As the East Bay awaits a vaccine for the Covid-19 pandemic, efficient public transit is more urgent than ever. Many East Bay residents rely on public buses to get to their essential jobs, doctor’s appointments and grocery stores. They need fast, frequent, reliable and affordable service. At the same time, the pandemic has depressed transit ridership and increased car ownership, exacerbating congestion and delaying already slow bus service. As our transit agencies confront budget shortfalls induced by the pandemic, it is time for us to implement quick and cheap roadway adjustments that allow buses to avoid congestion and improve reliability. Mayors, councilmembers and AC Transit Board members should, at a minimum, commit to installing 20 miles of bus lanes within AC Transit’s coverage area over the next two years in order to deliver vital transit efficiency, support AC Transit’s recovery and ensure equitable mobility.
Serious funding challenges lie ahead for AC Transit, even after the recently passed federal Covid-relief funding, which will help address AC Transit’s immediate $20 million to $30 million deficit in fiscal year 2021–2022. The agency must do whatever it can to save money and avoid future service cuts. As we advocate for more funding, AC Transit must find ways to improve service without increasing costs. Quick-build improvements like bus lanes and curb extensions can help the agency maintain or even increase service levels with limited resources.
There is well-warranted criticism, however, that BRT construction took too long and were overly disruptive to small businesses and residents along International Boulevard. Quick-build transit improvements, by contrast, can be installed much more quickly and with less disruption to adjacent communities. For corridors already considering long-term transit improvements—like San Pablo Avenue and E. 14th/Mission Boulevard—quick-build bus lanes and other tactical street improvements can deliver rapid results and help the community evaluate their effectiveness immediately, rather than 10 years in the future.
This Wednesday, MTC will vote to approve such funding under the new “Safe and Seamless Mobility Quick-Strike Program.” This proposal includes millions of dollars available for quick-build transit programs. In addition, the federal government just allocated tens of millions of dollars in flexible federal highway funds to the Bay Area through the Covid-Relief and 2021 Appropriations Act. Quick-build transit improvements are a perfect way to put these resources to immediate use across communities throughout the East Bay to improve mobility, increase transit use, reduce transit operating costs and create jobs.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has installed temporary emergency transit lanes along two corridors and has approved lanes for two others. The agency has recorded a 19 percent reduction in travel time, which has been vital for maintaining service amidst severe budget constraints. Approved emergency transit lanes represent a small fraction of the overall transit network in San Francisco, yet SFMTA determined that these improvements would benefit nearly 40 percent of riders, and that implementing the full emergency transit-lane plan would benefit a whopping 84 percent of existing riders.
Realizing similar transit improvements in the East Bay will require action beyond the swift allocation of new federal funds. East Bay cities and AC Transit will need to prioritize a quick-build program for transit. Cities, not AC Transit, control the streets and sidewalks that the bus system operates on, so they must be willing to make rapid and effective changes. If AC Transit and East Bay cities prioritize these improvements with a spirit of coordination, innovation and fast action, transit riders will benefit from faster, more frequent and more reliable trips without forcing AC Transit into bankruptcy.