It’s time to get serious about climate change in Berkeley

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Over the weekend, a Spare the Air day was declared because of poor air quality from the wildfires throughout the Bay Area. Berkeley’s public transit agency recommended taking public transportation and ditching cars, a major source of pollution in the Bay Area. There was a problem, however: 13 AC Transit bus lines were deactivated on Saturday. Of the 12 priority lines functioning, only one or two buses were serving routes in Berkeley, and neither had a digital schedule to be useful to riders.

As we choke on smoke from wildfires and face the increasing threat of climate change, our public transit system is failing, and it’s time we make it a priority. If Berkeley climate activists want to get serious about climate change, it’s time to discuss public transit — because the battle starts at home. 

The most serious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions Berkeley can achieve will come by reverting to a low-emissions city built on AC Transit, BART and bikes. This is what needs to be done to make public transit competitive and sustainable with the car and fossil fuel industries. Berkeley was built on a low-emission, electric transportation rail network. And that’s reflected in the layout of our streets, designed for a beautiful network of interurban streetcars. But we tore these streetcars out and replaced them with fossil fuel-dependent private cars instead. 

Today, 59% of Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, the majority of which is private cars. Yet there seems to have been very little concrete action to actually eliminate cars from our streets and make our city as green as other global metropolitan areas in Europe and Asia.

And while the rest of the world — from London to the Netherlands — has been working to eliminate car-centrism, AC Transit is on the brink of collapse in our city. Over the weekend, daily transit users experienced an Alameda County, and Berkeley in particular, without public transit. Multiple neighborhoods, including everything north of University Avenue and east of San Pablo Avenue, were without any public bus options. Besides the 6-Telegraph, 72-San Pablo and, very rarely, the 18-Shattuck, which had one bus serving the whole corridor thanks to a generous driver, no buses were running in Berkeley. The paused bus lines left riders stranded from Dwight Way to Gilman Street and Fourth Street. 

AC Transit is vital to the communities it serves, and if AC Transit fully collapses, we know people will have a hard time getting around. But we must also be aware that in the absence of AC Transit, thousands of new cars will be added to our roads. And although we can reverse that, first we have to admit that Berkeley is now a global failure at reducing carbon emissions. 

While both global peers and local examples, such as Oakland, have taken action to make streets more pedestrian-friendly, Berkeley has seemingly failed to make low-emissions transit accessible, particularly through housing policy. Housing policy is crucial to making transit sustainable because only people who live by buses ride buses. Here in Berkeley, however, you’ll see parking lots surrounding our BART stations at Ashby and North Berkeley, which normalizes car-centrism. 

On our path forward, we also need to promote pedestrian- and bike-only boulevards similar to the existing Ohlone Greenway to discourage car use. Turning Hearst Avenue, California Street, Monterey Avenue and Milvia Street into bike-only boulevards would be an easy start to bike- and pedestrian-only streets in Berkeley, as would converting the Northbrae Tunnel, once a streetcar-only tunnel, into a tunnel exclusively for buses, bikes and pedestrians. We also need to build bus-only lanes or bus rapid transit on corridors such as Telegraph, College, Shattuck, University and San Pablo avenues. 

Furthermore, we need to find revenue sources — such as increasing transfer taxes on real estate, eliminating free parking and instituting gas taxes at the pump — to finance accessible and free AC Transit in the city. And we need to ensure that as many homes as possible, at all income levels but especially for low-income people, are built alongside our most dependable transportation options.

Berkeley could be the first truly green Bay Area city, but the state of our public transit keeps our green score down, and we’re falling behind. We could apply the model that cities around the world are adopting and reject the failures of the American city. We could leave behind a city of freeways, toxic automobile emissions and polluted and congested streets of cars for public and zero-emissions transport. But let’s be clear: Reducing cars in Berkeley and getting more residents on buses, BART and bikes is what it takes for us to get serious about climate policy. It’s time to provide sustainable alternatives to the status quo — and do so now. 

Darrell Owens is a public transit and housing activist with East Bay for Everyone.