The city of Berkeley is considering reserving one lane along the entire length of Telegraph Avenue for buses. Photo: Pete Rosos

Some of Berkeley’s busiest streets could one day have bus lanes.

City officials have started working to develop a proposal to prohibit cars from one lane in each direction of University Avenue and a portion of Shattuck Avenue, in an effort to speed up service along several popular AC Transit routes.

And after the City Council voted last year to create a bus lane on the four blocks at the north end of Telegraph Avenue, planners are now considering transit-only lanes along the rest of the corridor, from Dwight Way to the Oakland border. Both projects could also include new bike lanes.

The concepts are a long way from becoming a reality, however.

Councilmember Terry Taplin described the current state of his vision for University and Shattuck avenues as a “plan to make a process to make a plan.” The proposal for Telegraph Avenue is slightly further along in the planning process, but work is stalled because of a staffing shortage in Berkeley’s Transportation Division that is affecting projects throughout the city.

“I think it’s time for Berkeley to boldly go where some cities have gone 10 years ago” — Councilmember Terry Taplin

Still, to Taplin and Councilmember Rigel Robinson — who have embraced efforts to redistribute space on city streets away from cars and toward public transit, pedestrians and bicyclists — these are enticing early steps for projects they say will improve transportation options and help reduce carbon emissions.

“I think it’s time for Berkeley to boldly go where some cities have gone 10 years ago,” Taplin said. Referring to the city’s pledge to eliminate fatal and severe traffic crashes, he added, “The clock’s ticking on climate change, the clock’s ticking on Vision Zero — [we] might as well start now.”

There are no detailed designs for either idea, nor any cost estimates. Even under proponents’ most optimistic assumptions it’s likely to be several years before the lanes would go into effect, and getting to that point would almost certainly require overcoming resistance from drivers, which has doomed similar bus lane plans.

An AC Transit bus makes a turn from University Avenue to Shattuck Avenue as cars pass by.
AC Transit’s popular 51B is one of several routes that run along University Avenue in Berkeley. Credit: Nico Savidge

It’s also not clear what role AC Transit might play in the proposals, which were put forward by Berkeley officials, not the transit agency.

AC Transit spokesman Robert Lyles declined to comment directly on either idea, but wrote in an email that the agency “embraces transit lanes and transit priority improvements when planned, designed and implemented correctly.

“Should the city of Berkeley advance its transit improvement projects, we look forward to our close coordination on planning and design,” Lyles added.

The Telegraph proposal echoes an idea Berkeley rejected more than a decade ago to create a regional bus rapid transit system along the avenue, in which high-capacity buses would cruise past traffic in dedicated lanes that stretched from UC Berkeley to downtown Oakland, then on to San Leandro via International Boulevard. AC Transit opened a shortened version of that system, called Tempo, in 2020.

Robinson acknowledged the vision for dedicated lanes on Telegraph would not revive the bus rapid transit vision Berkeley turned down; in the years since then, Oakland has redesigned portions of the avenue to reduce it to a single traffic lane in each direction.

An AC Transit bus drives south down Broadway in downtown Oakland at the intersection with 14th Street, using a bright red dedicated bus lane. At the curb, riders wait under the canopy of a stop for the Tempo bus rapid transit system.
An AC Transit bus uses the dedicated transit lanes along Broadway in downtown Oakland, and passes a stop for the Tempo bus rapid transit system. Berkeley could explore installing bus rapid transit elements, including transit lanes and improved boarding areas, along University Avenue. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

“An opportunity like that doesn’t come around again,” Robinson said. “But improving transit connectivity between Berkeley and Oakland is as important today, if not more so, as it was then.”

Taplin’s proposal calls for working with AC Transit to consider building elements of a bus rapid transit system along what is now the route of line 51B on University and Shattuck avenues, such as elevated boarding platforms and technology that makes buses a priority for green lights. Even if AC Transit doesn’t roll out a full bus rapid transit system, he said, those improvements are worth making.

“If you build it, they’ll use it,” he said.

Taplin has drafted a package of legislative and budget referrals to start developing a detailed proposal for lanes on University and Shattuck, which is now before Berkeley’s Facilities, Infrastructure, Transportation, Environment and Sustainability Committee. The City Council could vote on the package and launch the planning process this summer.

Meanwhile, the proposals for redesigning Telegraph Avenue face challenges on multiple fronts.

Construction of the approved bus lane at the north end of the street is on hold because the project needs several million dollars of additional funding. And although officials began soliciting public input on changes to the rest of the avenue last fall, the staffing shortage has put that plan on ice.

City spokesman Matthai Chakko said he did not know when transportation staff would resume work on the project; Robinson said he hopes it will be a “top priority” once more staff are hired.

“We have an opportunity now to make very important improvements on a very large and very important corridor of ours,” Robinson said, “and we should act on it.”

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Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...