A pedestrian walking on a Slow Street in Oakland. November 20th, 2020. Credit: Amir Aziz

Seven months ago, in an attention-getting and widely praised bid to give Oaklanders more space to walk, jog, bike, and play during the coronavirus shutdown, city officials started blocking motor vehicles from driving through dozens of miles of Oakland’s streets.

Mayor Libby Schaaf and Ryan Russo, director of the Oakland Department of Transportation, officially announced the program on April 10 at a press conference held at one Slow Street intersection, East 16th Street and Fruitvale Avenue. “In this unprecedented moment, we must do everything we can to ensure the safety and well-being of all families across our city,” the mayor said. “Closing roads means opening up our city.”

In his remarks, Russo, a nationally known figure in urban transportation thanks in part to the hundreds of miles of bike lanes he helped lay down in New York City, noted that some residents’ increased outdoor activity was making virus transmission more likely. When the quarantine started, more people flocked to local parks, including around Lake Merritt. “The problem is that we need to maintain social distancing for safety to reduce the spread of this virus,” he said. The hope was that Slow Streets could help people get outside without clustering in a handful of public places.

Russo also noted that people cooped up at home were disrupting traffic patterns on a micro scale. “People all over Oakland are walking and biking in streets that they normally would not,” he said. “Drivers need to know that people are in streets where they don’t normally expect them.” Russo’s department figured temporarily handing some streets over to walkers, bikers, and other non-motorists could help. And since traffic across Oakland went down dramatically during the first few weeks of the pandemic, rolling out this experimental program—which built on longstanding dreams of some city planners—would likely be safer at that time.

Oakland announced four Slow Streets corridors that April weekend, blocking intersections with signs and making it known that only police and emergency responders, essential drivers, and people living along the Slow Street could drive through those roads. Feedback from residents has been overwhelmingly positive—though, as we’ll explain, there have been serious issues with making sure that feedback comes from all Slow Streets neighborhoods—and the program quickly caught national attention. 

The New York Times quoted bike and pedestrian advocates praising it as part of a larger trend towards people-centric urban planning. The Washington Post highlighted the program in a report on D.C. residents’ demands for wider sidewalks. The Guardian, Forbes, Fast Company, the Los Angeles Times, and U.S. News and World Report all wrote about it. The mayor and other Oakland officials seemed to be everywhere during the rollout, touting the program as a “silver lining” to the pandemic. 

The coronavirus crisis is sadly worsening, and the city has made it clear that Slow Streets isn’t ending anytime soon. Since April, it’s phased in about a dozen new streets. According to a city spokesperson, the city’s transportation department, OakDOT, had spent approximately $160,000 on material costs for the program by the middle of September.

Credit: OakDOT

Today, Slow Streets can be found in each City Council district in Oakland, from 104th Avenue in East Oakland to the Berkeley border. Seven months since its launch, it’s a good time to ask some big questions about its impacts on safety, a notable theme of citizen feedback about the program. Are we seeing a change in the number of traffic accidents along Slow Streets? Are there others ways in which the program is making people feel more or less safe? What do residents who live near these corridors have to say?

The Oaklandside asked for and reviewed several months of collision data on Slow Streets. We interviewed residents, officials, and local organizations, and combed through thousands of feedback comments and four separate city surveys. We dispatched private road safety consultants to look at one hotly contested Slow Streets intersection and give us a forensic report on any safety issues they noticed. Here’s what we learned.

What official data tell us about Slow Streets and safety

There’s no question about it: Oakland has a serious and longstanding problem with traffic safety, and some people get hurt more than others. One study commissioned by the city analyzed all crashes between 2012 and 2016 and shared disturbing results:

  • Oakland suffered two fatal or severe crashes each week, on average
  • A third of pedestrians who died or suffered severe injuries were hit by drivers who failed to yield for them at crosswalks
  • Black Oaklanders were “three times as likely to be killed or severely injured while walking compared to other Oaklanders” 
  • Crashes cost residents $900 million a year in lost quality of life, lost productivity, medical care, and more 

When city officials launched Slow Streets, their messaging focused on the benefits of more space for people to spread out during the pandemic. But the plan was built on at least two decades of thinking about how cities that are friendlier to bikers and walkers could lead to other lasting improvements, including less traffic congestion and air pollution—and maybe even reduce traffic collisions and injuries, something city officials have been trying to do for years. 

OakDOT, Oakland’s transportation planning hub, released its first strategic plan four years ago. It recommended adopting policies from Vision Zero, a global campaign built on research from cities around the world with a goal of eliminating all traffic deaths, which has found that pedestrians are more likely to survive car crashes if they get hit by cars driving at lower speeds. For example, about 90% of people survive if they get hit by cars driving 20 miles per hour, while only 50 to 70% of victims survive in collisions with cars driving 40 mph. Studies based on Oakland police data between 2012 and 2017 found that speeding is the primary factor in 19% of all pedestrian collisions that lead to fatal or severe injuries. 

This is part of the long-term potential city planners like Russo see in programs like Slow Streets: could fewer streets with fast-moving cars result in fewer people dying from street collisions? 

The city released an official report on the Slow Streets program in September. The report found that traffic dropped across Oakland after the shelter-in-place order came down, and that it dropped even further on Slow Streets. The fire department and other city services did not report issues in and around the streets, and no “fatal or severe pedestrian or bicyclist related crashes” were officially linked to the Slow Streets program. 

We independently asked the city for several months of data—from April 11, 2020 to September 30—about all collisions that have occured on Slow Streets since the program started, working with researchers at U.C. Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center, or SafeTREC, to review what we got from the city. We then compared the number of collisions on streets that have been closed since April to the same roughly five-month period in 2018 and 2019. 

The program does not appear to have dramatically worsened safety on Slow Streets, despite some residents’ fears. When it comes to crashes involving bikers and pedestrians, this year fared better than the previous two years during the same time period. As for car-on-car crashes, this year saw roughly the same number of reported collisions as last year, but more than there were in 2018. 

Offer Grembek, SafeTREC’s co-director, said it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions from five months of data, and that the differences between the number of crashes on Slow Streets this year, compared to the past two years, aren’t wide enough to be statistically significant. Grembek also notes that the fact that the number of crashes involving bikers and pedestrians each year is in the single digits makes it more difficult to suss out trends, and that it’s hard to compare 2020 to other years due to the pandemic.

Trying to determine whether this project or another like it is safe, Grembek says, is like determining whether a restaurant is good depending on its number of Yelp reviews. “You need to have some sort of density of information. If you see one star on the restaurant but it only has a few reviews, you still don’t know. When you get critical mass, then you can start being confident.”

What’s more, not all collisions get reported, especially in neighborhoods where residents are less likely to have auto or health insurance or fear interactions with law enforcement. It’s certainly possible that there have been more incidents on Slow Streets than were reported to the Oakland Police Department this year. 

To get a more complete picture of how Slow Streets is affecting Oaklanders’ lives when it comes to a sense of safety, we wanted to hear directly from people living near these corridors—residents who shared feedback directly with the city, and those who did not. 

What residents have to say about Slow Streets and safety

Over 1,000 residents have weighed in on their personal experiences with Slow Streets and safety, sharing feedback with the city. The Oaklandside submitted seven public records requests to analyze all citizen feedback about the program so far. That feedback was collected through a public Google Form, the city’s digital call center OAK 311, and in-person surveys of residents near Slow Streets. 

We used keywords searches to analyze what residents had to say about safety in about 1,000 feedback messages, looking for words like “speeding,” “safe,” “safer,” “dangerous,” “crash,” “collision,” and more, and determined whether the comments were positive or negative. 

In that sample, we found about 200 residents sharing messages explicitly suggesting Slow Streets has greatly improved safety on the corridors they use, and about 60 residents directly sharing serious concerns that the program is unsafe. 

In May, one survey commenter said a Slow Streets corridor in Temescal had made a real difference to her daily exercise routine. “It has been wonderful to run in a safe space where it is very easy to practice social distancing and not worry about dodging other pedestrians and risk obstructing or being hit by traffic. I really appreciate this initiative!”

In June, a resident answering the same survey focused on the benefits of fewer cars passing through. “We have less traffic in the neighborhood and I like that from a safety standpoint. Second, there’s more sense of community with neighbors and an overall feeling of safety. Less cars also means less noise pollution and air pollution. Big plus!”

Other Oakland residents who live near Slow Streets told the city that, despite the program’s intentions, it actually makes them feel less safe. They described cars taking dangerous shortcuts on adjoining streets and ignoring the traffic barriers.

One resident said the Slow Street corner of Seminary and MacArthur, near Mills College in East Oakland, has “crazy driving” that is “so bad that I now have to take [their pets] elsewhere for walks.”

In Rockridge, one resident told the city, Hillegass Avenue saw a “drastic and dangerous increase of traffic” when nearby Colby Street was blocked off as a Slow Street. Another resident said the fact that the streets aren’t entirely closed to cars makes them feel unsafe. “We still can’t walk in the streets because there are still some cars and this is unavoidable,” they said.

An East Oakland commenter, living east of High Street, was even more desperate for improvements: “The combination of CLOSURES WITH NO ENFORCEMENT has simply made OUR STREETS *MORE DANGEROUS*, NOT LESS!!!  Autos STILL use this as a ‘THROUGH’ street; they STILL SPEED, now at even HIGHER SPEEDS!!; the ‘barriers’ are NOT STOPPING traffic, and in fact, traffic NOW goes INTO ONCOMING, SPEEDING autos!”

A few East Oaklanders who took the survey said they wished the city had gotten around to paving over giant potholes in their neighborhoods before launching Slow Streets. Some worried that bicyclists from other neighborhoods, unfamiliar with the area, would fall in and get hurt.

Many survey respondents complained about the plastic barriers used to denote Slow Streets at intersections. They say the barriers are too small, too easy to pick up and throw away, and don’t do enough to explain the overall concept. Many drivers simply ignore them and drive up the Slow Street illegally. The city’s September report on the program acknowledged this problem, saying it might consider replacing barriers and cones in some neighborhoods. On June 25th, the city started using more standardized posters and flyers, which they linked to on the city site, to better communicate the program in more languages. It’s unknown how many of the barriers have these posters up, though.  

Oakland’s Slow Streets program uses barriers like this to alert drivers. Credit: Amir Aziz

It’s worth noting that not all of the Slow Streets safety concerns raised by residents have to do with traffic collisions. “I also wonder if calls to police have increased because of this,” wrote one resident who lives in the Golden Gate neighborhood of North Oakland in April. “My concerns would be that citations would be very harmful, particularly since implicit bias impacts who would be most likely to be targeted and have citations enforced.” 

At press time, neither OPD or OakDOT had responded to The Oaklandside about whether or not any citations have been issued for Slow Street violations. 

At her April press conference, the mayor made it clear she would not ask the OPD to cite anyone who flouted Slow Street rules “for now.” Despite her assurance, against the backdrop of local and national protests against police brutality, many who shared feedback about the program worried it would bring increased police attention in largely Black and brown neighborhoods. 

Others say neighbors are using Slow Streets as an excuse to police each other. A Black man who lives along Temescal’s 42nd Street corridor left a comment on one of the surveys saying he’s had problems driving to and from his house with his kids.

“I have had 3 to 4 arguments or confrontations with residents along 42nd that tend to want me not driving on a street I live on. As a African-American man, I am offended. I pull onto 42nd [and a] man walking down the middle of the street curses at me and gives me and my kids the finger and challenges me to fight. Driving to work, an older couple tells me I can’t drive down the street and jumps in front of my car,” the man said.

The city asked how residents feel about Slow Streets. Who did it reach?

The city has acknowledged serious problems with how it’s collected feedback about Slow Streets from residents, especially early on. After the program’s first weekend, residents flooded city email addresses saying they wanted to weigh in on where future Slow Streets should go. OakDOT launched a survey, letting residents nominate future locations. The survey also asked people to note where they live in Oakland, leading to a finding that was troubling and embarrassing for the department: its early outreach efforts were largely reaching richer, whiter, and more politically active residents. 

For instance, over 300 people who used the 42nd Street Slow Street in North Oakland responded to a city survey the weekend that corridor launched. Three other Slow Streets also opened that first weekend, all in lower-income areas: West Street on the border of West Oakland and Uptown; a stretch of East 16th Street in Fruitvale; and Arthur Street, cutting across several East Oakland neighborhoods. All three of these streets received 134 comments combined.

By August 3rd, about 1,100 people had taken the “Next Streets” survey. The majority of them—61%—said they earn more than $100,000 a year; 41% said they earn more than $150,000. Half of all Oakland households earn less than $77,000.

With such skewed survey inputs, red flags could go unseen. For example, at one point, about 14 percent of survey respondents noted that signage along their nearby Slow Street corridor was missing. Would that number have been higher if more people had commented across the city? The same issue could apply to people reporting on speeding cars, their own feelings of safety, and other issues. 

In an interview with The Oaklandside in early summer, Russo readily acknowledged the problems with the city’s initial outreach. He noted that Slow Streets’ initial mid-April rollout was precipitated by a sense of “urgency to move quickly,” as they’d anticipated a sunny Easter weekend that could send people flocking to city parks. In the rush to prevent that, “there wasn’t a lot of community engagement,” Russo said, “but it is really important to us and we want to have dialogue with key stakeholders and get broader input.”

The city had laid down less than five miles of Slow Streets when it started what Russo described as a “robust, weekly dialogue with our transportation advocates, the advocacy community, and community partners.” His team met with community groups like Just Cities, the East Oakland Collective, Outdoor Afro, and more to gather more feedback and, he said, “get a more fine-grained sense of the needs of the communities who we should be putting first: communities of color that have been being hit by COVID-19 in disproportionate rates.”

As the city’s September report about the program notes, one message rang out loud and clear from community leaders in East Oakland. Forget doing downward dogs in the middle of the street during the pandemic. Residents in these neighborhoods simply wanted to feel safe walking to the grocery store, and that was a problem they’d been dealing with long before COVID. 

Case study: Allendale’s Brookdale Avenue Slow Streets corridor

John Jones III moved to East Oakland’s Allendale neighborhood around the same time the Slow Streets program began. He’s a well-known advocate for East Oakland through his work as the Community and Political Engagement Director at Just Cities, a nonprofit co-founded by former Oakland mayor Ron Dellums that focuses on racial disparities. On a walk down 35th one day, he noticed a white plastic barrier standing in the street at Brookdale Avenue, clearly placed there by the city. “I noticed that with half the street blocked off—and this was a two-way—it would cause potential accidents. I was like, ‘This is a no-go,’” said Jones.

The Brookdale Avenue Slow Street, which runs from Fruitvale Avenue to just shy of 55th Avenue, is cut off at one point by 35th. From 2008 to 2019, according to data from the city’s 2017 pedestrian and bike transportation report, there were 327 total collisions along 35th, one of the highest collision rates on a single corridor during that time, though fewer than on Fruitvale Avenue (346) and High Street (466), two other major collision hubs. All three streets are in East or central Oakland, where most of the city’s Black and brown residents live. 

Jones posted his concerns on Facebook. “Has anyone who supports this idea”—meaning the Slow Streets program—”actually traveled on the streets in East Oakland that have been closed? In addition to the narrowness (with cars parked on each side), the fact that residents who live there can still travel with their car, the mere fact that some motorists already drive reckless in East Oakland—does anyone really think it is a smart and safe idea to ‘exercise’ in the middle of these streets?” he wrote.

Friends told him he was overreacting. “Sometimes people have to try things before jumping to conclusions. I’m sure there can be tweaks if it’s unworkable but maybe see how it works before denouncing it,” a neighbor posted in response.

View of a residential section of the Brookdale Avenue Slow Street in Oakland. November 20th, 2020. Credit: Amir Aziz

Jones didn’t know it, but one person had already been hit at the Slow Streets intersection of Brookdale and 35th. According to the Oakland Police Department, a car “failed to yield for a pedestrian in the crosswalk.” Fortunately, that person was able to walk away. 

Then, on April 18, a few days after Jones’ concerned posts, a 55-year old man named Ricky Vigil was hit by a car around 8 p.m. while crossing 35th from Brookdale. According to OPD, Vigil was killed on this intersection while not using a marked crosswalk. After the collision, the driver fled, and the hit-and-run is still under investigation. Vigil later died at a local hospital. 

OPD has not yet charged anyone in connection to Vigil’s death. The Oaklandside has asked OPD for the full report related to the collision; OPD has not shared it, saying the case is still with the investigator and it might be another month until we know. The owner of a business on that corner told The Oaklandside he gave the police his security-camera video from that night, and no longer has access to it. 

While OPD logged the collision as occurring on a designated Slow Street, OakDOT told The Oaklandside that the crash “was investigated and was not determined to be related” to the program. “We are deeply saddened that this project didn’t come soon enough to prevent this crash from happening in the first place,” the department said in a statement. 

Later, in July, a sedan turned from Brookdale onto 35th Avenue, smashed into a car driven by a pregnant woman, and threw her car into another lane, where it hit a third car. To Allendale residents like Jones, collisions like this were inevitable.

OakDOT told The Oaklandside the department is keenly aware of the dangers people face on 35th Avenue, and described it as one of the city’s “high injury corridors,” which make up just 6% of Oakland’s streets but account for more than 60% of severe and fatal traffic crashes in Oakland. According to planning documents, there are more than 34 high-injury corridors in Oakland. The city is expected to complete projects including crosswalk upgrades and a pedestrian-activated signal at known problem areas, including the Brookdale and 35th intersection, by the end of 2020. 

OakDOT told The Oaklandside they chose to make this stretch of Brookdale Avenue a Slow Street, despite the fact that it runs into 35th, for a number of reasons. It has relatively lower traffic volumes, it’s not near a freeway, and it doesn’t have bus routes or obstacles for emergency vehicles. There are other through streets nearby for cars to use. It’s long enough to provide a meaningful Slow Street experience. And it “reflected an effort to distribute the streets geographically.”

OakDOT director Russo also told us that the city’s Slow Street choices were based on years’ worth of work for other initiatives, including studying traffic data to identify streets that were safe for bike and pedestrian expansions. When the pandemic hit and city officials began discussing rolling out the new program, transit planners narrowed the list of potential streets with a very specific criteria. “It was that sort of medium-sized, primarily residential but still not a cul-de-sac type street that we thought could really serve this need,” Russo said in an interview. Vision Zero research has found that the narrower the street, the more likely cars are to slow down. 

We asked Oakland-based collision consultant Benn Karne, who uses his background as a mechanical engineer to recreate scenes of accidents, to check out the intersection for us and tell us what he saw from a safety standpoint. When Karne visited in July, both Slow Streets signs at the entrance of 35th Avenue had been removed by unknown persons. 

Still, Karne told us that beyond the problem of the missing barriers, “there is little potential for additional risk” at this intersection without additional distractions, though the fact that Brookdale “zigzags” at 35th, as seen in the image below, could make it more dangerous for bikers. 

Credit: Google Maps

“There’s no question that for a bicyclist, having to turn right and then left within 200 feet creates an additional hazard beyond just negotiating the crossing of an intersection,” said Karne.

As far as John Jones is concerned, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Ricky Vigil’s death at this intersection in April was or wasn’t tied to the fact that Brookdale Avenue had been turned into a Slow Street. The intersection is simply dangerous, he says, and making Brookdale a Slow Street doesn’t make 35th Avenue any safer. He thinks the city should be focusing on fixing the longstanding problem, not bringing more unpredictability to this intersection.

Warren Logan is the city’s director of mobility. Logan, who is Black, says it’s been hard reading some of the community feedback on Slow Streets, especially from East Oakland residents. He says he spent much of 2019 talking to residents about serious traffic danger in their neighborhoods, and he still believes Slow Streets can be part of the solution. 

“There seems to be a disconnect there. And I offer this humbly: I hear the trauma. I feel your pain. And I’m trying to address it as quickly and effectively as I can,” said Logan in an interview. “When we miss the mark, I want to understand quickly how we can fix it. But I’m also personally and professionally not willing to wait to make the street safer when I know so many people are losing their lives so frequently.”

Throughout the summer, the city kept a running updates blog explaining, among other things, how the city was responding to community feedback and criticism. Perhaps the most notable result of that listening was a Slow Streets offshoot program launched at the end of May and largely rolled out in June and July called Essential Places, which uses cones and signage to make it easier for people in some “high injury” traffic areas in East and West Oakland to safely get to grocery stores and COVID testing and food distribution sites. So far, the city has created 15 of these locations.

Logan noted that it can be very difficult for municipalities to roll out programs like Essential Places as quickly as Oakland did. “Instead of planning for five years, designing for five years, and delivering in twenty, we’re in a constant conversation about how to adjust a program as it is slowly being rolled out,” he said.

While John Jones III remains skeptical of the Slow Streets corridors overall, he said he was impressed by the launch of Essential Places, pointing to one of its locations, near a grocery store between Foothill and Bancroft not far from the Eastmont Town Center. “To me, that was a positive example,” he told us soon after the program launched. “This is a dangerous intersection for pedestrians because Bancroft is pretty wide and we have a lot of seniors that live in that area. That’s really going to reduce harm.”

Still, OakDOT says it is looking forward to implementing lessons learned into a long-term operational plan that works best for the community. That might mean, Russo says, using Slow Streets as a weekend-only or after-school program to alleviate traffic and open spaces for kids. 

“Those are the conversations and the thinking we want to transition to now. Now that we’ve kind of established this base tool and learned a lot, we could do seasonal, time of day, time of week type of things,” Russo said.  

In a conversation with other transportation leaders during a recent talk with the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), Russo also noted that with the pandemic focusing people’s attention on large societal inequalities, there’s an opportunity to center neighborhoods that need transportation innovation the most.

“Slow Streets really shows the potential of getting biking and walking for [people of] all ages and abilities in an inexpensive and rapid way. We are in a moment where people have been occupying cities [and] frankly, Black people, BIPOC people, have been saying this model is not necessarily for us. We need to engage in a meaningful way so that we can understand the needs of the most vulnerable, and if we meet those needs, we can get to more widespread adoption.”

The Oaklandside will be digging into Oakland’s “high injury corridors” in a future report. What has the city done so far to make these notoriously dangerous streets safer, and what do residents and community advocates want? Have questions, experiences, or insights to share with our newsroom? Don’t hesitate to get in touch—and we’ll be working with community organizations to reach more people.

Correction: A previous version of this story identified one Slow Streets intersection as “16th Street and Fruitvale Avenue.” We’ve updated the story to make it clear that the intersection is at East 16th Street and Fruitvale Avenue.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.