Five days after a bicyclist was killed in front of his two sons while riding in downtown Oakland, within sight of City Hall, the City Council passed a long-awaited redesign of 14th Street that should make the road safer.
The project will reduce the number of driving lanes from four to two and add protected bike lanes from the edge of Lake Merritt through downtown and past the 980 freeway in West Oakland.
The council unanimously approved the changes after more than 40 residents and bike advocates commented about the desperate need to make Oakland’s streets safer.
“We are very happy to see this move forward,” said District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas during Tuesday’s meeting.
42-year-old Dmitry Putilov was hit at 14th Street and Jefferson on June 16 just past 8 p.m. by a man in a speeding car as both were moving westbound toward the freeway. According to witnesses, Putilov was crossing Jefferson with his two sons trailing on their own bikes when a black Infiniti sedan sped by and hit him on the road’s right shoulder. The car did not stop and has not yet been identified, according to the Oakland Police Department.
The city first looked into adding traffic-calming infrastructure on 14th Street in 2015 and two years later, Oakland received more than $10 million in infrastructure funding from the state’s transportation department to make it happen. With yesterday’s approval, complete protected bike lanes will likely be in place by next year—eight years after the project was first conceived.
While bike advocates celebrated the project’s final approval, some criticized the city for the length of time it took. City leaders should have passed an emergency declaration years ago to add temporary physical improvements to save lives, said some residents who held a vigil and protest over the weekend at the site of the fatal hit and runt.
“I get very sad because someone just died,” said Hazel, a local resident who attended the vigil. “And then angry because inaction caused their death. In every intersection we go to, there’s clear evidence that something could have been done to improve it.”
Between 2016 and 2020, 191 people were injured from collisions on 14th Street, with two seniors dying, according to the city. In the last five years, a person was injured by traffic violence every 9.5 days on 14th Street.
The council’s action on road safety improvements follows several other recent tragedies. Two weeks ago, former Chez Panisse wine director Jonathan Waters was hit and killed at a North Oakland intersection while riding a bike, and grandmother Emelia Martinez Roa was also killed while crossing an intersection on International Boulevard. But Putilov’s death, just a block from City Hall, gave the issue of roadway safety added attention from policymakers.
In an interview with The Oaklandside, the mother of Putilov’s two boys, Alena Putilov, said that while her ex-husband was on the ground the children shook him to try to revive him. He died later that night in the hospital.
Alena’s boyfriend, who attended the vigil but did not provide his name, said he believed better infrastructure could have prevented the collision.
“It makes me so angry. I wish these streets were safer, that there were more dedicated [bike] lanes, and that there was a better system in place to make drivers more aware,” he said through an ASL interpreter. “They need to make space for cyclists because we’ve gotta share these streets.”
Dmitry was deaf and may not have been able to hear the car speeding by him.
Alfred Twu, an architect and member of Berkeley’s bike planning commission who is currently running for the AC Transit Board, told The Oaklandside at the protest the reduction of 14th Street from two lanes in each direction into one will make the street safer by placing parked cars between bicyclists and moving vehicles.
“Protected lanes help by making the street a little narrower, which subconsciously lets people know they should slow down a bit, that this is a city street and it’s not a freeway,” Twu said.
Gordon Douglas, an urban planning lecturer at San Jose State who attended the vigil, said it was “absolutely terrifying” to hear what happened to Putilov, as he also bikes around the city with his two children. While he is aware infrastructure projects tend to take a long time in the Bay Area, he said the government needs to act faster to protect lives.
“We need to take this kind of stuff as seriously. [At the beginning] of the pandemic, Oakland was making headlines for shutting down streets. We need to treat [collisions] like a disaster and rapidly respond by shutting down streets,” Douglas said.
Outgoing Oakland Department of Transportation Director Ryan Russo said at Tuesday’s council meeting that while his agency will work to expedite a rapid response that could prevent collisions on 14th Street, it’s not possible to quickly build out all the changes envisioned due to administrative, staffing, and construction challenges.
“The entire 14th street project, in terms of the design engineering, the expected engagement would require all of the resources that we have operationally that are currently working on [other work],” he said.
But one way to expedite changes on 14th Street, said Russo, would be for the city to give OakDOT the authority to award projects to contractors without going back to council for approval. In the past, however, Black and Latinx contractors have complained about being excluded by the city in favor of larger contractors and asked that the council review contracts. At this week’s council meeting, councilmembers asked OakDOT to work with them to figure out a way to speed up projects while ensuring equity in contracting.
Parking meters at Lake Merritt expected in September
The City Council also approved a controversial plan to put parking meters around much of Lake Merritt at Tuesday’s meeting.
As a result, for the first time, lake visitors will have to pay to park at the lake’s edge, two hours at a time, with fares based on public demand ranging from $.50 an hour during idle times to $4 during popular days. The city will also charge for parking on Sundays, starting at noon. Currently, people can park free at the lake for up to four hours a day.
The addition of meters at Lake Merritt is controversial because many residents, particularly Black people, believe it will displace the street vending community on the Lake’s east side. Others are concerned that residents who don’t live near the lake will have trouble paying higher rates for parking. More than 70% of respondents to a recent survey told the city they’re opposed to adding parking meters.
The presumed safety improvement of adding meters, according to OakDOT, is that more open parking spaces will enable better traffic flow. It will also allow city staff to enforce parking laws without fear of violence or threats.
The new meters will likely be installed by September, in time for a month-long ramp-up where residents will be given warning notices instead of fines. In a previous meeting of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, OakDOT noted it will seek to raise the current fine limits for parking violations to match those of other Bay Area municipalities. As of today, a parking violation in Oakland is $58, while in San Francisco’s downtown core, a single violation runs closer to $100.
Councilmember Carroll Fife, who said she was “barely” in agreement with the resolution due to displacement worries and constituent opposition, ended up supporting the new meters because they would provide revenue to pay for lake maintenance and to support Black vendors at the lake. 25% of the net meter revenue will go to a new program to support street vendors.
Fife said that adding meters will not solve all of the issues around the lake, especially traffic enforcement or the reduction of anti-social behavior by “a few bad actors.”
“The reality is that the Oakland Police Department is not going to do that work. OPD officers are not going to enforce low-level crimes and that’s been a big sticking point for some of the constituents who live around the lake,” she said. With 30% of the net revenue from meter fines going to a Park Steward program, Fife said the meters could improve enforcement and personal behavior around the lake.
While more than a dozen meters will be physically bolted onto the ground for a cost of close to a million dollars, the council chose to designate the project as a pilot program. There will be a six-month and one-year review of data to learn about who is and is not using the meters, the amount of revenue gained by the city, and the most high-in-demand times. This will help councilmembers determine whether lakegoers’ fears about displacement are true or not and whether the meters can actually produce enough revenue to fund park maintenance, equity programs, and nearby traffic safety improvements.
As part of the quarter of net revenue supporting the new vendor program, the city also pledged to mitigate displacement worries by working with AC Transit to find ways to discount transit fares to Lake Merritt on weekends for residents. OakDOT’s Michael Ford said that a specific proposal is not yet ready due to a recent staff vacation absences. He did not say whether the city will make sure the transport discount would come into effect before the parking meters are added in September.