Sunday, May 13, 2012

UC Berkeley graduation day would not break a light rail system and pedestrian streets

There were more than the usual throngs on College Ave on a beautiful spring Saturday. Graduation day at Berkeley intensified activity, bringing in families from afar and moving vans to the abundant student housing on and near College Ave.

I checked the nearest bus stop real time data. It was due in 3 minutes about a quarter mile behind me. I started walking, thinking to pick it up after the normal traffic jam a the Ashby Ave intersection. But conditions caused me to keep walking all the way to UC Berkeley, well over a mile. I could have made it to downtown Berkeley before the besieged bus caught up. After boarding we crawled to BART and released our jam-packed load, only to be stuck in traffic all the way down University Ave to route's end.

This is the reality of bus transit and car clogged mixed use streets. The buses can't function--they are too small to handle crush loads, especially when they get behind schedule. But they aren't important enough as a percentage of travelers to warrant dedicated lanes on a narrow street like College Ave or a four lane arterial like University. Nor are they carry enough passengers to warrant giving them signal priority at intersections, which doesn't help during a traffic jam anyway. The chicken and egg problems requires a dual solution to kill two birds with two stones. Light rail must be introduced in tandem with narrow street pedestrianization and dedicated lanes on arterials. I firmly believe that this is the only way to fix public space and transit in successful mixed use neighborhoods. Cities all over Europe have figured this out. You can build an underground metro at high cost to solve the transit problem, but you won't solve the public space problem. Richard Bergeron of Projet Montréal was the first person I heard advocate the tramway (streetcar or light rail or a hybrid thereof) over metro to improve public space, and he is absolutely right. I'd go as far to say that anywhere that has enough population for metro service also needs light rail on the surface streets to improve public space and cover the territory just missed by the metro.

The problem is obvious, the solutions are becoming clearer. But what is the implementation for a complete light rail and pedestrian street network that can be fully funded as needed by charging much more for car use (to redirect all that money currently wasted on burning oil) and government incentives? We can make drivers fund transit with a combination of mileage and pollution fees that go to the city or region for the project. We can consolidate parking with incentive programs geared at privately owned lots, like those of banks and grocery stores, and then increase parking costs continually while we remove spots to hold revenue neutral. We can give renters and property owners along a proposed route big incentives to give up driveway access on a yearly basis in exchange for car-share vouchers or at worst car storage in a lot or dedicated street space nearby. 

I think UC Berkeley graduation day is a great litmus test for my public space and transportation overhaul of the East Bay. I'll need to face the realities of moving vans, hundreds of thousands of visitors concentrated within just a couple miles worth of streets, and all the other related challenges that a good system must handle gracefully. Our current system certainly failed.

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