Oakland's Department of Transportation will be adding new speed signs to city streets in or near business districts. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Last week, the Oakland Department of Transportation, or OakDOT, told City Council it will reduce speed limits in some parts of the city by the end of the year. The department says the new speed limits will lead to fewer collisions on city roads—and less severe and fatal crashes. 

Oakland’s dangerous roadways

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

OakDOT’s Safe Streets Division Manager Megan Wier says the department is calling 2022 “the year of speed limit signage in Oakland.” Oakland can change speed limits on city streets thanks to State Assembly Bill 43, which the governor signed into law three months ago. 

The changes are also part of the city’s Safe Oakland Streets initiative, a multi-agency project launched last year to reduce the number of collisions affecting the city’s most vulnerable residents, including Black and brown people, children, and seniors. Black Oaklanders are currently up to three times more likely to be victims of severe and or fatal traffic crashes than the average city resident. 

OakDOT has pledged to choose five commercial zones—business districts in areas zoned for retail or dining—to receive lower speed limits in 2022, and to choose an additional five for 2023. Speeds will drop from 30 or 35 miles per hour to a max of 20 or 25 miles per hour.

OakDOT director Ryan Russo says the business districts will be chosen by reviewing data on where crashes happen most often, as well as looking at neighborhoods containing more people who are disproportionately affected by street safety issues in Oakland. 

Councilmember Sheng Thao, who represents District 4 and is running for mayor this year, stressed during the meeting that she hopes the business districts chosen are not chosen based on data alone. 

“There may not be the data points readily available for certain areas. That may not mean that there’s not enough speeding [there],” Thao said. 

District 6 councilmember Loren Taylor, who is also running for mayor this year, also noted that he wants OakDOT to keep its equity statement in mind when choosing which districts will see reduced speeds.

“When we talk about business districts, usually there’s a bias towards prominent, well-sourced and thriving corridors like Lakeshore and Rockridge,” Taylor said. “East Oakland corridors usually don’t get prioritization, but have just as much speeding and traffic challenges for pedestrians.”

Residents have also criticized the fact that the city won’t be able to change speeds along most high-injury corridors in Oakland until June 2024, when the state expects to be better prepared to handle increased traffic enforcement needs. Many of these corridors are not near business districts.  

Reduced speeds—and more signs—can make a difference

Other cities that have reduced speeds on some city streets, like Seattle and Portland, have seen a reduction in vehicle speeds overall—and in vehicles traveling at dangerously high speeds. The latter is most important, OakDOT Policy & Intergovernmental Affairs Advisor Nicole Ferrara said on the call. Crashes involving cars going ten miles over the speed limit, or higher, result in the worst bodily damage. In Oakland, speed accounts for about a quarter of such crashes. 

The California Office of Traffic Safety has also found that between 2017 and 2019, speed was the major factor in 830 collisions in Oakland, landing it in the top 15 most dangerous cities across California cities to drive, walk, or bike in. 

In a 2020 study, Seattle’s Department of Transportation found that simply having more signs on the road displaying the speed limit also helped reduce average speeds. The city added a new stop sign every quarter mile on some streets, leading to a 22% reduction in crashes.

District 1 councilmember Dan Kalb said during the meeting that more signs are needed in some areas.

“I’ve gone down streets consciously looking for streets [where] people are complaining about speeding, and go quite a number of blocks before I see a speed limit sign. I’m wondering if we want to put the [new] signs in people’s faces so they can see it,” Kalb said.  

OakDOT has not said whether it will follow Seattle’s lead by placing more signs on the road, but did tell The Oaklandside it’s researching best practices when it comes to sign frequency. 

Reduced speeds are one of several street safety initiatives Oakland is expected to see in the next few years. San Pablo Avenue will be narrowed to add dedicated bus and bike lanes, and a network of new “slow streets” might be built as part of the city’s bike network plan.

OakDOT first provided an overview of its plans at the city’s Public Works Committee meeting on Tuesday. While the upcoming speed changes were welcomed by some committee members, some also expressed continued dissatisfaction with the city’s overall issues with traffic safety. 

Councilmember and committee member Taylor said that while the new speed sign additions were welcome, he believes the Oakland Police Department needs to cite more speeders and reckless drivers to most effectively prevent collisions. 

“The lack of enforcement is the elephant in the room. It doesn’t matter how low the speed limit is if we don’t have a traffic enforcement unit within OPD to actually hold people accountable to go at the speed limit,” Taylor said. “I think that goes a much further distance than existing speed laws.”

Jose Fermoso is a University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and 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.