As the Berkeley City Council prepares to vote on AC Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal, people in the neighborhoods surrounding Telegraph seem to be overwhelmingly against the idea. I live four blocks from Telegraph, and I shop on Telegraph every day and often eat dinner in restaurants on Telegraph. Essentially everyone I talk to in the area hates the idea of losing two driving lanes and two parking lanes on the avenue, and they find it difficult to believe that BRT might actually be approved. It seems like such an obviously bad idea that most people don’t even take it seriously. They are expecting the City Council to make a responsible decision and preserve the neighborhoods for the people who live and work here. I hope their faith in our government is justified.
The problem is that we are just one small part of Berkeley, and BRT will impact our lives much more than it will impact the average Berkeley resident. AC Transit is using the classic strategy of divide and conquer, hoping that most people in Berkeley won’t care how badly they mess up this part of the city. And their approach might work. The people who live and work here are used to seeing the big articulated AC Transit buses driving up and down Telegraph with hardly any riders. So when we hear that AC Transit wants to take two very important driving lanes and two very important parking lanes away from the public and waste them on these big empty buses, we immediately grasp how ludicrous the idea is. But people who don’t work here or live here don’t always see that. They don’t drive around looking for an elusive parking space every day. They don’t get stuck in traffic on College Avenue. They don’t see bicyclists lying on the pavement on College after being hit by cars. I’ve seen that twice since 2002, and it’s not a pretty sight. They don’t walk past vacant buildings that used to house businesses like Cody’s Books. I do that almost every day. They don’t see three big AC Transit buses tailgating each other up Telegraph, carrying a total of 10 or 20 people out of their combined capacity of 480.
AC Transit has expended a lot of time and money trying to convince the citizens of Berkeley that BRT will be a good thing. They’ve arbitrarily predicted that bus ridership will skyrocket if the big empty buses get their own lanes. They’ve mistakenly, or dishonestly, claimed that BRT won’t have any negative effect on people like me. They’ve claimed that BRT will reduce greenhouse gases, after previously admitting in print that it will increase greenhouse gases. Basically, they are saying “trust us,” just like they said “trust us” in November when they asked voters to give them more tax money.
In November, they threatened that, if the voters didn’t approve the increased taxes, AC Transit would have to raise bus fares and reduce service, harming the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. Well, the voters gave them everything they asked for, and guess what? They immediately spent millions of dollars buying new buses from the Van Hool company, whose U.S. distributor bankrolled the taxation campaign. Now they are raising bus fares and reducing bus service. The people who live and work near Telegraph don’t seem to be very interested in trusting AC Transit on BRT, and I don’t blame them.
I would like to encourage all the members of the Berkeley City Council to visit this side of town before they vote on BRT. Take a walk along Telegraph. See the big empty AC Transit buses. See them moving along at the speed limit, even without their own lane. Walk past the empty storefronts on Telegraph. Talk to the people in the local businesses. Walk or drive up to College Avenue in the late afternoon, and imagine where the vehicles displaced from Telegraph by BRT, 160 cars and trucks per hour, are going to fit into the bumper-to- bumper traffic. Try to find an empty parking space in the residential neighborhoods. AC Transit isn’t mentioning much about these issues when they say “trust us.”
If the Berkeley City Council cares about our neighborhoods, they’ll take the time to learn the facts, rather than accepting AC Transit’s propaganda at face value. But if they are too busy to find out the truth, I’d encourage them to abstain from voting on the issue, and let the people who know what is going on here make the decision.
Russ Tilleman is a Berkeley resident.