A lot happened this year that could make Oakland roadways safer. Millions of dollars in federal funding is headed toward the city to fix our existing infrastructure and build new transportation systems. New state laws were approved that should give Oakland more control over shaping its streets.
But whatever positive developments come from infrastructure improvements or increased political attention to traffic issues, there remain massive problems due to decades of inaction and bad decisions. And transportation and transit issues continue to be some of the most divisive, with small businesses and car owners finding it hard sometimes to come to agreement with bicycle advocates and pedestrians about how to reshape our streets.
We took a look at the year’s biggest developments that will impact our roadways, based on The Oaklandside’s reporting as well as conversations with respected local and national thinkers on traffic safety.
Big federal investments in infrastructure are on the way
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law a month ago will trickle into important Oakland programs starting next year. While the specifics around how exactly the money will be parceled out has yet to be determined, it’s widely expected that it will lead to better-run public transportation, including more frequent and efficient BART train schedules and new electric AC Transit buses. This could entice people to use private automobiles less on the city’s roads, reducing wear and tear on our streets and reducing traffic injuries and fatalities. The money is also expected to be used to repair bridges and roads, especially if the city decides to use it to supplement its 5-Year Paving Plan budget, which is currently reliant on an extension of Measure KK funds.
Oakland also received a $14.5 million grant in November that could be used to improve sidewalks, roads, and intersections connecting downtown, Old Oakland, and parts of West Oakland to the Jack London Square-adjacent waterfront. The money is from the federal Department of Transportation’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) program. City leaders hope that it will be the final cherry on top of a tasty sundae of public funding the city is pledging toward the Oakland Athletics stadium project. The funds will also pay for a redesign of Martin Luther King Jr. Way through a buffered or protected bike lane from San Pablo Avenue down to the front entrance of the still-chimerical stadium’s entrance.
But with all this money being thrown to an area that’s already received significant investments in the past, low- and middle-income residents, mainly from West and East Oakland minority communities, are bound to question how the project benefits them. Will the road changes help connect them to the waterfront and right previous inequitable injustices, as the city claims, or could it be another wedge issue that brings about further gentrification?
New state laws expand Oakland’s authority to change the rules of the road, redesign streets
In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 43 into law, allowing city traffic engineers to consider the safety of pedestrians and bicycles when evaluating road speed limits. This upended decades of car-centric road design. The 85th-percentile rule that Oakland engineers previously used, usually through a road study looking for the speed at which 85% of people drive, was a big reason AB 43 supporters say speeds had increased to unsafe levels on city roadways. And since vehicle speed is the cause of a quarter of all Oakland traffic fatalities, the new ability of cities to lower speed limits on some streets by 5 mph may slow drivers down and prevent some serious injuries and deaths.
But not everyone believes the law will have a positive impact. The city can change speed limits by putting up new signs, but lots of drivers will continue ignoring posted speed limits and going at whatever the “natural operating speed” is for a street. Until Oakland roads are redesigned with narrower lanes and other traffic-calming infrastructure changes that lower the natural operating speed of cars (think more big bumps), speeding will likely continue to be an issue. And lower speed limits, organizations like the ACLU argue, may also financially impact communities who will be more ticketed because of it.
In 2018, the State of California implemented SB 743, which changed the way that cities measure the environmental impacts of their transportation systems. Previously, cities used a metric known as “highway level of service”, but they’re now allowed to use a “vehicle miles traveled” measurement. The former metric looked at vehicle delays on roads—think traffic jams—as the main indicator of bad environmental impacts. This usually led to cities building even more roads. A vehicle miles traveled approach takes into account a more complete, and more public-transport-friendly way of looking at how people get around, and is more likely to lead transportation planners to recommend adding things like bike lanes, sidewalks, and expanding transit. This was the first full year Oakland could use the new planning tool.
Jonathan Levine, a Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan, told me this change gives Oakland the ability to design roads and mobility systems for “walking, cycling, transit, and denser development in accessible areas,” instead of the old design constraints which emphasized road expansions for cars. In the past, Levine said, road expansion advocates would use claims of congestion to build even more roads and block more pedestrian-focused projects, as they did in San Francisco.
With new map models showing Oakland has one of the smallest per-capita VMTs in the county, expect infrastructure development that seeks to service more walkers than drivers. This doesn’t mean it will not lead to further congestion on some Oakland streets. Expect other environmental impact studies and more public battles next year that will bring up VMT.
Telegraph Avenue’s protected bike lanes—loved by some, hated by others—are here to stay
The years-long battle for one of the city’s busiest streets ended in the middle of the summer, but it’s still causing friction and fear. Despite opposition from the Oakland Department of Transportation (OakDOT), KONO businesses, the Oakland Department of Race and Equity, and Black, Latinx, and Asian residents, who went largely unsurveyed, the Oakland City Council approved the completion of a permanent protected bike lane on Telegraph Avenue between 21st and 29th Avenues.
This pleased a lot of the bike advocacy community in the city. However, while business owners along the lane worried about losing parking spots, many more were simply worried about how the protected bike lane has created more transportation confusion, collisions, and close calls between cars, pedestrians, and bicycles. Just in the last few months, according to a KONO spokesperson, businesses like the restaurant Kingston 11 have seen more collisions at their front door that they attribute to the environment around the approved bike lanes. Bike advocates say, however, that there have always been collisions and close calls on the avenue, and that the lane is definitely making things safer by slowing down cars and keeping them separated from cyclists.
Ryan Russo, the OakDOT director, told us in a recent Q&A that plans are underway to complete the lane construction by the end of next year.
Bye-bye single-family zoning
The passage of SB9 and SB10 this year essentially eliminated single-family zoning in California as part of a bid to spur denser climate-friendly development, and especially to ease the housing crisis with a huge injection of supply. Bill supporters, including Mayor Libby Schaff, believe that if enough multi-family buildings are created and bring about greater density, more people will be able to live closer to their work. This will reduce the need to drive and use more public transportation, leading to fewer vehicle collisions, road usage, and other dangerous road encounters. But studies from key research institutions, such as the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, have estimated that only a fraction, about 5%, of the state’s single-family lots can be developed through SB 9 and may not make a huge difference to car density or usage.
Severe and fatal injury collisions continue
Unfortunately, one other big story in 2021 was that our roads haven’t gotten noticeably safer. Every month, there is news that a person has been hit and killed on the city streets. People of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds have been harmed, but low-income Oaklanders and people of color face disproportionate levels of risk around their homes and workplaces.
One ongoing hazard is the high rate at which people run red lights in Oakland. Our in-depth examination of this problem found that roadway design and traffic signal systems likely influences how bad collisions will be when someone runs a red light. One of the most important factors—one that Oakland has the power to change—is the amount of time yellow lights signal for. Drivers are usually too close to the intersection to make a safe decision to either stop or cross safely as the light is turning from yellow to red. We also learned that traffic engineers will soon have a more-accurate equation to work with to improve the signal timing system.
Many attribute the high number of collisions to poor infrastructure. In contrast, others blame a culture of speeding combined with irrational behavior and lack of care to create one of the most dangerous cities to drive, walk, and bike in the state. And the statistics back up both of those sentiments: the city is among the worst in California in DUI crashes, and hit-and-runs, to start. With more and more of Oakland’s collisions resulting in shocking outcomes, the search for solutions becomes more acute and likely to affect all residents.
Jose Fermoso is a University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow.