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On the evening of Sept. 9, a man driving 90 miles per hour ran a red light at the intersection of International Boulevard and 38th Avenue in Fruitvale, striking the side of a minivan carrying a family of three adults and seven children. A 9-year-old girl was ejected from the vehicle, and the other nine passengers all sustained injuries. Thankfully, everyone survived. Many of you likely saw or read the terrifying news reports.
Unfortunately, collisions like the one experienced by Keren Martinez and her family that night are not uncommon in Oakland. According to statewide crash and injury data, Oakland is one of the most dangerous cities in California for drivers and pedestrians. The city has averaged 173 serious or fatal injuries annually for the last five years. Only cities with much larger populations, including Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego, have higher numbers.
In the last few years, Oakland city officials have taken steps to address the problem. More than two dozen city streets have been designated as “high injury corridors,” part of a much broader Safe Oakland Streets Initiative that officials say will lead to better transportation and design policies. And not long after the pandemic began last year, the city launched its highly publicized Slow Streets Initiative, which blocked off certain residential streets to through traffic to make them safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
But some residents say these attempts are either not working or not happening fast enough to make a difference. In the weeks following the rollout of Slow Streets, locals wrote to the city in increasingly desperate tones that they were still worried. Many told stories of cars running red lights at all hours, poorly designed and too-narrow streets, and a general lack of law enforcement, funding for infrastructure, and political urgency. “Our area has a history of reckless driving and this has not changed the situation and only made it worse. It is also not enforceable,” one resident said on the city’s Slow Streets survey. More than one-third of the 600 initial survey respondents mentioned car speeding as a problem.
If ever there was a time for in-depth reporting about Oakland’s unsafe roadways, and the systems underlying them, it’s now.
How we’ll report about road safety in Oakland
For the next eight months, supported by a grant from the University of Michigan’s Knight Wallace program, I’ll be reporting for The Oaklandside about our city’s roadways, with the aim of understanding why the streets we walk, bike, and drive on every day are so dangerous. My reporting will place a special focus on communities disproportionately impacted: Black and Latinx people in Oakland are about “twice as likely to die in a pedestrian collision as white populations,” according to data collected by the city of Oakland, and pedestrians of Asian descent suffer deaths from collisions at “twice the citywide rate.” In the weeks to come, I’ll examine how past and present systems of segregation, urban planning, economics, and culture have converged in Oakland to create these inequities.
Drawing on The Oaklandside’s community-listening approach, I’ll engage with residents and stakeholders, including city leaders and trusted community organizations, through one-on-one interviews, neighborhood outreach, and surveys to better understand why our streets have been so dangerous for so long, what is currently being done to address the problem and explore other possible solutions.
So what will this reporting look like, and how will it be different? The violent collision suffered recently by the Martinez family offers an example.
In the crash aftermath, residents rightfully placed blame on the speeding driver who was intoxicated and ran the red light, and who was later caught by locals as he tried to run away from the scene. Meanwhile, city officials quickly focused on one prevention strategy: greater enforcement of traffic laws. On the TV news following the crash, Councilmember Noel Gallo pinpointed insufficient police presence as a contributing factor. By the end of the week, Mayor Libby Schaaf deployed CHP officers to the city’s high-injury corridors, a move that was already in the works prior to the crash.
But is that the whole story? Some collision experts say there could be other possible factors at play, including street design, a culture of fast driving on certain roadways, or a general lack of investment in infrastructure and maintenance. In my reporting, I’ll strive to look beyond the immediate news headlines to better understand how these forces may also be playing a role.
I’ll be speaking with experts like Offer Grembek, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center (SafeTREK), who says Oakland’s built environment likely also had a part in the Fruitvale accident.
“While it is true [drivers can individually cause crashes], we must recognize that there are probably other causes at play,” he told me over the phone this week. Part of building safe environments, Grembek argues, is creating safety “buffers,” or design strategies, to minimize accidents in the event of catastrophic individual decision-making.
I’ll also be using available data to identify patterns and inequities. Historical data from the intersection where the Fruitvale crash occurred, and others near it, reveal that collisions in the area are more common than in most other parts of the city. In the last 11 years, more than five collisions have been reported at 38th Avenue and International Boulevard, and three blocks away is the single most dangerous intersection in the whole city, according to the statewide Transporation Injury Mapping System: 35th Avenue and International, with more than 60 reported collisions in the last decade-plus.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ll be speaking with impacted residents, like the business owners near that dangerous intersection in Fruitvale who told me that the city tends to act quickly after big, public tragedies and then backs away when people stop paying attention.
Hugo, a Fruitvale resident and business owner who has worked at his travel store on 36th Avenue for more than four decades, told me that few city employees ever come to speak to residents in his part of town, and that police presence ebbs and flows there. Other longtime residents I’ve interviewed in recent months say it’s been years since any city official followed up with the community to see whether the intersections in their neighborhoods have become more or less safe.
In the coming weeks and months, I’ll continue to talk with residents and city officials to determine what is, and what isn’t being done to address safety in these dangerous corridors and see if the city’s current response is resulting in fewer collisions.
We want to hear from you
If you’ve lived in Oakland long enough, you likely know someone that’s been affected by a severe collision. I know I have. One of my best friends, audio engineer Neil Godbole, lost his car when a vehicle traveling two times the speed limit barrelled into it on Park Boulevard. Luckily, he had stepped away briefly to run an errand. Sadly, too many other Oakland residents have suffered far, far worse.
I want to hear directly from more Oakland residents who have personally experienced or been impacted either directly or indirectly by unsafe roadways in the city. With your help, I hope to answer some tough questions: Why are Oakland’s deadliest corridors concentrated in less-affluent neighborhoods? How has racism and housing segregation in Oakland contributed to making our roads unsafe? Could the way we design our streets contribute to collisions? How do external parties like insurance and tech companies use collision data, and to what end? What is the role of law enforcement in improving road safety? And what role should community members play in holding each other accountable for reckless driving?
With your help, we’ll investigate current and past collisions. We also want to hear stories of how people’s lives have changed because of a crash. We want to know how many times politicians have promised change and whether they have come through. Most importantly, we want to help the community find solutions to this seemingly intractable problem.
You can start by sharing your experiences about road safety in Oakland, using the online form below. The Oaklandside will not publish any of the information you provide, without your consent. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter at @fermoso.
Jose Fermoso is a University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow.