I won't mince words here: riding the bus sucks. While BRT will surely be an improvement over the regular bus service, I wish we could summon the political will and financial resources to build something better. Joel Garreau puts it best in Edge Cities:
I can't stop thinking about this passage, and not only because I'm 8 months away from the dreaded 30 years benchmark. I ride the bus to work about once a week, and I hate it. From my house to work it takes forty minutes to go all of six miles. (It's even better during the school year, when the wild-ass Oakland High kids get hyphy all the way to school.) A couple years ago I realized that I could bike to work in the same amount of time with much less stress, so I do that most days. Even biking, though, I can't escape the bus, because they make their stops in the half-lane on the rightmost side of the street.
The cheapest and most flexible form [of mass transit] is buses in special high-occupancy-vehicle lanes. But there is something about buses we hate. "Show me a man over thirty who regularly takes the bus and I will show you a life failure," said one senior mass transit official who obviously wished to remain anonymous. Buses feature the fewest cubic feet of elbow room per passenger of any transportation mode in this century...Because they have to make so many stops, and frequently have roundabout routes, they are often slower even than bumper-to-bumper traffic. Their ambience is that of a public washroom. Buses are those contrivances onto which affluent people would like to force everybody else--in order to make it easier for them to drive.
That multi-purpose right lane is called a "sharrow lane," but I think a better term would be "loser lane." It's where all the freaks who use alternative transportation get out of the way for the normal people who drive.
It wasn't always so lame. Much of Oakland developed along with rail service; I think it's fair to call East Oakland a classic "streetcar suburb," in which development could only occur with the expansion of the rail lines. (This helps explain why I love the look of Oakland so much more than the suburbs I grew up in--cities based around mass transit are built with higher density, smaller lot sizes, more intense development, etc.) A commenter left a link in my last post to a website that shows just how extensive rail service was in Oakland and all over the East Bay.
My experience with rail service isn't that deep (unless you count subways), but I have to believe that it's better than the buses. Rail cars, being on track, don't just seem like bigger, slower, more pathetic versions of cars the way buses do. It's not quite as easy to look over and think, "man, those people are going way faster than me." Also, I know this sounds weird, but the fact that rail cars don't have to pull over in order to stop is a plus for me. I hate the feeling of a bus constantly pulling over to one side, stopping, and then trying to merge back into traffic going three times faster than the bus will ever go. You're not constantly being jostled around on a rail car like you are on a bus. It can be hard to even read a book with all the constant turning and shifting and merging and lowering the bus for passengers. Rail service isn't perfect, but it cuts out a lot of that unnecessary movement.
Also, a rail car won't miss your stop. I get on and off at Toll Plaza, the forlorn last stop before the Bay Bridge. Some of the bus drivers don't even know there's a stop there, and I have to tell them where to let me off. Coming home is even worse; there's nothing quite like the feeling of seeing your bus skip your stop while watching eight lanes of cars zoom past you.
Is it wrong for me to say that we should rebuild the streetcar system? I feel like we're never supposed to say "let's go backwards," that we should always be pushing forward to the next big thing. Then again, old school is the new new school. Sometimes what feels like progress these days really means stepping back a few generations. (See: organic food movement, farmer's markets.) It's been so long since streetcars were heavily used that they feel brand new to people of my generation. Rail service seems like a natural choice for moving Oakland forward and at the same time keeping it grounded in its past. It pains me to see us moving forward with another boondoggle half-measure instead.