Nearly two years after the city began closing off streets to vehicles as part of its Slow Streets initiative—meant to encourage safe outdoor activity during shelter-in-place orders—the Oakland Department of Transportation is getting ready to wind the program down.
Oakland’s dangerous roadways
This article is part of our special series looking into traffic and pedestrian safety in the city. Read more.
Transportation department officials announced the news during last Thursday’s monthly meeting of the Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC), saying the removal of Slow Streets infrastructure—signs, safety cones, and barricades on roughly 21 miles of roadway—would begin within two weeks and continue through February. Since April 2020 when the program began, only residents living on Slow Streets and emergency and essential workers were technically allowed to drive on those roads.
“We’ve been thinking about this decision for probably eight or nine months,” said John Patton, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian program supervisor. “It’s been a very long internal discussion to get to this proposal to allow people to comment on it, but it’s effectively a proposal that we’ve decided to advance.”
Residents’ opinions of Slow Streets have varied widely, with some expressing gratitude for the program, which they see as a gateway to a future where local governments can center pedestrians and bicyclists over cars. Others view it as an inconvenience and, in some cases, say it has made roads even more dangerous for pedestrians.
Within weeks of the program’s start, dozens of people in Temescal and Rockridge used the blocked-off streets to exercise and take strolls. One resident, Philip Yip, told the commission the streets had been “absolutely transformative” for his family, allowing him to teach his children how to ride a bike.
Elsewhere, especially in parts of West Oakland and the East Oakland flatlands, the program received more criticism, particularly from residents living along streets that are part of OakDOT’s high-injury network of corridors where many of the city’s dangerous car collisions occur.
These Oaklanders said streets running alongside and near Slow Streets became more crowded and dangerous as cars had to find alternate routes, making people on those streets more fearful of walking. They also noted that the streets caused delays for essential-service vehicles like garbage and recycling trucks. East and West Oakland, which are lower-income and home to many essential service workers, have more incidents of speeding, red-light running, and other traffic violations, according to data from UC Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System.
OakDOT said the disparity in how different neighborhoods are experiencing Slow Streets helps explain why it’s now being phased out. Not enough people from lower-income areas of the city had taken part in the department’s many surveys following Slow Street installations. Our reporting found over 60% of the people who took those surveys were either white or higher-income.
A quick removal sparks concern
OakDOT’s choice to remove Slow Streets without robust public outreach upset several commission members and residents who attended the meeting last Thursday.
Commissioner David Ralston, an analyst for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said he was “shocked” that Slow Streets would be removed without OakDOT offering an exact timeline for replacing the program’s temporary structures with more permanent solutions.
Alex Frank, a new commission member who runs a nonprofit that gives bikes to unhoused people, said residents have gotten used to walking on the streets, and changing them again could have dire consequences.
“We have changed the nature of those streets already,” said Frank. Changing them again without warning, he added, “makes them incredibly dangerous.”
Frank also noted that OakDOT did not provide the commission with new data supporting the removal, and has not released a report in more than a year to help the public understand the project’s impact. “The way forward would probably be to leverage neighborhood councils and bring this proposal before [them],” he said.
Ralston submitted a motion at the end of the meeting imploring OakDOT to reconsider the speed of its order. The motion passed by a majority.
Replying to the commissioners, OakDOT’s Wier pointed out that the department has conducted multiple public surveys throughout the project. His team looked at comments on the city’s 311 emergency hotline (at 311 or 510-615-5566) and its website from the last two years and talked to neighborhood organizations to solicit feedback about the future of Slow Streets.
In addition to the public’s uneven response to Slow Streets, OakDOT cited decreased usage of the streets over time and the gradual reopening of businesses and public spaces as reasons why the Slow Streets initiative is ready to retire.
“By summer , schools had begun opening, and we’d seen changes and travel patterns that began to resemble pre-pandemic street conditions,” said Patton.
And as more OakDOT workers returned to their pre-pandemic responsibilities, OakDOT’s Patton said, the cost of maintaining the personnel and infrastructure needed for Slow Streets became more prohibitive. City workers have less time to pick up damaged Slow Streets signs or build new barriers while attending to other duties around the city.
“We’re having a hard time keeping the program going in its current form. We don’t have the depth of resources to address people’s concerns over 21 miles, simultaneously. We need to try to focus on the resources we do have,” Patton said. “I understand for transportation and neighborhood advocates, this may feel like a retreat. But it’s trying to stabilize a very fragile situation.”
Commissioner Grey Gardner said OakDOT should not use staffing shortages as an excuse to make these decisions, even if those challenges are real.
“Functionally, it’s frustrating that we have these ongoing staffing problems that never get fixed. I think that the city doesn’t treat speed and safety as an emergency,” Gardner said.
Weir noted in response that OakDOT recently hired two new maintenance workers, but that the department is still understaffed.
What happens next?
Barring a change of direction after the commission’s motion, OakDOT said it would continue with its plan to remove the temporary Slow Streets signs and redirect its efforts to bringing about permanent street changes, such as new speed-reduction signs, stop signs, speed bumps, and traffic circles.
It also aims to redouble efforts toward improving a handful of streets and intersections shown to be the most dangerous for pedestrians in areas with high concentrations of lower-income residents.
These locations currently include 15 “essential places” identified by OakDOT, where low-income and minority residents have difficulty safely crossing streets to reach services like medical clinics or grocery stores. The intersections at Fruitvale Avenue at E. 16th Street and 18th Street at Adeline, for example, have both received permanent traffic-slowing designs including new crosswalks and hard centerlines.
Commissioners on the call noted that these essential places constitute a very small number compared to the hundreds of intersections and crosswalks in the city that need improvement. Commissioner Patricia Schader, who was elected as chair earlier in the night, said she was disappointed to see there were no essential places designated in District 7, which includes deep East Oakland and the Coliseum area.
“If you say that health clinics are essential, we have Roots on 98th and International. We have the DMV that’s on 85th Street. We have other social services that are also located nearby, like a library. At this point, there is nothing for [District 7],” she said.
Finally, OakDOT is also planning to change its special permit laws to allow residents to more easily apply for “pop-up” Slow Streets. This would facilitate neighborhood parties, said officials, and lead to more weekend street closings throughout the city, eventually building a culture where drivers should expect to drive slower, especially around residential neighborhoods.
Several residents said the idea of pop-up Slow Streets seemed dangerous and may also create further inequity, given it would force many residents to keep up with the latest permitting laws through online research, which takes time and access.
Residents speak, for and against
Most of the public comments at Thursday’s meeting favored keeping the Slow Streets as they are, and came from residents in North Oakland who used Shafter, Colby, and Dover Streets. Several said allowing fewer cars had led to a decreased likelihood of collisions anecdotally.
Greg Rozmarynowycz, who lives in the Longfellow neighborhood, said driving on Slow Streets is like “night and day” compared to driving elsewhere. He said that even streets with speed-slowing objects have faster and more aggressive drivers.
“I remember what things were like before the pandemic. I’ve dealt with dozens of drivers who almost get airtime going over a speed bump,” Rozmarynowycz said. “I can honestly say I’ve never had any of that happen on the street network, and it sucks it’s going away.”
Other residents like Alex Ehna and Tegan Hoffman said they believe Slow Streets led to fewer petty crimes and armed robberies. Ehna, who owns property on Ney Avenue in East Oakland, worries that removing the Slow Streets signs there could lead to a return of drive-by shootings. Hoffman, who has been using the Slow Street along Colby Avenue in North Oakland, said her neighborhood has also experienced fewer crime attempts during Slow Streets. She gathered 250 signatures from neighbors who also want to make Colby’s Slow Street permanent.
Others, like Michael Rosenthal, were concerned about OakDOT’s assertion that the pandemic had changed enough to shift personal behavior significantly. “If you walk in this neighborhood, everyone is starting to wear masks on the street again. We’re not in a place where we can say this is done. People still need social distancing,” he said.
Residents supporting OakDOT’s Slow Streets removal, both at the meeting and in conversations with The Oaklandside, had complaints about their effect on adjoining and parallel streets.
Colette Hanna, who lives off Brookdale Avenue, said Slow Streets only benefited people living on them. “Diverter streets are bearing the burden of closed streets. We’re taking our life into our hands because of the increased traffic. It shifts the problem from one road to the next,” she said.
Sieu T., who owns a car shop at the corner of Brookdale and 35th Avenue, told The Oaklandside he never sees any bicyclists or walkers using the Slow Street. He said that doing so would be too dangerous because of constant car speeding and the residents’ general disregard for traffic laws. In fact, a car collided with a pedestrian in front of his shop during the project’s first weekend. “The sidewalks here are large enough to get social distance if you need to,” he said.
Tiny Gray Garcia, a local advocate for poor people who works near Brookdale, told The Oaklandside that Slow Streets in the flatlands go unused and impede people from getting out of neighborhoods.
Betsy Stromberg, an art director who lives on McKillop Road near Sheffield Avenue, agreed with Garcia about the traffic congestion and said the only way to get to her own house for much of the pandemic was through Slow Streets. But, she said, people often get lost on the hills from Nichol Street down Fruitvale Avenue, leading to collision close-calls, not least because of the many potholes on them. “Cars slalom down the street,” she said. Sheffield Avenue was one of a few Slow Streets removed after residents asked for it a few months ago.
One of Stromberg’s neighbors, Alan Lapp, told The Oaklandside he almost collided head-on with drivers who were forced to the other side of the road due to the added barricades. “If outgoing traffic pulls up to the line, it effectively acts as a valve which shuts off the flow of traffic,” he said. Even with pickups at the Redwood Day School nearby, most residents in the Reservoir Hills neighborhood continued to see speeding throughout.
Mylene vandenBerg, a resident of Idora Park, thinks the Slow Streets in North Oakland are an example of inequitable design—but doesn’t think the city should entirely scrap the idea of traffic mitigation in residential neighborhoods. “In a perfect world, I think that it’d be great if they could do away with Slow Streets, but find other ways to do the mitigation that people are seeking,” she said. “A more thoughtful plan.”
Jose Fermoso is a University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow.