A protester signals to drivers to slow down at the North Oakland intersection where Jonathan Waters was killed last month. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Concerns around the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists have grown in Oakland over the past couple of weeks after two deadly collisions. 

Former Chez Panisse wine director Jonathan Waters was killed at Shattuck and 55th Street on May 28 and a 73-year-old Emelia Martinez Roa was hit by a truck at International and 16th Avenue on May 31st. 

Responding to the fatal collision on 16th Avenue, District 1 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas said she will continue to work to improve the streets. And in an email provided to the Oaklandside, District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb called the collision that claimed Waters’ life a “tragedy.”

“While some work had been done in this neighborhood, there is still more to do,” Kalb wrote. The councilmember also noted that the city has $300,000 in its budget to fund improvements at 55th and 56th Streets but that more than $1 million is needed to make safety changes. “So we are working to identify additional funds for traffic calming measures,” he explained. 

On June 8, about 20 North Oakland and Berkeley residents gathered at 55th and Shattuck to protest unsafe streets and call for more action by the city to prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries to pedestrians and bicyclists. 

One of the organizers, Bryan Culbertson, an Oakland-based software engineer, said it’s important to connect with people face-to-face to actually start making a difference. The advocacy most Oaklanders have been a part of, such as going to city council meetings virtually, was “not affecting the broad dialogue about how we can reimagine the city’s streets,” he said. 

Over the course of 90 minutes, the group used crosswalks to stop moving traffic and educate drivers about the bad history of collisions on Shattuck, and at that particular intersection. 

“We need to explain to drivers why it’s important that they drive safely,” Culbertson shouted over his loudspeaker. 

Several protesters shared personal stories about loved ones being hit by cars, including one woman who described losing her uncle due to a collision. The woman, who asked to not be identified, brought her two young girls to the protest. 

The protesters passed out fliers for a five-point legislative plan they believe Oakland should enact, including adopting Vision Zero as part of the City Charter. Vision Zero plans, which take their name from the ambitious goal of cutting traffic fatalities to zero per year, usually feature strict speed-reduction language and have grown in popularity in recent years, particularly in major cities. 

Patrick Traughber, a product manager at Twitter and a long-time Oakland resident, said that standing at the intersection made him and other people realize how dangerous it feels. Specifically, he noted that the crossing distance is larger than in most other streets, and cars are moving at unusually high rates of speed. 

Other residents noted that even though there is a dedicated bike lane on both 55th and Shattuck, the painted lanes and signals are blurred out. On 55th, under the freeway, there were several large semi-trucks blocking the bike lanes. This resulted in more congestion and forced bicyclists to ride in the same lane as faster-moving cars. Traughber also noted he saw cars running red lights even while the protest was happening.

Protesters gathered at 55th Street and Shattuck on June 8 to make drivers aware of how dangerous the intersection is for bicyclists and pedestrians. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Resident Kuan Butts, who lives nearby with his wife, said he has biked up and down Shattuck from his home in Oakland to work in North Berkeley with Culbertson for more than three years.

“Shattuck is insane,” he said. “Any Oakland councilmember and staff should have to bike, ride the bus, and walk on this street.”

Oakland historically has experienced dozens of fatal traffic collisions every year. In the last two years, Oakland has suffered high fatality counts from collisions despite fewer people being on the road due to COVID-19. The majority of traffic deaths occur in lower-income neighborhoods largely populated by Black and brown residents. But communities all around the city are affected. 

According to the Oakland Police Department, the 60-year-old Waters was hit by an 18-year-old male driver on May 27 at 10:30 p.m. as he made a left turn into Shattuck Avenue from 55th Street. The department declined to charge the teen because Waters was seen as being at fault for swerving onto the vehicle while making a left turn, according to video evidence the police reviewed. The Oaklandside has not seen the video the police reviewed to make this decision. 

Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb (left) speaks to Eric Weir during the street safety protest in North Oakland last week. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Former Bike and Pedestrian Commissioner Robert Prinz noted on Twitter that having no left-turn lanes or protected phases at this intersection “means drivers try to thread the needle between gaps in traffic, and overlook people walking or biking in the rush.”

The 55th Street and Shattuck Avenue intersection is not one of the 37 zones highlighted by the Oakland Department of Transportation in 2017 as a high injury network of corridor, but the intersection has been a dangerous area for years. 

According to the statewide Transporation Injury Mapping System, there have been at least seven reported collisions there in the last 12 years, most of them pedestrians hit by people driving cars. Last year, a motorist ran into the Berry Brothers towing truck service at the corner. 

Shattuck Avenue is often used as a mini-highway for people going through the neighborhood, whether they are speeding to get on Highway 24 or are exiting the freeway. It’s also a popular area to drive through to travel to restaurants in the Temescal business district and is a main artery for bicyclists commuting to BART’s Macarthur station a few blocks away.  

As noted by resident Eric Weir, the intersection is also a busy commuting hub, with a Bay Wheel bike-share on the east side and four separate AC transit stops.  

“I fear for myself that I have to go through that area,” said Weir. “Not only are people reckless drivers but they are also aggressive. I think of all the people that get off the bus here and anyone can get hit. Same with cyclists. I’ve seen it happen too many times.” 

Since there are no significant businesses or restaurants right next to it, said Weir, and because it is located within the shadow of the freeway, it often feels ignored.

Three weeks ago, two cars were involved in a bad t-bone collision. Weir said he didn’t realize his neighborhood was as dangerous as it is until two years ago when he started working from home and heard the sick sounds of metal colliding throughout the day. “There’s so many that I can’t even keep track,” he said. 

Despite the grim nature of the protest and vigil, attendees were buoyed by the fact more people seem to be paying attention to the dangers. 

“It’s been really great to feed off the sparks of people that come out here,” said Traughber. “We’ve seen a lot of people come out and describe their experience on the street. Many people moved here or live here because they can walk or commute to work. But it’s obvious it’s dangerous.”

According to social media posts from Waters’ family, including his brother, Academy Award-winning actor Mark Rylance, the sommelier was recently laid to rest. 
Culbertson said his group is planning another protest soon, most likely at 16th Avenue where the senior was hit by a Hummer turning into a crosswalk. The exact time of the protest will be announced on the Traffic Violence Rapid Response Team Twitter feed, run by Culbertson.

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.