06 July, 2008


photo: Thanks to MetroJacksonville.com

Retired UC Berkeley Traffic Expert Casts Wary Eye on Bus Rapid Transit Plans
By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday April 01, 2008

Richard Brenneman
Wolfgang Homburger speaks about Bus Rapid Transit to members of the Berkeley City Commons Club.For Wolfgang Homburger, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) provides the wrong solution to East Bay traffic and environmental concerns.

A traffic engineer who served on the faculty of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies for 35 years, Homburger said projects that involve construction and lead to ceremonial ribbon-cuttings lure political figures far more than do projects that involve upkeep and maintenance.

“When’s the last time you saw a ribbon-cutting for maintaining a building?” he asked members of the Berkeley City Commons Club, who had invited him to speak on East Bay transportation issues Friday.

“AC Transit wants to spend capital funds,” he said, “which is money with a ribbon-cutting at the end.”

Homburger said BRT makes sense in cities like Sacramento, Los Angeles and Pittsburg, where rights of way either follow abandoned rail lines or occupy new lanes built for the purpose.

Taking away existing traffic lanes can only lead to political backlash, he said, citing the case of an experiment on the Santa Monica freeway where an existing lane was taken away for carpools and buses. “It lasted about 12 weeks,” he said.

The BRT proposal now under consideration by AC Transit includes a proposal for creating a bus-only lane along Telegraph Avenue, a notion which has drawn the anger of neighbors and businesses along the thoroughfare.

“I am very skeptical of the existing proposal,” he said, “though I am in favor of parts of it, including controlled traffic signals” and a new ticketing system that would speed up the entry of passengers onto the buses.

Berkeley hasn’t grown since 1950, he said, nor has El Cerrito, while the populations of Richmond and Albany have declined, leaving Oakland the only city with some growth in the last half of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st.

Bay Area transportation is complex, he said, with 30 agencies involved in running public transit systems, and only one, the privately owned Tiburon Ferry, operating independently of public financing.

“I once advocated a birth control program for public agencies,” he said, smiling. “But our brightest graduate students are doing very well in them because there’s plenty of jobs.”

And while traffic engineers and systems designers think in terms of creating works that last for decades, the public is far more fickle. “Pity a poor engineer who has built a facility for 50 years and after five years the public has changed its mind.”

Another problem transportation system operators face is the thorny question of just who really does speak for the public.

He cited one project in San Francisco, where a group of self-proclaimed public leaders called for and won a project to widen sidewalks at the expense of on-street parking. The moment jackhammers set to work, neighbors started asking what was happening, and within 48 hours the project had been abandoned. “It turned out that the people who worked with the city weren’t representative of the neighborhood,” he said.

Successful transportation designs arise from working with neighbors, he said, citing the 1960s case of a 10 by 12 block business area of Richmond where owners wanted four-way stops at all the intersections. Instead, engineers worked with the neighborhood and came up with a system of street closure and forced turns that won wide support, ensuring the City Council’s approval.

Some plans are so outrageous that failure is a virtual certainty.

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The arguments rage to this date, "Should have never been built," "waste of taxpayer money," "Doesn't go anywhere," "Nobody rides it..." etc. Bottom line is we have it, and it is finally showing signs of life. Simple extensions to the Stadium, San Marco, and the area of Blue Cross in North Riverside would turn this little train around. Addition of Park and Ride garages and multimodal transit terminals at the end points would bring on the crowds. The video must have been shot on a Sunday Morning, as downtown is certainly as packed with life as any other major City on weekdays. Jacksonville is a city of Bikes, joggers, walkers, buses and cars, one almost wonders how the photographer managed to find this quiet moment.

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