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the Key Route remembered

By enelson
Wednesday, April 16th, 2008 at 6:20 pm in AC Transit, Buses, rail, Transit vs. driving.


Today I received an advisory announcing that on Friday, AC Transit would be celebrating the demise of its predecessor, the Key System.

Ok, they’re not cheering the end of “one of the most efficient transportation systems in the world, which also marked the beginning of AC Transit (insert superlative here), but they are drawing a rather odd comparison:

More than commemorate the passing of the Key Route era, they will assert the need to go “Back-to-the-Future” with the kind of hi-tech rapid bus system that has revitalized public transportation from Los Angeles and Boston to Bogota, Columbia, Brazil and Australia.

“They took away the Key Route system but not its passengers, and our regional public transportation has never been the same,” said (AC Transit Assistant General Manager Mary) King. “It is time to return to a fast, reliable system that we all know will work.”

On the one hand, I don’t have to look very hard for someone to agree with that assertion about needing a fast, reliable system. On the other hand, I have trouble making the jump from BRT to the Key System.

Because I haven’t been around the East Bay for that long, I’d love to hear what people have to say about the old system, its successor and how the two compare.

Photo of Key streetcar in 1954 from

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12 Responses to “the Key Route remembered”

  1. The Overhead Wire Says:

    I was going to type a huge response on how BRT is just a cheap way to do transit, but instead I’ll just leave this Washington Post article about how DOT is trying to kill transit and BRT and Tolls are part of the plan.

  2. MikeD Says:

    1. Just because the current DOT has bad goals doesn’t mean it hasn’t stumbled into decent ideas. Bloomberg’s plans for Congestion Pricing in New York, like ’em or not, are about government-centered operation of transportation and shifting people from roads to transit, while providing a source for the money. Market forces need not require privatization.

    2. Some areas have a level of density that isn’t enough to support a viable subway or light rail. Choosing the right mode of transit may include BRT. I’d like to see BRT done right (maybe on Van Ness or Geary) since there’s no subway or light rail happening any time soon there, it would be nice to see if it makes a difference.

  3. david vartanoff Says:

    Invoking the Key System as agit-prop for BRT does not overcome flawed design. Buses as with ANY mode need exclusive ROW to achieve Rapid transit, but more importantly any route must be tailored to the potential market.The Oakland San Leandro leg of the 1R gets double the riders of the Berkeley leg–so in order to properly serve East Oakland many nearly empty buses cruise Telegraph. (AC runs Saturday 1Rs only from SL to Downtown Oakland relegating Telegraph to local only service.
    Using high capacity articulated buses wihout off vehicle fare control for supposedly speedy service generates increased dwell as individual riders pay on boarding.

  4. The Overhead Wire Says:

    I’m tired of the argument that places don’t have the density. The reason they don’t is because they don’t have a transport system to support it. If you went back to DC in the 1960’s and argued against the Orange Line because it didn’t have enough existing density, you wouldn’t have the Rosslyn Ballston corridor where 7% of the land over the subway creates 33% of the tax base in that county. If you put in the right transit, and have the right land use codes, you will shape your growth. The problem with bus based transit is that you are just responding to auto oriented growth. I can’t imagine how things would be different in the bay area if the Key System were still around and BART went up Broadway instead of to MacArthur along the Freeway. You would see a different city, because the transit would guide the growth instead of responding to auto based growth.

    Geary and Van Ness needed a subway yesterday. Again the city is being cheap. If we want people to take transit, why aren’t we building transit that they want to take. Money is the lamest excuse because we need to invest in that future.

  5. Capricious Commuter Says:

    I’m not tired of the density argument, and I’m very familiar with the Orange Line in Virginia, as well as the Orange Line BRT in the San Fernando Valley. Both places are relatively low density compared to say, Queens.

    In the case of Virgina, you have what are called parking lots. People drive to Metro. The other Orange Line cuts transit commute times in a major way, which is a big deal in LA.

    The way to deal with low density is to build major parking. People will drive to rapid transit, but very few will walk a mile to a bus, wait for the bus and then wait for the bus to get to a train that they also have to wait for. I know, boo-hoo, but they have a choice.

    It’s much better that they don’t drive, sure. But it’s also better than they drive five miles instead of 40.

  6. MikeD Says:

    Overhead Wire- If you could wish away NIMBYism that opposes higher density AND force a willingness to spend on capital improvements, then yes, Geary and Van Ness could have nice Subways. But wishing away problems doesn’t make them go away.

    If they built the BRT, then either it would work and transit would be better, or it would fail and then this discussion would be more settled. Anyway, even if Geary and Van Ness were going to have subways, they would still be better off with bus only lanes above them on the surface (like Market).

    Sometimes rails promote density next to the station (South City and Colma BART have done this) but sometimes NIMBYism holds out for a long time (Ashby and North Berkeley show this). So yeah, subways and density are nice, but you should take what you can get.

  7. The Overhead Wire Says:

    Apparently you aren’t that familiar. Actually 73% of patrons of the Rosslyn Ballson Corridor in Virginia Walk to the station. Park and rides are great but it’s the walking that counts.
    (editor’s note: you have to paste the link back together; it was messing up the layout as one piece)
    The Orange Line BRT is a joke. It’s already over capacity and 15 minutes slower than its counterpart over the same distance the Gold Line. Not to mention that it gets about the same ridership as the Gold Line when pulling from double the population base. There have been very few developments around the Orange Line and the ones that have occurred are the ones near the North Hollywood Subway station.

    I think you’re right MikeD, there needs to be a subway and surface bus lanes on those two streets because they are so crowded. But they already have the density. NIMBYism is a non issue. Merchants on the Geary corridor don’t want the bus because they think it will destroy their businesses. Once the line is in, there is a change in people’s minds.

    But to not invest in the future and say we don’t have the money to spend on Capital Improvements is a cop out that is propagated by our national priorities and people’s pre concieved notion of what the definition of density actually is. Build for cars is all we’ve done. Well guess where that got us. Soon there will be a new paradigm with carbon taxes and hopefully then we’ll see that we need to improve the capacity of our Right of Ways for people and not just cars.

    The argument that we should build parking lots is the argument that we should serve automobiles at all costs. I don’t buy that and its the main reason why BART gets a third of the ridership of the Washington Metro even though its the same linear distance. BART was built on a freeway just like some of the north Metro lines were. They get parking lots because they cater to sprawl. We need a metro, not a commuter line.

  8. Hayden Says:

    Density discussions are well and good, but there’s the problem of which comes first–development or transit. Much of the Bay Area’s 1990s/early 2000s residential development was master-planned communities (e.g., Windemere in Dougherty Valley south of San Ramon, Dublin Ranch north of I-580, etc.). To use Windemere as an example, Lennar was required to include light rail ROW in the Bollinger Canyon Road ROW. But, of course, with that exception, Lennar was not required to design the master-planned project at light rail-supporting densities or land use patterns. We’ll leave aside the impossibility, from most of the project, of walking to the store for some bread.

  9. Reedman Says:

    BART could be a much bigger/better metro/commuter line if it actually connected people, jobs, and geography together here. The largest city in Northern California (the 10th largest in the country) is San Jose. And BART doesn’t come close to it. The Key System was successful when San Francisco was the hub of Northern California and it was the biggest connection across the Bay (both when ferries dominated, and later over the Bay Bridge). The Key System was privately owned for a good part of it’s life, but no private company can compete with the subsidies and free capital that government makes available to entities like BART.

  10. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Reedman, I’m intrigued by the economics of the transit of yesteryear. What made it self-supporting? One thing about the Key System, in line with what Hayden brought up, was that it was built in conjunction with development (or rather, by the developer). If I were king, I might want to make all development approvals contingent upon the developer building a self-sustaining transit system that comes within a half-mile of every residence. If you’ll excuse me, I have some edicts to write…

  11. The Overhead Wire Says:

    In Seattle Vulcan owned by Paul Allen actually bought up a majority of land in the South Lake Union district and then the district taxed itself for half of the capital cost of the streetcar. I would say that subsidies for any mode will keep out private entities. That includes the massive automobile subsidies that this country has partaken in over the last 60 years.

  12. david vartanoff Says:

    CC what made Key and all other transit economic was a combination of NO OTHER OPTION (car ownership very low) and very low wages for transit workers compared to riders.

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