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East Bay BRT could create longest Complete Street in California

Next week, the City of Oakland will begin a series of public meetings about a Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) to create a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line crossing the entire city. BRT has been debated for a decade in the East Bay, and its key feature, exclusive bus lanes, has been the source of some consternation among residents in Berkeley and parts of Oakland. But since the City Councils of Berkeley, San Leandro and Oakland voted to move forward with BRT on Telegraph Ave and International Blvd in 2000, BRT has been an abstract concept. No more. Oakland planners have unveiled a proposal to create a fully-fledged complete street stretching 17 miles across the East Bay, substantially redesigned for pedestrian and bicycle use in addition to bus lanes. Crosswalks, sidewalk bulb-outs, streetlights, and bicycle lanes will complement a world-class transit system, with the potential to transform the heart of the East Bay.

The term “Complete Street” is used to refer to a street that is improved for all modes of transit: motorized, bicycle, and pedestrian. In Oakland, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plans and their associated policies provide compliance with the CA Complete Streets Act of 2008, but there are no concrete plans to add bike lanes or substantial pedestrian improvements to the entirety of Telegraph Avenue and International Blvd. The BRT plan drawn up by Oakland planners and engineers, formally if confusingly known as Oakland’s Locally Preferred Alternative, would make far-reaching and large-scale improvements to those streets, an opportunity unique in the city today.

Oakland’s Bicycle Master Plan outlines a Bicycle Network, streets in the city that should have some level of bicycle facility installed, ranging from fully-fledged bike lanes to just signage. While the Bicycle Master Plan has an Environmental Impact Report associated with it, city staff can’t remove car lanes or parking spaces without Council permission, which is a huge barrier because of the Council’s limited meeting time. In practice, the City’s Bike/Ped Program installs bike lanes when the opportunity arises, like when a street that’s on the BMP is being repaved for cars. This approach is extremely cost-effective, but frustrates cyclists who must use a patchwork of incomplete bicycle facilities. BRT installing bike lanes on Telegraph and International is a unique opportunity to create an entire 17-mile bike route in one fell swoop. But there’s another reason BRT is uniquely beneficial to bicyclists: without BRT, there would be no bike lane on Telegraph at all. Oakland’s 1999 Bicycle Master Plan EIR was successfully challenged in court, and the 2007 Bicycle Master Plan had to abandon bike lanes on Telegraph (using instead the Webster-Shafter route). Oakland’s transportation planners took advantage of the opportunity afforded by BRT to rethink Telegraph, and brought this much-desired bike lane back from the dead.

Oakland’s Pedestrian Master Plan is more of a statement of policy and establishment of best design practices than a map of areas to be improved. The Pedestrian Route Map, in the words of the plan, is “a long-term planning tool for targeting pedestrian improvements,” with no dedicated funding source. Much like bike lanes, pedestrian improvements are installed in a piecemeal fashion, based on grant funding, a private development’s mitigations, or a Redevelopment Agency district-improvement project. The BRT plan will upgrade pedestrian facilities along the entire length of the system, with widened sidewalks, more crosswalks, and even additional traffic signals. To anyone who has had to cross Telegraph Avenue at night, the need for these improvements is apparent.

Oakland’s portion of the 17-mile East Bay Bus Rapid Transit line is proposed to include dedicated bus and bike lanes across its entire length accompanied by significant pedestrian improvements, creating what could be the longest complete street in California. It’s not actually one street, of course: it’s two streets, and the middle portion (downtown) will not have dedicated bus lanes because buses already occupy most of the roadway during commute hours. That caveat aside, the BRT plan promises to be a radical improvement to an extraordinarily long transit corridor, potentially serving 40% of the city’s population.

So who loses out? After all, there’s only so much horizontal right-of-way. It’s not necessarily drivers who will feel the pinch of losing significant street space to sidewalk bulbouts, bike lanes, and bus lanes. Few portions of Telegraph suffer significant traffic delay, and the Grove-Shafter freeway parallels the route, giving drivers another option. Telegraph’s traffic problems are generally at the avenue’s destination points, where people are most likely to switch from driving to using reliable transit. It’s parkers who are going to see the hit, as the plan takes out more street-side parking than expected. But this is a solvable problem: at worst, AC Transit will install additional parking rather than allow the project to founder. International Blvd’s choke points are accommodated by also using E 12th St for portions of the route. Oakland’s plan appears to be pulling off what was once unthinkable: a major complete-street improvement that’s a radical boon to livability, without draining City coffers or drawing drivers’ ire.

Oakland’s plan, of course, is still unfinished. The City is sponsoring a series of public meetings on the project, with the opportunity to give detailed input on specific streetscape choices along the entire route. If you live, work, or hang out near the BRT route and would like to delve into nitty-gritty details like stop locations, I recommend that you visit the meeting in the neighborhood of your interest. In addition to five neighborhood meetings, there’s a meeting at City Hall for general discussion. With resuscitated Telegraph Avenue bike lanes, significant pedestrian improvements, and dedicated transit lanes, the East Bay BRT plan is Oakland’s best chance for the foreseeable future to make a citywide livability improvement on a grand scale.

You can find more information, including dates and locations of public meetings on the BRT LPA, at OaklandBRT.com.

Update: Oakland’s portion of the BRT system is 11 miles.

Posted in actransit, berkeley, brt, california, downtown, oakland, transportation.