Director of Oakland's Department of Transportation, Ryan Russo poses for a photo in Downtown Oakland's Latham Square
OakDOT Director Ryan Russo poses for a photo in downtown Oakland's Latham Square. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Oakland’s dangerous roadways

This article is part of our special investigative series looking into traffic and pedestrian safety in the city. Read more.

The Oakland Department of Transportation, commonly known as OakDOT, was created in 2016 to make the city’s transportation systems and roadways safer, better functioning, and more equitable for residents. Starting that year, Alameda County transportation sales taxes and a large infrastructure bond, Measure KK, gave the city the financial wherewithal, about $350 million over several years, to finally upgrade Oakland roads and streets that had long been in disrepair. And in the six years since, the agency has been at work—publishing a strategic plan, surveying residents, creating road design toolkits and applying for government grants—as it continues its work to address some of the city’s big transportation challenges, including a steep rise in violent collisions. But despite the potential for OakDOT to impact public safety and overall quality of life in Oakland, not a lot of residents know what happens inside the department or how it makes decisions. 

To get a better sense for how OakDOT works and learn more about its policy priorities, we turned to its director, Ryan Russo, who was appointed to run the agency in 2017. Before joining Oakland, Russo was integral to New York City’s traffic-safety innovations. As the deputy commissioner for transportation planning and management at the New York Department of Traffic, he was credited with closing down streets around Times Square to create safer pedestrian and tourist hubs while also adding new bike lanes to major city streets like Broadway. Unsurprisingly, Russo has had smaller annual budgets to work with in Oakland—less than half the $100 million transportation operations budget he had in New York. But Russo and his staff still manage, write, and propose plans that significantly affect traffic safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars in Oakland. And if the steady stream of calls and complaints coming into the city about unsafe intersections, poorly maintained roads, and inadequate bike lanes are any indication, Oaklanders are expecting solutions from OakDOT and the city, arguably, more than ever before. 

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Due in part to Measure KK and state-issued grants, the city has had more money for roadway improvements in recent years. How is OakDOT prioritizing spending to make city streets safer to walk, bike, and drive?

Well, first, we have a three-tiered system of classification, from major roads like International Boulevard, Foothill Boulevard, and Bancroft Avenue, to arterial streets, which are like collector streets, which you use to get around within the neighborhood, and then the very local streets. One of the tensions in local government is the amount of resources you have and the community you want to serve. The number of folks asking for traffic safety intervention, the people who go to 311, has gone up. We’ve seen an increase in reckless driving and the demand from the community in terms of wanting things like speed bumps and stop signs is very, very high. But the interventions can take a long time. There is a two-year-old roadway capital project featuring new traffic signals on Lincoln Avenue, with a rectangular, rapid flashing beacon and a pedestrian-activated signal, that has quite a long delivery timeline. To get the funding, to do the planning, to do the design, and then spit out the construction and deliver takes time. 

But we’ve actually had quite a productive year on high-injury corridors in building out safety improvements. We have a page up on the city of Oakland’s Safe Oakland Streets program site with information on streets like 35th Avenue, Foothill Boulevard, West Street, Telegraph Avenue, and Fruitvale Avenue, which are all really active right now. There was a recent repair and treatment done on Bancroft Avenue. So there’s quite a significant capital program delivering safety improvements that have been identified from the data analysis.

You mentioned 311, the city service that allows residents to report infrastructure problems and submit maintenance requests. How does OakDOT use that information and prioritize what to act on?

The traffic safety requests we analyze are based on an equity factor, a collision factor, and a proximity-to-the-vulnerable-population factor. That is how we initially prioritize roads [and we] score them. And if you’re talking specifically about collisions, really, that’s the only data source we can sort of use in the official collision databases. When there are police reports [for collisions], they go to the DMV and the state, and they’re officially compiled. At the end of the day, these patterns, unfortunately, are pretty sedimented. But… every couple of years we’ll use the latest data to update the high injury network that drives our capital planning for traffic safety.

Workers at OakDOT have told me the biggest obstacle the city has in reducing dangerous road conditions may be the lack of funding to pay for more labor to fix road issues, whether that’s designing better roads or paying crews to get those designs up and ready. OakDOT’s current budget is roughly $70 million. In your opinion, how much more would it take to address all of Oakland’s identified road safety needs?

We’ve talked about that around our paving program. Because we survey our street and get a “pavement condition index” for how bad the potholes are, we know how much it costs to pave a mile. You can basically run the numbers. If I had a magic wand, right now, that would be $450 million. But to get everything for traffic safety, it’s not an elegant system. To answer that question, I have to do it using a little bit more context. These arterial roads in our downtowns and our commercial areas, [for example], are not well-served. When you travel around Oakland, you’ll see traffic signals that are like 50 years old, or from three generations ago. They are often side-mounted and are not up to modern design standards where they hang over the intersection, which contributes to the lack of visibility for, for example, someone running a red light. And we see a lot of t-bone type collisions at those intersections because of those signals. 

And we have a large backlog of signals since it’s about $400,000 to $500,000 to construct one signal with modern standards. And so, you’re talking about millions of dollars to just upgrade current signals. And then if you go down a corridor, like International Boulevard, they sometimes don’t have a traffic signal at many of their intersections where they would make sense—where you might have a church on one side and a school on the other. And International Boulevard historically has been a place where severe injuries and fatalities are concentrated. 

On streets like International Boulevard and others where collisions are a big problem, have there been efforts to fix some of the worst intersections? 

The East Bay BRT program, which is a $220 million capital program and is trying to speed up and make the bus higher quality, actually added [those types of] improvements. When they studied that corridor in detail, they found 30 intersections that needed new traffic signals. And so you had the BRT traffic program delivering like $15 million worth of new traffic signals on that street which are now providing safe crossing opportunities to Oaklanders. If you look at other streets like Foothill Boulevard, where we haven’t really done studies to say exactly where traffic signals would be warranted and what the backlog would be like, to find the dollar amount to get us to the safe system, I can’t really give it to you. But it would be big.

I read a recent study from Seattle where they added new speed limit signs to streets as a simple but effective way to slow people down. Engineers there just added more of the signs on some of the biggest blocks or put some up on blocks where there were none. In Oakland, I’ve driven around for what seems like miles at a time without seeing speed limit signs. Has the city studied what it would take to do something similar here, and whether it would work?

Yeah, and that is a less-expensive endeavor. You know, what’s important now is that with AB 43 passed, that if we wanted to post more speed-limit signs, we can do it. What we’re doing now is coming up with our action plan, recognizing that there is, with what Seattle has done in their study, basically some kind of conventional wisdom out there. What the Seattle study found is that in certain contexts the well-posted speed-limit signs do have their own kind of inherent benefit. And so based on that, we’re going through and seeing what the best way is to deploy that opportunity.

AB 43 also makes it easier for cities to lower speed limits. Some experts I spoke with for a recent article about that law said it won’t make much of a difference if it’s not accompanied by design changes to the roads. What is your response to those people and what are some of these plans you are working on?

With all due respect, the person quoted in the article was a Los Angeles NIMBY, who formed a community group that tried to prevent Los Angeles becoming more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. I would say he very strategically deployed talking points that bicycle advocates have used in general, which is that we’d like to see bike lanes and “road diets”—don’t just pose a lower speed limit. He used that argument to argue against posting lower speed limits. But again, having done this work for 20 years based on studies, we now know that there are benefits to [lowering speed limits]. And in a business district, in a pedestrian-oriented district, this is an effective strategy. It’s one tool in the toolbox.

And we’re probably going to be coming to the public works committee with details on the AB 43 plan. I’m not going to break any news right now on AB 43 but they’re in development.

A lot of cities have adopted “vision zero” strategies, which seek to lower reliance on cars as a way to improve public safety and lower carbon emissions. Is this something Oakland is doing?

Our colleagues in Public Works develop the equitable climate action plan, which is where the city emission reduction strategies are housed. That does circle back with transportation and one of the main action items is developing an electric vehicle strategy. That’s something that we’ve been working on but it’s not embedded in the Safe Oakland Streets strategy.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions the public has when it comes to the way your department deals with our dangerous roadways? I keep hearing about red tape and the amount of time it takes to get anything done.

I think it’s really around the delivery of how fast things can change. My career has been all about that frustration, about whether it takes too long or it’s too hard to make changes. The status quo is a pretty powerful thing. And there is a lot of inertia to the status quo, but the status quo is inequitable and has a lot of negative outcomes we want to see changed. Specifically, in broader transportation and in American infrastructure, we have a project-delivery crisis that it takes too long to deliver big capital projects. Look all around the country. Look at San Francisco, at the BRT project at Van Ness. Look at the central subway. Look here in the East Bay BRT, between the environmental review we’ve done. Between NIMBYism and the community, between procedures of dealing with state engineers and grant programs, we’ve made it very hard for ourselves as a society to deliver that thing quickly with our system. 

You know, I’m very proud of OakDOT. It has worked within its constraints to deliver faster, [be] more responsive, and [work] in a more targeted way. We did not have, years ago, the ability to use what we call an “operational toolbox” that includes roadway markings, painted pedestrian safety zones, and plastic bollards to do a rapid safety intervention. Less expensive but quicker interventions. 

What role does state and federal funding play in these interventions? 

The main way we’ve done a lot of our traffic safety work, because of our historic funding situation, is through a grant program, which is federal money the state controls and grants out to the locality called HSIP, which is the Highway Safety Improvement Program. And it’s great. It provides the funding but there is an application cycle, analysis you have to do to apply, then you get awarded. Then you have to go to the council to accept the grant. Then you have to put in place the design resources to do the engineering. It is a lot more complicated than people think. And the reality is like, that’s a five-year process and it’s frustratingly slow. 

When you talk to local advocates or people who want to see change, it makes sense they’re frustrated. I think what OakDOT does a good job of is identifying what the barriers are that prevent them from being responsive. Like having conversations with our regional and our state advocates, with Caltrans and policymakers around the urgency of this issue, so we can do our best in delivering. And as much as it might be frustrating for a local community member to have you look at our project delivery track record, it is pretty strong given the hoops and in terms of not encountering crazy, crazy delays. 

Has the pandemic affected any of the work that you expected the department to come to complete this year? What has been pushed back? What has not?

The pandemic required new ways of collaborating, working virtually. But I’m really proud of our team. I think we really didn’t miss a beat in general. The economic collapse that initially happened where revenues sort of fell off a cliff led to a hiring freeze for a bit and some positions were frozen. Keeping up with the employment market and the demand for this, the council added more positions into the last budget. So we’re now in hiring mode. You know, not having enough staff has been a challenge. And some of our contractors have run into the same issues, but in general, I would say there hasn’t been anything like a significant impact related to the pandemic on project delivery, time, or timeframe. There’s been sort of a modest impact. 

I want to talk about the Telegraph Avenue “road diet,” or the narrowing of the street to facilitate a bike lane and slow down cars, which I wrote about a few months ago. What is the latest on the construction of that project? Have any surprises come up in the last few months? 

No surprises. The team put the design out to bid, the council awarded the contract. And then, when that happens in the August-September timeframe, the next step is the move to the contractor who has to provide, you know, insurance and bond his whole document. So we anticipate the construction of the project to begin, once we come out of the winter slow-construction season and in the early spring of next year.

Can you explain what the city is doing today with cameras? We know there are no red-light or speed cameras in the city, but there are traffic cameras on poles at intersections. How does the city use them?

So there’s no camera enforcement in the city of Oakland. Anytime you see a camera on a traffic signal, it is simply a detection device. It is just allowing our traffic signal to detect that there’s a vehicle waiting at a light and triggers the light-timing pattern to maybe advance to the next phase, to move traffic efficiently.

When did the city last survey the efficiency and quality of the whole city light-timing system? Or does each intersection have its own study? 

Yeah, it tends to be more corridor by corridor. So there’ll be corridors like the MacArthur corridor, which often can serve as an overflow to the 580 corridor, or the San Pablo corridor that parallels 880, or International Boulevard as part of the BRT, or like College Avenue and Broadway, which is really important for public transit. You might have a consultant study that takes on a corridor program, but one of the things we’ve done at OakDOT is that before the department was implemented, Oakland didn’t really have a strategic signals unit. We really stood up that unit last year and we have a section leader, a new traffic engineer, who can work permanently on signal and timing-type issues.

And have you made that survey data and the studies public? I ask because I’ve had a lot of people telling me signal lights near their homes don’t work or that they are malfunctioning at all hours of the day and they could probably benefit from knowing if there have been surveys done on them.

We have [some] survey results. There’s like the timing plans we use for intersections or a specific study. I guess I’m just wondering how this will help the systemic problem of traffic injuries and fatalities in Oakland. Frankly, the signal timing work is generally done for the efficient movement of goods and motor vehicles. And [people asking about signal lights] tend to be motorists who are mad because they can’t get around Oakland fast enough. And I think that’s really not about the system that we have, where people are hit crossing streets and killed in speeding crashes. So it’s a community complaint, but it’s not at the top of my list.

Let’s talk about speed cameras. A former state commissioner, David Chiu, had a speed camera bill that did not pass this year but may get traction next year in the legislature. Are you expecting the mayor and your department to support it again? And can you explain why you think this type of enforcement would be a good thing? 

So OakDOT, the mayor’s office, the City Council, and many of our community leaders, have pretty much unanimous support in campaigning for an automated speed-enforcement program being permitted by the state legislature. And personally, I couldn’t speak more strongly about the importance for the state to give us authority to do such a thing. It’s been proven to be incredibly effective in leading folks to make good choices. I worked at the New York City department of transportation for almost 14 years before joining OakDOT four-and-a-half years ago. And I was there when the state legislature gave New York the authority to have automated speed enforcement and was part of the team designing and rolling out those systems and then evaluating their effectiveness. And what we find when you have a system like that, is that you get very few repeat offenders as awareness of the system grows. People ultimately choose to drive at speed and sort of step back, you know, the frankly toxic culture we have in this country, in the state and the city around speed and automobility that’s killing our neighbors, and we’ve done very little structurally to reign that in. 

How do you connect that culture to what Oakland is facing today? 

Here in Oakland, electric scooters showed up four years ago and legislators were like, instantly, if we’re going to have them, they need to have a maximum speed and can’t go too fast. They might hit a pedestrian on the sidewalk. Like, that was all well and good but in the 1920s, we could have done speed regulators on automobiles and just said, you can’t drive over the speed limit. And we got automakers to build automobiles that can go 120 miles an hour. The Las Vegas Raiders’ wide receiver just recently hit someone going 150 miles per hour in Las Vegas and ruined his life and killed someone else. And so what we find is that speeding is the thing that doesn’t give you enough time to slow down before you see someone crossing or chasing a ball into the street. By physics, the force of the collision is more severe, and narrows your visibility as you go. 

We need to control speed and the traditional way we’ve done it is, every once in a while, sprinkle a police officer somewhere to hide behind a set of bushes and do a radar. And then [they] come down with lights and sirens, and having this incredibly fraught interaction that has this whole other set of potential negative consequences and systemic racism. We can achieve multiple goals, which is an enforcement system that doesn’t involve armed policing, that doesn’t involve bias and that, ultimately, prevents tragedies. The City Council endorsed AB 550, the mayor endorsed AB 550, the speed camera bill. We were a strong voice with other California’s cities in championing it. And you desperately need a tool like that. If you really want to reimagine public safety, if you really want to move from armed policing to some other form, it really doesn’t happen without a program like a speed-safety camera.

Is there anything that could be done from the product side, meaning the car industry? A lot of new lower-cost cars today have super-powered motors with zero-to-60 startup times like Maseratis. The cars that were around when these roads were built were not nearly as powerful.

Yeah, and thanks for going there. Product regulation really happens at the federal level and sometimes at the state level, kind of like if you think of fuel-efficiency standards. But those cars are a huge problem and something should be done about them. 

Next year is an election year. Current Mayor Libby Schaaf, who appointed you in 2017, will be leaving. Do you expect to stay on in your capacity as director after she leaves to continue the work that you’ve started at OakDOT? 

[Laughing] Well, I’m going to have to say no comment to that. 

Jose Fermoso is a 2021 Knight-Wallace Fellow reporting on traffic and road safety for The Oaklandside. His work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Born and raised in Oakland, Jose has also worked on the bestselling unauthorized biography of Apple's Jony Ive and led all content initiatives at App Academy, the top U.S. coding boot camp. He 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.