What is to be done to convince proprietors of stores, restaurants and other retail businesses along a proposed BRT route that the BRT will be a benefit to their business, rather than an obstacle to the cars of their customers?
All through the history of promoting Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the East Bay, owners of businesses along the proposed routes have been uneasy about the project. They see BRT as an obstacle, taking up scarce parking spaces for the bus stops and interfering with car traffic by reserving a bus-only lane.
In Berkeley, merchants along Telegraph Avenue managed to lobby the City Council to refuse to even consider a BRT option which included a bus-only lane. Since the fast and frequent service of BRT depends to a large extent on having a dedicated lane in congested parts of its route, that Council action effectively killed BRT for Berkeley. The fast bus-only lane will end at the Oakland-Berkeley border, if not before.
BRT is going forward in Oakland and San Leandro, but the business owners along International Boulevard are calling for project money to replace any parking spaces in front of their stores that will be removed to make room for BRT stations or bus-only lanes. Itís clear that in the minds of these merchants, customers come in a car, not a bus.
Itís clear to transportation planners and many other people that the BRT, properly deployed, can provide fast and frequent service to the locations of these businesses. The question is whether any substantial number of the customers who now come by car, will arrive on a BRT bus.
Thereís also concern that the deployed BRT will make car congestion worse, either as a result of the bus-only lanes or, if many people do in fact ride BRT, because more drivers arrive to take advantage of the extra road space.
The merchants are not alone having these concerns. A local political faction has always opposed the BRT on the basis that it wonít attract any more ridership than the buses now running on the route. This faction was especially noisy during the BRT meetings in Berkeley. Some of these people are sure that they personally will never give up driving their car, and thus they can't conceive that much of anybody else will become a born-again bus rider, no matter how fast, convenient and comfortable the BRT turns out to be. They say that we already have the ďrapidĒ buses on Telegraph; they should be good enough.
The BRT proposed for Geary in San Francisco has encountered some of the same objections.
The main reason for proposing a BRT for anywhere is that the proposed route has become severely congested and looks likely to get worse.
This is surely true for both Geary Blvd in San Francisco and International Blvd in Oakland.
In Berkeley, College Avenue actually gets more congested than Telegraph Ave, which parallels it, but the BRT was proposed to run Telegraph, because it's a wider street, better able to accomodate bus-only lanes. But his is just what ran afoul of the Telegraph merchants. College Avenue merchants would be even less likely to approve of losing parking spaces.
Retail merchants recognize the importance of foot traffic. Whether people walk to the retail area from a parked car or from a bus stop is not important. Merchants think that it is important for people coming by car to have a parking space reasonably near the business they intend to patronize. This doesn't have to be a requirement, actually.
In many successful shopping districts, a large parking lot is located far from the stores, but there is a shuttle bus available.
This concept is probably the way to deal with merchant fears of BRT. Tell them not to worry about street parking in front of their business; there can never be enough of it anyway. Just as a business "validates" parking in a lot (making the parking free to a customer who made a purchase), BRT service can be made free, locally, between a remote parking area and the stores. The City of Portland has "Fareless Square" downtown. Oakland has the free Broadway Shuttle. Shoppers in Berkeley could ride the #51B bus to Fourth Street Shopping, instead of using the huge parking lot there. Emeryville merchants pay for the free "Emery-Go-Round" bus service covering all Emeryville shopping districts, with a connection to BART.
The idea is to build adequate parking lots or parking garages wherever it is economically attractive to do so, but make sure there are convenient BRT stops nearby.
The BRT fareless shuttle service could be paid for by the same people who built the parking lot.
The idea is that, with BRT deployed, everyone arrives at the stores and restaurants on a bus, whether they left home in a car or on a bus.
On-street parking would be left for deliveries, instead of forcing trucks to double-park and thus add to congestion.
Customers can still come by car, but they park at a large, convenient, free lot and ride a comfortable, frequent, convenient BRT shuttle to get to their shopping.
Well, merchants, what's not to like about that? All you need to add is a package delivery service to the parking lots. Maybe cargo space on the BRT buses could be used for that.