Oakland’s dangerous roadways
This article is part of our special investigative series looking into traffic and pedestrian safety in the city. Read more.
Oakland is considering lowering speed limits on certain streets to increase safety after Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill earlier this month making that process easier for cities across the state.
Assembly Bill 43, authored by Assemblymember Laura Friedman and signed into law by the governor on Oct. 8, allows traffic engineers to take pedestrian and bicyclist safety into account when establishing speed limits. Previously, engineers were required to use an “85th-percentile” rule—the speed at which 85% of people drive at, or under, on a given road—to set speed limits. AB 43 does away with that requirement for most roadways, although engineers can still use it as one criteria. The bill also allows California cities to lower speed limits on their streets in 5 mph increments and reduces the need to conduct as many traffic surveys as before, among other changes to the vehicle code.
Lowering vehicle speeds is seen by many as a pivotal step in reducing collisions. In Oakland, speed was found to be a primary factor in 25% of traffic fatalities between 2012 and 2016, according to the Oakland Department of Transportation. Oakland roads have also become less safe in recent years: Fatalities and severe traffic-related injuries increased by 76% during the same time period studied by OakDOT. The number of traffic-related deaths rose again from 27 in 2019 to 33 in 2020, according to Oakland Police Department reports.
District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb told The Oaklandside that AB 43 will complement what the city is already doing to address traffic safety, which includes initiatives to increase pedestrian safety and encourage biking. The city also analyzed collision data and identified a network of “high injury” corridors where a majority of Oakland’s traffic-related deaths and injuries occur.
“The city of Oakland has been working for a number of years now to do engineering changes to help reduce traffic, reduce the speed of traffic on our major streets. And this is one more tool we could use to slow down people,” Kalb said.
Oakland’s Department of Transportation is currently developing a work plan to make recommendations on speed limits in light of the new state legislation and is expected to share a report with the City Council in late November, according to Kalb. Based on its recommendations, he said, the council is likely to approve some immediate changes.
City officials shouldn’t have much trouble identifying streets where they could start reducing speed limits. A review of public comments from OakDOT traffic surveys over the years shows that the city has received hundreds of requests from residents asking city planners to reduce vehicle speeds on specific streets. On Foothill Boulevard alone (one of the city’s “high-injury” corridors) between 2015 and 2020 there were 548 crashes, according to UC Berkeley’s SafeTREC mapping system. About 240 involved pedestrians and, of those, speeding was determined as the primary cause in more than a third.
Oakland has previously disregarded the 85th-percentile rule on streets due to high collision rates. The stretch of Grand Avenue between Lake Park Avenue and Wildwood Avenue has a speed limit of 25 mph despite having an 85th-percentile speed of 31.8 mph, based on a 2013 Oakland traffic survey. In theory, AB 43 would allow OakDOT to reduce the speed limit there and on other streets by an additional 5 mph, without being slowed by excessive surveys and analyses. “We can make some decisions as to what we think is best for safety reasons,” said Kalb.
Supporters of the law say that even small speed reductions can make a difference. They point to recent studies in Seattle showing that lower speed limits were effective in reducing the number of crashes, traffic injuries, and high-end speeders.
Flawed logic has led to higher speed limits
AB 43 came about after California’s Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force, created in 2019 to improve traffic safety policies, found that the 85th-percentile rule incorrectly assumed most people “drive at a safe and reasonable speed based on the road conditions.” The calculation resulted in speed limits being raised without regard for other factors like population growth and increased pedestrian activity in neighborhoods. It also often acted as a legislative block to lowering speed limits, according to the task force. Los Angeles alone raised speed limits on more than 200 miles of roadway based on 85th-percentile speed calculations, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Leah Shahum, founder of the nonprofit Vision Zero, which seeks to eliminate traffic fatalities worldwide, said it was about time California passed this type of law, especially since it was one of the last states to use the 85th-percentile rule as a legal standard and not just a recommendation for setting speed limits.
“We’re unfortunately just catching up to where much of the nation already is in allowing local communities to prioritize safety over speed. The 85th-percentile standard has been proven to be outdated and ineffective in terms of safety,” Shahum said.
Shahum added that speed limits are just one factor—and not the most important one—in making roads safer. Designing roads that discourage speeding, she said, will have the greatest impact. “It’s really now about how we accompany this positive change in state law with real investments in design. Some people go, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ but it matters more if the street design is paired up with the posted signage.”
Beyond the potential safety benefits, reducing speed is viewed by some as a strategy for encouraging climate-friendly and healthy transportation behaviors. The thinking goes like this: Lowering speed limits, narrowing streets, adding more bicycle lanes, and creating better public transit options can, over time, lower people’s desire to own and operate cars.
Carter Rubin of the NRDC said his organization supported AB 43 not only because it will improve road safety, but because it moves the ball forward in helping California cities meet their climate and air quality goals. “We really need to make it possible for people to move around the state without depending exclusively on their cars, because that’s the only option that our streets are designed to accommodate,” he told us.
Rubin said reducing speeds can also positively affect the lives of people of color who are more likely to live close to dangerous corridors and be “victims of traffic violence.” In Oakland, Black and Latinx people were found to be twice as likely to die from a pedestrian collision as white people, according to a 2017 OakDOT report.
Others say lowering speed limits isn’t the answer
Not everyone is celebrating AB 43. Some bicycle and pedestrian-safety advocates note that the bill still allows the state to determine what is legal and what is not when it comes to most aspects of traffic enforcement, which they say handcuffs cities from amending laws based on their built or natural environments.
Dave Campbell, the director of Bike East Bay, said he supports the new law but is disappointed that it doesn’t go further to give local governments more control. “When the local traffic engineer can’t put up a stop sign so kids can walk across the streets safely because not enough kids are getting hit or injured or killed,” he said, “that’s not a state issue in any way, shape, or form.”
Allowing the state to maintain control over local speed limits may also complicate and delay how they are enforced, said Campbell, since AB 43 doesn’t allow California cities to begin ticketing for violations of lower speed limits until the state sets up a website where people can contest or pay for citations. Under AB 43, California isn’t obligated to have that website up and running until summer 2024.
“It basically says go ahead and speed and kill people until we’ll set up this online process,” Campbell said, rather than “let’s make it safe today and figure out how to decrease the impact of any of the changes.”
A transportation consultant working with Assemblywoman Friedman’s office told The Oaklandside the bill is not as restrictive as Campbell claims. AB 43 will allow cities to issue citations before 2024 in some areas where speed limits are lowered, they said, just not on streets defined as “safety corridors” or with high concentrations of pedestrian traffic or cyclists.
Jay Beeber, the executive director of Safer Streets L.A. and a former member of the state’s Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force, said speed limits have nothing to do with slowing people down. That’s because most roads, he said, have a natural “operating speed” (or the natural speed most drivers go) based on their design, and drivers’ behaviors are unaffected by speed limit signs. Blocks with wide lanes, long, swooping roads, and multiple lanes invite cars to treat them like the highways they resemble, said Beeber. Only by making it harder to drive fast by designing streets with features like narrow roads and improved sight distance, he argued, will speeds be reduced.
“AB 43 is nonsense. You could end up with speed limits legally being 10 miles an hour below the operating speed with a roadway. People are not going to drive those speeds, so you’re going to have a number of problems,” said Beeber. “You’re giving people a false sense of security about what the actual speed of that roadway is.” He added that it could also result in “additional speed variation,” in which some drivers follow the posted lower limit while others continue to go much faster, a phenomenon that may result in more collisions.
Others have expressed concern that enforcement of lower speed limits could unequally impact communities of color. The ACLU California Action opposed the bill because of that concern, stating in a letter to the governor that enforcement will lead to a “disproportionate financial impact on the most vulnerable.” Pastor Patricia Strong-Fargas of the Mt. Salem New Wave Christian Fellowship Church in Los Angeles and executive director of the group Faith for Safer Streets, supported AB 43 despite similar worries. The pastor said she personally experienced how traffic concerns in the Black community are ignored, when requests for a needed traffic light near her church took years to get approved.
“It took me at least eight to 10 years to get the lights set up on that corner, even though people were dying, collisions were happening. There was no concern from the council. I’d even requested a traffic survey there,” she said.
Still, Strong-Fargas believes lowering speeds is a key to bringing collisions down and personally called Governor Newsom’s legislative aides to encourage the passing of AB 43. Now that it’s the law, she said she’ll be paying close attention and speak up if communities are unfairly targeted.
“We’re going to address who’s on the AB 43 task force. Nobody can speak for our community unless you’ve been in that community. They need to know our areas,” she said.
More visible enforcement of speed limits might be in store for Oakland, said Kalb, whether through more policing or other means. At the very least, he said, people should expect that getting ticketed in the city will be one part of a “multifaceted” approach to reducing collisions.
“All we can do is take the bill as it is and try to use it to the maximum extent possible to make our streets safer.”
Other pedestrian-friendly bills on the governor’s agenda this year failed to become law. One was AB 122, which would have legalized the so-called “Idaho stop,” where bicyclists yield at a stop sign or red light rather than come to a full stop. Supporters of that bill say it would have helped to minimize rear-end collisions, which account for 40% of bike fatalities nationwide.
Jose Fermoso is a University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow.