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Flor Beltran’s family lives on 51st Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, and for the last few years, the El Salvador native has been accompanying her 7-year-old daughter Giovanna to Bridges Academy, two blocks away on 53rd Avenue. Beltran’s sisters and cousins also live nearby and take their children to the same school.
But all of them are terrified of walking to the campus because they have to cross one of Oakland’s most dangerous roads: International Boulevard.
According to city records and UC Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System, there are more collisions leading to injuries and deaths on International than on any other street in the city.
“It’s been so bad I recently have been driving the two blocks to the school,” Beltran told us in Spanish. “I’m in a panic about it because sometimes my mother will want to walk across International Boulevard by herself and I ask her not to. Drivers don’t respect the lights.”
Beltran’s opinions are widely shared. In the last four months, more than 40 people have emailed The Oaklandside or submitted comments through our Dangerous Roadways survey saying that the roads, sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, and other infrastructure around schools are substandard and that cars are driving too fast and recklessly.
Jessica Stewart, a former teacher who works as a family coach, told us she is scared to drive her kids to International Community School because they have to traverse a confusing intersection at 27th Avenue and Foothill. Sara Steele, an operations manager who lives in Temescal, said stop signs all around the local community center, elementary school, and high school are disregarded by many drivers. Others told us of frequent red-light running and a lack of police presence to enforce traffic laws as concerns near schools.
The city has acknowledged it has a big problem with safety around schools. Last year, it released a report noting 43% of public schools were within 500 feet of a High Injury Network corridor, the streets where serious and deadly collisions most frequently occur.
Oakland is currently spending $3 million for the Safe Routes to Schools program, repaving streets around schools, adding lights, and staffing up crossing guard positions.
But in a city with poor infrastructure that will take years to fix, those policies aren’t enough to make many students and parents feel safer getting to and from school.
To better understand the transportation situation on the ground, we followed two families on their journeys to and from school in different parts of the city. They showed us how the design of roads, pedestrian and bike paths, and driver behaviors can endager their lives, and they offered some ideas about how to make trips to school safer for everyone.
Crossing one of Oakland’s deadliest roads to get to school in Fruitvale
Beltran’s decision to drive her child two blocks from home to school might seem irrational at first, but she’s made a grim calculation that it’s the safest option: If she and Giovanna are hit by a speeding car while they’re driving, their vehicle will give them a chance to survive by absorbing the shock. If a car hits them while they’re walking, they will likely sustain a much more serious injury or death.
Beltran can recall plenty of examples to justify her thinking. In the last few years, she has seen many collisions and near misses in the neighborhood.
She told us in an interview that a male friend of hers, Oscar Monterrosa, was killed a year ago while walking in the crosswalk of 50th Avenue and International by a car that was speeding in the bus-dedicated lane. She thinks the completion of the new Bus Rapid Transit lane in Spring 2020 created more danger and has had something to do with some of the bad crashes she’s witnessed or heard about. Drivers told us that it’s common for some motorists to illegally speed in the bus lane, which runs the length of International Boulevard from San Leandro almost to Lake Merritt, to get around traffic that’s in the single dedicated lane for private automobiles. When we visited earlier this month we observed multiple cars doing exactly this.
Oaklandside photographer Amir Aziz and I accompanied the Beltrans on a walk to and from the school to get a better sense of what it’s like and why she tries to avoid it. We noticed obvious problems.
We started by using a pedestrian crosswalk to cross International at 51st Avenue. International is four lanes wide here, with the lanes closest to the sidewalks meant for private automobiles, and the two lanes near the center of the street set aside for buses only. In the middle of the avenue is a wide raised median that’s supposed to prevent cars from turning left across oncoming traffic. The median also includes a pathway that serves as an island where pedestrians can pause while crossing the street.
Beltran and her daughter walked us through the newly repainted crosswalk leading to the bright-yellow median pathway that offered some protection from vehicles. There are signs meant to advise drivers this is a pedestrian crossing on both sides of the road, though there is no stop light. There is also no rectangular rapid flashing beacon, which pedestrians could trigger with a button to alert cars they’re crossing.
Getting to the relative safety of the median is not easy. That’s because motorists tend to drive about 15 mph faster than the 25 mph speed limit, and they often speed up to make it through yellow lights. Many motorists also break the law and speed in the bus lane to get around other cars.
Recently, Beltran’s 59-year-old mom was almost hit by a speeder trying to bypass the traffic on International by illegally driving in the BRT lane. She was walking across the same crosswalk we used.
Beltran’s daughter Giovanna is afraid to walk with her grandmother, knowing what happened, and is scared to go walking anywhere in the neighborhood. When we crossed International with the family to get to the median, we had to wait several minutes until we saw no traffic for at least one full block in each direction.
Once we got to the median, we saw more problems.
A protective island that offers little real safety
The crosswalk’s pathway through the raised median is unfortunately wide enough for cars to use it to make illegal U-turns, and many do. Others park on the median. Some who live in the neighborhood think the reason it happens is that the median itself is too short, at only about six inches tall, making it easy for cars to drive onto it. There are also virtually no barriers to prevent cars from crossing it. At the moment, there are only a few sapling trees and thin bollards on some, but not all pathways.
Beltran said she recently saw a car turn illegally across the median and the driver almost struck a young woman who was trying to cross in the pedestrian path.
As a teacher’s assistant at Bridges Elementary for the Safe Passages program, Beltran said she’s had many conversations with parents about the medians on International Boulevard. Some want the city to install barriers like bollards that would prevent cars from driving over them. Beltran says she’s at the point where she would like to organize a protest at City Hall to bring more attention to this particular danger.
“It’s a sad and ugly situation,” she said.
For 30 minutes, The Oaklandside observed pedestrians trying to cross the street using the pathway through the median. Asked whether they were scared to cross, all said yes.
Beltran pointed out other crosswalks students and parents use to get across International Boulevard to school, but all of them have the same problems: Speeding cars, few or no signals to warn drivers pedestrians are present, a bus lane some cars illegally speed in to pass the slower lane of traffic, and median islands that aren’t enough of a barrier to stop cars from driving onto them.
Some residents who frequently travel International Boulevard believe the new BRT bus lane could be leading to more collisions because of its location in the center of the street, where the new bus stops are located on the median, as opposed to the former configuration, which placed the bus stops on the sidewalk with buses running in the right lane of traffic. More than ten people have reached out to The Oaklanside in the last few months with the same viewpoint: forcing people like children and seniors to walk into the middle of the busy four-lane street to the BRT median unnecessarily puts them in danger.
AC Transit did not respond to repeated requests for information it might have about the safety of the new bus lanes and stops.
Beltran said parents feel like they have very few options to respond to traffic safety issues near their school. Parents from Bridges Academy have met in recent years with city officials to talk about road safety problems, but Beltran and other parents said these discussions haven’t led to many solutions being implemented.
“You can’t even honk at people because they will take out their gun and point it at you. Or they will take out a knife or want to punch you,” Beltran said, referring to road rage incidents that have become more common.
She said one of her cousins honked at someone two months ago and a driver got out with a bat and tried to hit her and spat at her. Another time, Beltran herself was chased by a car after she honked at one driving in the BRT lane.
Biking to school through Montclair’s business district
Arvi Sreenivasan, a data science manager at Indeed, has been dropping his kids off at school on his bike since he and his wife bought a house in Montclair three years ago. He says it is faster, easier, and more fun to bike.
He also has a deep sense of environmental justice. He discusses pollution with his kids, including how cars contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. “If they see a big truck or a car, they’re like, ‘That guy’s causing pollution.’ On days we drive, they say, ‘Daddy, we’re causing pollution.’” One of their favorite stories is a book called Josie and the Fourth Grade Bike Brigade, about a Brooklyn fourth-grader who organizes her friends to bike to school.
Despite all the fun and environmental goals, the 45-year-old admits there are days when biking with his kids is a harrowing experience.
“Once in a while you get those incidents that remind you just how little space and consideration the road design gives people on bikes, especially parents,” he said.
While a few other parents also bike their kids to school, Sreenevasian suspects many criticize their choice. He’s heard the criticism: they don’t understand why anyone would put kids in danger in Oakland’s dangerous road environment.
Christine Fry, another Montclair parent, told us her 4-year-old son wants to bike to school, but aggressive drivers, more so than the road environment, make it unsafe. One time, she let him ride on a roadway, but cars passed by him at a high rate of speed giving him little room.
“I was shocked that drivers would not use greater caution and care with a child,” she said.
Impatient drivers, narrow roads
To get a better sense of his commute, Amir and I met Sreenivasan at his house near Snake Road. Sreenivasan’s bike is a large cargo bike with an extended seating area in the back where his kids can ride comfortably. We drove behind him as he navigated to his kids’ schools.
The first issue we saw was that Mountain Boulevard (which becomes Moraga Avenue), the main street connecting private homes to the business district and Highway 13, is extremely busy with cars in the morning. There was heavy traffic on both sides of the two-lane street.
As Sreenivasan biked north on Mountain Boulevard for a block and a half around 8:15 am, a few cars zoomed around him on his left. He stayed on Mountain Boulevard as it split off from Moraga, slowing and veering away from cars exiting the Safeway parking lot to his right, and a Chevron gas station to his left. It would probably have been faster for him to travel on Moraga, but it would force him to spend more time on a street where cars drive at much higher speeds.
“I never ride on Moraga with my kids. Even though that’s a really wide street and goes right past the park [that’s next to the school], drivers do 45 mph on a 30 mph zone all the time,” he said.
Sreenivasan also noted that if he took Moraga all the way to Thornhill, he’d have to deal with the construction, at the corner of his kids’ school, which has been ongoing for more than a year. He sees this as a chaotic area, leading to traffic delays and causing some drivers to exhibit road rage.
“Driving makes me stressed out and angry. I think it makes a lot of other people stressed out and angry, and I just don’t feel like that when I’m on my bike,” he said.
Other than the Montclair railroad trail that runs through Sheperd Canyon Park, there are no protected bike lanes in Montclair, and there is very little in the form of painted infrastructure to show cars how to stay in their lanes.
A few weeks ago, an SUV sped past Sreenivasan and his kids as he was biking on Moraga Boulevard. He caught up to the woman and told her that she came too close to him and his children. Instead of acknowledging her mistake, the woman yelled at him angrily.
“She complained that we slowed her down and told me to ride on the sidewalk if I want my kids to be safe. ‘This is not a bike lane!’ she said, even though it literally was on a designated Oakland bike route,” he recalled.
As we followed Sreenivasan to Montclair Elementary he navigated the final stretch of road, entered the campus, and said goodbye to one of his kids. After a few minutes, he placed his younger child into a more comfortable sitting position and rode on Mountain Boulevard toward Thornhill. Once he got to the stop sign, he made a right and biked almost 200 yards to Smiles Day Care where he dropped his youngest off. After he was done, we followed Sreenivasan as he rode alone on Moraga back to his house to give us a better sense of the traffic. Like he said, cars constantly drove over the speed limit and a couple even ran a red light at La Salle Avenue.
Being out on a bike around a school’s busiest time, Sreenivasan told us, has given him a sense of drivers’ worst habits. For example, he says he can tell when a driver is on their phone because they move erratically, tend to cross lanes, move slow and leave gaps between themselves and other cars in front of them. He has seen parents he knows drop off their kids and immediately scrolling their phone as he’s riding past. He has thought about talking to them but feels like confrontation is not the answer, despite the danger and illegality of what they’re doing.
Instead, Sreenivasan wants to continue to pressure the school district and the city to improve biking conditions. One way he is doing that is through organizing parents in a Facebook group he created called Oakland family biking. As that group grows, he has been attending City Council and bike commission meetings to learn more about the area and what it takes to improve road infrastructure. He has also been in touch with Councilmember Sheng Thao’s office.
“I’ve been trying to rattle my little community as much as I can to make our voices heard. It’s just going to require consistent showing up, so I’m doing what I can to try to organize other parents to comment on street use and parking decisions as much as possible,” he said.