Public Comment

The Express Lane and Bus Rapid Transit

By Russ Tilleman
Wednesday April 08, 2009 - 07:06:00 PM

The March 19 edition of the Daily Planet contained three letters to the editor criticizing the proposal for an express lane on Telegraph Avenue. Two of these letters were from Oakland, and the third was from India. No one from Berkeley wrote in to criticize the express lane! So I think the proposal has passed its first real test of public acceptance within Berkeley. I encourage anyone in Berkeley, and especially anyone who lives or works in the neighborhoods surrounding Telegraph, to write in with any criticism they might have about the proposal. 

Oakland residents David Vartanoff and Steve Revell raised the issue of the effect of the express lane on neighborhoods, an issue that people in Berkeley have been trying to raise about Bus Rapid Transit for months. While I suspect that the express lane would improve North Oakland by reducing congestion, I believe that any project which transforms a major street should require the approval of each neighborhood it impacts. I would not want to force an express lane onto any neighborhood that didn’t want it, which, I am proud to say, sets me apart from AC Transit. Fortunately, the express lane could be built in sections, it does not need to extend all the way from Berkeley to San Leandro to be a useful transportation improvement. 

I would like to respond to some of the detailed statements made in the letters, to clarify the express lane proposal and to back up my claim that it would be a better choice than BRT. 

The express lane would not be another freeway. The existing speed limits of 25 and 30 mph would be retained, so traffic would not move any faster than it currently does. The underpasses would allow the traffic in the express lane to move continuously at the speed limit, which would move cars, trucks, and buses into and out of Berkeley in a shorter period of time. Also, the express lane would not carry through traffic like the freeway. The vehicles in the express lane would be the same vehicles that are currently on Telegraph, people traveling to and from local homes, schools, and businesses. The express lane would pull vehicles from the right hand lanes of Telegraph, simplifying parking and reducing collisions between bicyclists and vehicles. The AC Transit 1R bus could drive in the express lane to avoid traffic lights, then merge into the right hand lane to pick up and drop off passengers at the curb. 

The express lane appears to be in a similar price range as BRT. Although it can be very expensive to build vehicle underpasses and pedestrian bridges, BRT is also extremely expensive. People tend to assume that, because BRT won’t really accomplish much, it won’t be expensive, but they are wrong. Cost estimates for BRT range up to $400 million, an amazing amount of money to spend on a bus lane that might have to be removed in a few years to ease congestion. If that money was spent on the express lane, future generations of bus passengers and automobile drivers could both benefit from reduced congestion. 

The express lane would benefit public transit and the environment. Riding the bus into and out of Berkeley would be faster with the express lane than with BRT. Cars and trucks would spend less time stuck in traffic, reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. AC Transit has stated publicly that BRT might benefit the environment if a large number of people stopped driving their cars to ride the 1R bus, but the flaw in this thinking is that bus travel is much less convenient that car travel. So much so, that just making car travel a little less convenient on Telegraph will not convince drivers to ride the bus instead. Even if Telegraph is closed down to two lanes, driving a car will still be a lot more convenient than riding the 1R bus. The express lane proposal reflects the reality that cars are not going to magically disappear, and treats them in a responsible manner. 

Moving smog from Telegraph Avenue into residential neighborhoods is not an improvement. David Vartanoff seems to feel that his neighborhood is somehow more important than mine, that he should have the right to simply move a problem from his street onto mine. Steve Revell seems to feel that my neighborhood should be sacrificed to satisfy his desire to live in a fantasy world, where moving a car from one street to another reduces its carbon emissions. People in my neighborhood are just as concerned about the environment as people anywhere else, we just don’t want to “wreck another neighborhood” to learn the obvious lesson that cars produce just as much carbon on College Avenue as they do on Telegraph Avenue. 

The express lane is still a new proposal, and needs to be refined based on feedback from the people who live and work in the neighborhoods. It is a community driven project addressing the real needs of the people whose lives it will affect, rather than something forced on us by a bunch of overpaid and out of touch bureaucrats. Instead of playing off one group of people against another group, sacrificing one neighborhood’s way of life for the improvement of another neighborhood, it is an opportunity to improve all neighborhoods and all forms of travel on Telegraph, for pedestrians, bicycles, buses, cars, and trucks. 


Russ Tilleman is a Berkeley resident.