The city bus has become a political scapegoat. Neighbors on Cedar Street have been trying to remove bus service there, because they think the bus is too noisy. These neighbors do not complain about the far louder noise generated by garbage trucks and commercial vehicles. The Willard neighborhood now officially opposes the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The residents earnestly claim to support public transit, but fear that BRT will bring more congestion to Telegraph and cause cut-through traffic onto their quiet streets.
They make the bus a scapegoat for the result of too much car driving. If enough people were to ride BRT to work instead of drive, there would be fewer cars, and less congestion and cut-throughs. Telegraph merchants claim that BRT will destroy retail business, but nobody seems to know any place where this has actually happened when a BRT was deployed. It hasn’t been a problem in Eugene, Oregon, for example, or in Los Angeles. I think the bus has been made the scapegoat for business problems that have nothing to do with buses. Some sidewalk merchants on Telegraph have complained about “speeding” buses spreading dirt on their T-shirt stock. Actual speed measurements I made show that the buses average 18 mph. I never saw one going over 20 mph. Only cars go faster, yet the bus is the scapegoat, perhaps because it is so big. One merchant called for relocating buses away from Telegraph. Of course, the buses were there long before any sidewalk vendor. Buses provide good transportation and are a reasonable alternative to driving, even when the buses on Telegraph and College must compete with car traffic. If the BRT is deployed with bus-only lanes where the car traffic is thickest, buses will be an even better alternative. I think the true scapegoat for congestion and pollution should be people who insist on using their car for all trips.
A huge amount of congestion and pollution would be removed if most people just used the buses to commute to and from work. Even if they drove for all other trips, this one thing would make a major impact. The Cal students are very good bus riders; they provide a great example for Berkeley. Of course, most of them didn’t bring a car. Here’s a reality check—some actual observations. In the morning, I have watched the 1 and 1R buses on Telegraph traveling northbound into Berkeley, crossing Parker. I never see empty buses, but the number of people is low before 7a.m. From then until after 8 a.m., the buses vary from a quarter full, to standing loads. An occasional empty bus is seen heading South, opposite the commute traffic flow. I see a similar rider pattern during the afternoon commute hours. Some people look at the same buses and scapegoat them, claiming they are under-utilized. I have a clicker-counter gadget. I have used it to count the number of cars with just the driver, with two aboard and with more than two. I get an average of 1.22 people per car, which is about the same as government statistics. I consistently show over 80 percent of cars carrying just the driver. The cars are under-utilized! Shall we force these empty cars to pick up passengers, to act as jitney bus service? That would get the evil buses off the road. But then what would we do for a scapegoat?
On the big articulated Van Hool buses, the exhaust blows sideways from the middle of the bus, where the engine is. The exhaust port appears as a round hole on the left side of the bus, pointing away from the right-hand sidewalk. Many cars vent their exhaust to the right. Vans especially have this type of exhaust. On the 40-foot Van Hools, the exhaust vents rearward, through a hole in the left half of the bumper. On some buses and trucks, the exhaust is vertical pipe. Many trucks vent exhaust downward, from the centerline of the vehicle. To check out what the buses are blowing, I rode one of the big Van Hool articulated buses northbound from Dwight to Bancroft. (The southbound buses go on Dana and Dwight, not on that part of Telegraph.) I sat on the left side in the middle of the front section, just behind the exhaust port . As the bus moved along, I watched for movement of bits of paper or dust in the street. I didn’t see anything being stirred up. Maybe the bus was moving too slowly. Maybe the exhaust stream is directed too high. On Sunday, I hung around the T-shirt stall for a while, just watching for blowing clouds of dirt or debris. None appeared while I was there. A light breeze was blowing. The wares looked clean to me.
Concerning pollution, I found that most of the AC Transit bus fleet uses “clean diesel” engines and exhaust system. This generates less air pollution than natural gas engines. On the AC Transit website, one can read: “AC Transit has completed installation of exhaust after-treatment traps to 50 percent of its fleet, with 100 percent project completion expected this year. These traps not only cut particulate pollution by 85 percent; they also reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by an additional 25-30 percent and hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide by up to 90 percent. This program has helped AC Transit achieve a 95 percent reduction in particulate matter over the last 10 years.” Trucks, especially the older ones, generate far dirtier exhaust. A recent (Sept. 4) PBS TV documentary (QUEST) covered the health danger in West Oakland from truck, train and container ship exhaust at the Port of Oakland. Maybe other vehicles move too fast, and the wind from their wake blows dust on the sidewalk wares? Well, nothing moves very fast on that part of Telegraph. After accelerating away from a stoplight, most cars were going no faster than 18mph.. I have another fun toy—a speed radar gun. I point it at a moving vehicle, pull the trigger and get a display of vehicle speed, coming or going. Several times, I took my gun to Telegraph and measured speed of traffic between Dwight and Bancroft. I got an occasional apprehensive look from a driver, even though I don’t think I look like law enforcement. During 8:30-9:30 a.m. Friday morning Aug. 31, I used my radar gun to measure speeds of buses on Telegraph. They ranged from 10 to 20 mph, average about 18. Given that the local speed limit is 25 mph, this seemed a fairly law-abiding group, except for the ones going 36 and 37. Cars were nicely giving right of way to pedestrians in the crosswalks. I think the bottom line is to stop making the bus a scapegoat. There are plenty of faster-moving vehicles, plenty with exhaust streams pointed at the right-hand sidewalk and plenty of vehicles much noisier and more polluting than a bus.
Steve Geller is a Berkeley resident.