clarence Johnson said that sorting out all these details may take some time. Once plans are done, the BRT could be up and running in as little as two years. But the building time will depend on what those plans include, he said. Every city's BRT will look slightly different, Johnson said, and Oakland needs one tailored to work for it. For instance, Oakland's BRT probably won't look like Bogota's... Check out the ideas here