Public Comment

Updated: Of Polar Bears and Concrete Islands in Telegraph Avenue

By Matt Kondolf, with an addendum by Robert Lauriston
Friday May 07, 2010 - 10:02:00 PM

Shortly before the November 2008 election, I received in the mail a glossy flyer with a picture of a polar bear, which said “We can’t afford to wait…” The flyer argued that we must implement transit projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to save the polar bear, and that we should oppose a citizen initiative (Measure KK) to require voter approval of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along Telegraph Avenue. My interest was piqued, and I began to follow the debate about the proposal for BRT with interest. As one trained to evaluate scientific claims, I was intrigued. The scientific question (with obvious policy implications) is whether building the proposed BRT down Telegraph Avenue will result in less greenhouse gas emissions than the current situation. But who paid for this slick flyer, and what scientific basis underlay the claim that pouring concrete islands in the middle of Telegraph Avenue was likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?  

To evaluate whether building the proposed BRT will actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions requires that we look closely at what the BRT would accomplish with what impacts. The basic argument in favor of the Berkeley BRT is that by building the BRT, people will use the bus instead of their cars.  

Last week, the Berkeley City Council held a public meeting at Longfellow School auditorium, at which dozens of residents expressed their views. It was fascinating to watch the process, to hear the diverse viewpoints, to see some of the passion about this issue (on both sides). Most of the opponents who showed up were Telegraph Ave merchants and street vendors. Many of the pro-BRT speakers made convincing cases for the need to increase transit ridership, but did not make the link between transit benefits more generally and the specific BRT proposed for Telegraph Avenue. The construction trades were in favor of the project. Interestingly, the most effective anti-BRT speakers simply quoted from the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the project. The DEIR concluded that the proposed BRT might increase net transit ridership by about 10 thousand over the no-project 660 thousand trips/day, or only about 1.5% (DEIR, p.3-28), much less than observed in other cities where BRT has been implemented under very different circumstances. The DEIR analysis projected emissions of gases and particulates CO, ROG, NOx, SOx, PM10, and PM2.5 (proxies for greenhouse gases) would decrease only 0.03 percent. The DEIR (p.4-152) also concluded that building the BRT would results in essentially the same gasoline and diesel use, and thus that “The energy impacts of the Build Alternatives as compared to the No-Build Alternative would be negligible.” 

I spoke to the Council to point out that the proposed BRT for Telegraph Avenue would be unlike the successful systems in Latin American cities like Bogota, Quito, and Curitiba, which have: 1. large populations of poor people who don’t own cars, and who need to travel from population centers to industrial/commercial centers, and 2. ‘grade separation’ from traffic – buses have their own lanes and cross over intersections on overpasses. In the San Francisco Bay region, we have over 800 cars per 1000 households compared to around 100 in Latin American cities, so people here have more options and thus would not automatically ride BRT if available. Moreover, the natural market for BRT is already served by BART and AC express buses. The proposed line in Berkeley and Oakland would follow Telegraph Avenue and International Boulevard down to San Leandro, essentially duplicating (and poaching passengers from) the BART Fremont line. Because the Telegraph Avenue line would not have grade separation at intersections, its travel times will be similar to existing buses, so it’s not obvious why it would attract new riders not already using AC express buses or BART.  

The proposed Berkeley BRT would involve massive concrete islands down the middle of Telegraph Avenue, eliminating two lanes of traffic. The snarled traffic resulting from choking down a major traffic artery would produce its own greenhouse gas emissions, and BRT would be an enormous construction project, which in itself would produce massive greenhouse gas emissions.  

So back to the question: where did the polar bear flyer come from? It turns out that $75 million may be available from the Federal Transit Administration to AC Transit if AC Transit builds a project with a dedicated bus lane. The proposed BRT represents an attempt to qualify for those funds. That’s why a spokesman for the construction trade unions showed up at Longfellow School to support the BRT proposal, citing the economic benefits of the construction project. I am certainly not opposed to seeing $75 million in federal funds flow into Oakland and Berkeley, but as a scientist I would much prefer to see the question posed thusly: honestly recognizing that we are helping AC Transit get this “free” federal money, but in return we must accept massive concrete islands in the middle of Telegraph Avenue. Pity that such federal largesse could not be used to support a project that would actually benefit the environment. And fascinating to see that the “party line” among the ecologically correct has become to support BRT, despite the inherent weakness of this BRT proposal.  

To really reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we need to get people out of their single-person cars and into mass transit. It’s not likely that the BRT proposed for Berkeley would accomplish this. One need look no farther than the project’s DEIR to see the weakness of the proposed project. The main benefit appears to be a short-term shot to the local economy from some federal funds, but in the long run the environmental impact is likely to be negative. To claim, as the polar-bear flyer did, that the proposed BRT on Telegraph Avenue of Berkeley and Oakland will reduce greenhouse gas emissions is quite a stretch, and certainly unjustified scientifically.  



Matt Kondolf has been a Berkeley resident for two decades. As Professor of Environmental Planning and co-director of the Environmental Sciences Program at UC Berkeley, he teaches environmental sciences, hydrology, river restoration, and environmental planning. He has served on expert panels for governmental agencies in the US and abroad, including the National Academy of Sciences, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the California Bay-Delta Program, and the Mekong River Commission, and has presented expert testimony before committees of the US Congress and the California State Legislature. His views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the University of California. 


Addendum from Robert Lauriston: 

In his "Of Polar Bears and Concrete Islands in Telegraph Avenue" article (May 7), Matt Kondolf raises but fails to answer the question, who paid for the slick "We can’t afford to wait" flyer distributed in 2008? Looking at the campaign statements filed by the Coalition for Effective Government, the major contributors to its $40,000 campaign against measure KK were: 

$20,000: Committee to Safeguard AC Transit Measure VV 

$5,000: Cambridge Systematics, Cambridge, MA 

$5,000: AC Transit AFSCME Local 3916 

$3,000: Kimberly-Horn and Associates, Inc. 

$2,397.79: Hank Resnik 

Hank Resnik is a pro-bicycle / anti-car activist who was one of the main leaders of the no-on-KK campaign. 

Kimberly-Horn and Cambridge Systematics are a consulting firms that have done work for AC Transit on BRT, so they were acting in their direct self-interest. 

Presumably the union thought BRT would be good for its members. 

The Committee to Safeguard AC Transit Measure VV is funded by ABC Companies, the US distributor of the imported Belgian Van Hool buses to which AC Transit has a mysterious addiction.