Why Matier & Ross Got It Wrong in Their Jab at East Bay BRT

Cross-posted from Vibrant Bay Area, a new collaborative blog from urbanist writers around the Bay Area.

AC Transit’s proposed East Bay Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line got a cheap kick in the gut yesterday from the Chronicle’s Matier & Ross. The duo took aim at the cost of BRT, a “jaw-dropping $18.7 million per mile,” but didn’t take a minute to compare the project to anything else in the Bay Area. BRT is a steal compared to other planned expansions, like BART to San Jose, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the Chronicle.

Image: AC Transit via Oakland Local

Bus rapid transit, or BRT, is a bus route separated from traffic using transit-only lanes with specialized boarding platforms. Where BRT is fully implemented, it functions like BART. Fares are paid before boarding and bus entrances are level with the platform. When a BRT line runs along city streets, they turn lights green as they approach intersections. Each of these measures speeds the bus service, making it more reliable and faster than regular, mixed-traffic buses.

AC Transit’s BRT line will cost about $178 million to run 9.5 miles along International Avenue in Oakland and San Leandro. Though the improvements won’t be as robust as what you’d find even in poorer countries like Colombia, there is still plenty of work to do. Planning, stations, new buses, signal infrastructure, medians, and other infrastructure will dramatically improve service along the corridor. In 20 years, it’s expected to attract 40,000 riders per day, 24,500 of whom will be new. For the number of riders AC Transit will attract, this is a long way from “jaw-droppingly” expensive.

The Greenbrae Interchange Project in Marin will cost $143 million and add capacity for 825 more car trips per day, or $173,000 each. BART’s extension to San Jose will cost at least $7 billion and serve, at most, 78,000 trips per day, or $90,000 each (though Eric at Transbay Blog thinks this is absurdly optimistic). At only $7,265 per new trip, East Bay BRT is far and away a cheaper, more cost-effective undertaking than nearly anything else under way in the region.

It’s a double shame, then, that businesses along the corridor have sought to dumb-down the project and strip it of features and length that will attract more riders. They fear a loss of parking and worse traffic, but by reducing the scope of the line they’ve cut off a vital link to customers. It has been shown again and again – San Francisco on Polk Street and Columbus Avenue; Utrecht [PDF]; Melbourne [PDF]; New York; Toronto [PDF]; and elsewhere - that the best customer base a business can have are those who walk, bike, or take transit.

The Chronicle would better serve the community by trying to inform rather than smear. The facts show that AC Transit’s plan is a coup for cost-effective transportation and will bring transit to a corridor that desperately needs better service. One would hope that a journalist (or two) would be interested in such things.