Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The silliness of UC Berkeley's vocalized bus turn alerts

On my bike route to the office this morning, I was delighted to hear a new UC Berkeley shuttle bus that services the university labs up in the hills announce by computer voice that it was turning. The message is something to the effect of "Pedestrians, bus is turning".

Here's the UC Berkeley announcement about the buses, where I left the following comment:


...The announcement begins while the bus in making the turn, so the only warning the pedestrian receives is the start of the word “pedestrians” before the bus is intersecting their path. If UC Berkeley wants to make the streets safer, it should support policies to pedestrianize streets and and reintroduce streetcars/lightrail to Berkeley, the only form of transit that is completely predictable. The Ecocity Builders have had a great plan to pedestrianize the single block of Center St. between campus and BART for years (http://ecocitybuilders.org/projects/current/center-street-plaza/).
As an urban society, we continue to endure quick fixes that are useless to solving overarching problems. The reason that buses are dangerous is that they are unpredictable. As bikers we don't know when they are going to pull over to pick up passengers, unless we are familiar with all the stops. As bikers and pedestrians we don't know when they will turn, unless we are familiar with the route. They regularly play leap frog with bikers because our overall speeds match, leading to the biker passing the bus at a stop and the bus passing a biker on a long straightaway. Most of these problems would be solved with a dedicated transit right-of-way. The bus wouldn't pull over for stops, and it would be fairly obvious where it was turning unless there was a route junction.

I admit then that BRT (bus rapid transit), if it could be built to full BRT standards (it never is in this country), would remove a lot of the unpredictability and therefore danger of buses. The problem with BRT though, even with Class B right-of-way (dedicated lanes exposed to traffic at intersections), is that there remains an unsettling driver unpredictability. I'm sure that bus drivers with their own lanes drive better, especially when the bus has to needle its way through a tunnel like the poor Boston MBTA Silver Line to the airport. But inevitably the driver has the ability to accelerate to make green lights or to speed up and slow to keep with their schedule. The best we can do is to reduce to variability of our surface transit vehicles by simply putting them on tracks on dedicated lanes in the street. Nobody ever has to worry about an aggressive streetcar or light rail driver, at least not in this century. The vehicles are technically capable and should always travel at the exact same speed through each segment of their route. They must always make turns slowly due to their articulated body and the limiting characteristics of rail, making it nearly impossible for a pedestrian or cyclist to be caught off-guard. BRT buses could have set speeds as well, but they typically leave the driver in control, both to save costs on technology and because the driver has to control the steering wheel of the bus anyway.

All of my posts on BRT versus light rail and the merits of pedestrianizing streets revolve around the same theme: We can't make decisions about transit modes and our use of streets with purely quantitative reasoning. The reason to pedestrianize and use rail or bus has numerous qualitative benefits that require detailed discussion.

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