The Oakland BRT is worthwhile — the problem was the process

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The East Bay TEMPO BRT opened in August and is overall, a good project. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

A few weeks ago, TransitCenter published an important article about the long-awaited “TEMPO” Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project which finally opened this August in Oakland, California.

The article uses a legitimate critique of the long implementation time to counter-productively question BRT as a strategic driver of bus improvements, rather than focus on the many benefits the project is bringing.

TEMPO is the most full-featured BRT corridor to open in California since the Orange Line opened in LA in 2005. Ten miles long, TEMPO brings a high-speed transit service to some of the lowest-income, disinvested neighborhoods in the Bay Area. With median-aligned dedicated bus lanes, all-door prepaid boarding, boarding at level with the bus floor, and creative and artistic stations providing comfort and security to passengers traveling between downtown Oakland, its southern suburb of San Leandro, and points in between, the project is the first of many BRTs planned in the Bay Area.

We share the frustration regarding the lengthy implementation time of the project. And indeed, we have long been frustrated by the compromises that were made: the project famously runs in mixed traffic throughout Berkeley, as well as in Downtown Oakland, due to community opposition. However, it is disheartening to see allies at TransitCenter and TransForm conclude from this experience that BRT projects are perhaps a bad idea. TransitCenter says:

“While there’s tremendous value in the components of BRT — frequent service, bus lanes, faster boarding, transit signal priority — gradually adding them one corridor at a time can divert energy from more systemic approaches to transit improvement that benefit more people, faster.”

The article quotes TransForm’s Executive Director Clarissa Cabansagan, as saying:

“Shiny things like BRT”, which only affect one corridor at a time, might distract from addressing systemwide problems, she added. “If the end goal is, for example, the need for more frequency throughout the system, can you accomplish that through better operations planning?”

A former outreach director for Transform, Joel Ramos, goes on to say:

“The surrounding community so often just wanted us to do something, like creating a bus lane using cones to see what would happen. With that approach, you can start small, add on, and use data to demonstrate the benefits.”

The numerous delays to TEMPO are a testament more to California’s drawn-out permitting process, its small municipal jurisdictions, and its numerous small transit authorities which lack administrative capacity in construction supervision. These same problems are apparent in another heavily delayed project in the Bay Area, the San Jose BART extension.

Systemwide bus network redesign efforts are generally highly compatible and even complementary with BRT projects. Cities like Richmond, Houston, Miami, and Reykjavik are all successfully working on BRT and bus network redesign simultaneously.

Systemwide bus improvements, like the successful all-door boarding program in San Francisco, were hardly hindered by BRT efforts on Van Ness and Geary. Bus network restructuring efforts in San Francisco began in 2017, and lack of progress is unrelated to the BRT projects.

In the case of Oakland, a rethink of operations planning might well have been beneficial, since the BRT corridor only serves one route, and numerous parallel and intersecting routes could be better oriented around TEMPO. Such a rethink of the bus routes could have increased ridership on TEMPO, allowing more to benefit from the investment.

Moreover, the problems that afflicted the TEMPO also adversely affect projects of more modest ambition. The Wilshire Boulevard Metro Rapid in Los Angeles, which removed stops, increased service frequency, introduced red articulated buses, and added peak-period-only curbside bus lanes, was far from BRT and more along the lines of smaller, incremental change, but it took almost 15 years from planning to implementation.

An incremental approach to transit improvements might work, following the tactical urbanism that proved successful in New York City for bike lanes and public plazas. Boston DOT and the MBTA laid out some traffic cones to create a pop-up bus lane as a pilot heading towards more permanent measures, and this approach is worth trying. However, such measures may be seen as one possible strategy towards full BRT implementation but not necessarily a replacement. Temporary bus lanes certainly don’t capture the public’s imagination in the same way that an exciting — and permanent — transit investment like BRT can. This distinction is particularly important in low-income communities of color who have suffered from minimal government investment decade after decade and are already angry they are not getting a light rail.

The objective of bus improvements in any given city should not just be to increase frequency or build as many bus lanes as possible. Such projects don’t bring with them the same level of operational benefits as full BRT. Curbside bus lanes are often, but not always, built faster, but must contend with double parked vehicles and right turns; BRT, typically designed in the median of the road, avoids many of the vehicular conflicts associated with curbside bus lanes and often comes with left turn prohibitions — easier to do operationally than prohibiting right-turns. Additionally, BRT stations provide the benefit of all-door, at-level boarding. All of these features speed up buses. There are corridors around the country — International Boulevard in Oakland included — which warrant more than spot changes. High passenger volume, low bus speed corridors, are ripe for full curb-to-curb bus overhauls that go beyond small changes and most major US cities have at least a few. Yes, building BRT is harder, but is that a good reason not to do it?

These extensively delayed timelines are not limited to bus investments, either. The Third Street Light Rail project in San Francisco took nearly as long as TEMPO but covered just over half as much distance at a cost of $2.3 billion, ten times that of TEMPO. It would be hard to argue that no big investments in transit infrastructure are worth the time it takes to implement them. And yet, by arguing against BRT in this light, TransitCenter takes the position that only quick fix solutions are worth the time.

While advocacy organizations must be clear about the limitations of the planning process, they should not shy away from exciting projects with important benefits to transit riders, particularly as they envision a post-pandemic future that brings more riders to transit. In fact, working on cutting through the endless process that delays great projects could easily be on the advocacy agenda. In fact, permanent and exciting BRT infrastructure may be exactly what cities need in order to turn yesterday’s opposition into tomorrow’s supporters.

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We enhance sustainability, livability and equity in cities, with a focus on transportation, strategic land use, and economic development.

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