The intersection of 23rd Street and Harrison Street. More bike and pedestrian improvements are planned. Credit: Amir Aziz

One of the most dangerous street corridors in downtown Oakland near Lake Merritt is in the early stages of being redesigned with new bike lanes and wider sidewalks. Current plans would add protected six-foot-wide bicycle lanes on 27th and Harrison Streets, add buffered bike lanes on Bay Place (the street the Whole Foods is on which connects 27th to Grand Avenue), and shorten the pedestrian crosswalks at several intersections. The plan also calls for adding a cycle track on Grand Avenue across the street from the Oakland Cathedral, extending the existing two-way dedicated track on the east side of the lake. 

And part of 24th Street, which runs through several significant new residential developments, will be closed and converted into a new public plaza.

Charlie Ream, a planner in Oakland’s Department of Transportation (OakDOT) told The Oaklandside the city has reached out to residents and businesses with early design concepts.

“This summer, we’ll be doing some surveys of people walking on Grand Avenue to get a sense of their travel choices when visiting the corridor,” Ream said. “We’ll also be working to get feedback on some draft designs, expected in August or September.” 

Among other things, residents may be asked if they’re open to a possible roundabout at the Harrison Street and 27th Street intersection. 

The protected bike lanes could be added in early 2024. Funding comes from a variety of state transportation grants, including $2.3 million for planning and engineering on 27th Street ($1.95 million of it through Measure BB funds) and $4.4 million from the One Bay Area Grant the city was awarded in 2017, covering Harrison Street from 20th Street to 27th Street.

“Our goals of the project are to improve safety, comfort, and visibility for people biking and walking on Lakeside streets,” Colin Pieth, one of the OakDOT project leaders said at a recent meeting of Oakland’s Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission.

The expected changes follow two major Oakland street infrastructure plans in the last decade: the 2019 city bike plan and the 2014 District Broadway Valdez plan. This project is also connected to the Grand Avenue paving project, extending protected bicycle lanes for two miles along the lake district’s north side to Macarthur Boulevard. 

The area in question has a history of road safety problems

According to UC Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System, there have been 149 collisions on the roads just north of Lake Merritt in the last 12 years, with one person dying from a hit-and-run in 2017. Five other people were seriously hurt and 13 others received minor injuries. About half the people hurt were drivers or passengers in cars, and 30% were bicyclists. 

During several trips to the area over the last two weeks, this reporter witnessed speeding cars every 15 minutes on Harrison, including in front of the Oakland Senior Center on Grand Avenue. There was no police presence. Many residents over the years have notified the city about how fast people drive on Harrison in particular. 

In 2017, 68-year-old Robert Bennett was using a crosswalk with his dog when he was hit by a car making a left turn from 23rd Street onto Harrison Street. At the time, Bennett was the director of a homelessness policy nonprofit.

The collision is more tragic when considering many people highlighted the dangerous nature of that intersection years before. In 2015, bike and pedestrian advocate Robert Prinz noted in the city’s SeeClickFix database the crosswalk needed curb improvements and some way to signal pedestrian crossings, such as flashing lights. 

After the deadly 2017 collision, OakDOT added the first of several design changes in the spot where Bennett died. They reduced the street from six lanes to four, added buffered bike lanes in each direction, increased the size of the crosswalk, painted a waiting area in the middle of the street, and made left-hand turns at 23rd street illegal. Knowing some drivers would disregard the sign, the city also added plastic bollards to help stop cars from hitting pedestrians. According to OakDOT, the changes led to more people yielding to pedestrians. 

Further safety improvements would benefit bike riders and pedestrians

The existing cycle path on Harrison Street. Credit: Jose Fermoso

According to the city, by making streets narrower the average speed of cars using the roads north of Lake Merritt will drop.

“We are seeing higher speeds in this area, particularly on Grand Avenue where the average vehicle travel is about eight miles [per hour] greater than the posted speed limit,” Pieth said during a recent bike and pedestrian commission meeting. 

Shorter crosswalks will also make walking much safer. Adding bulb-outs on street corners and widening sidewalks will reduce the crosswalk length and provide continuous lanes for bikers. Shorter crosswalks usually lead to people being on the actual streets for a shorter amount of time, a particularly important issue for slower and older pedestrians. Adding bulbouts, though, can also lead to the removal of some parking spaces, which businesses in the area may push back against. 

Improving the safety of the intersections also means simplifying and protecting bicyclists when they’re making turns. The current early design has cement-laden corners at the project intersections for right bike turns and light-timing improvements for left turns. 

Sean Eyler, an Adams Point resident who works with the area’s neighborhood crime prevention council, supports the plan to extend the lake’s cycle track. Eyler biked to and from his apartment at the top of Perkins Street to work at Broadway and 17th for a few years and said he had many close calls on the way home, particularly when turning from Harrison Street onto Grand Avenue. 

“It’s people making right turns, not looking, and cutting across the bike lane. They’re only looking left and swiping cyclists on that corner there.” Eyler also says cars on Harrison are usually going really fast since it serves as a connector to the I-980.

Opinions are mixed about what impact the changes will actually have on traffic

The busy intersection at 27th and Harrison could see the construction of a roundabout. Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea though. Credit: Amir Aziz for Oaklandside/Catchlight

Alfonso, a security guard at the Harrison Street dispensary Rose Mary Jane who did want to disclose his last name, told The Oaklandside the street’s biggest problem is vehicle congestion, especially in the afternoon. The Oakland resident, who spends most of the day on Harrison, says a protected lane could create even more confusion, particularly at the corner of Bay Place where there is a bus stop. 

“It’s a complicated situation but based on my experience, the safety could get worse,” Alfonso said. A few years ago, his car was almost hit as he was coming out of a parking spot on Telegraph Avenue, where similar protected bike lanes were installed.

Francesca Austin, a retiree who lives near the lake, often sees cars speeding but said it’s not the only traffic safety issue. Many cars run red lights on Grand Avenue and don’t stop when people are using crosswalks.

“There is no visible traffic control anywhere I walk or drive in Oakland,” she said about the relative lack of law enforcement presence.  

Bike East Bay board member Dave Campbell, who supports adding protected lanes, said one facet of street safety and congestion the city needs to study is how double parking affects everything. Based on his and the city’s research, northbound riders on Telegraph Avenue, which has protected bike lanes, usually don’t experience as many problems, including near collisions, as do southbound bicyclists. The main reason for this seems to be that more customers double park for quick stops at businesses on the west side of the street. 

“There’s just a lot of pick-up activity there, and that fosters double parking,” Campbell said. For the 27th and Lakeside streets project, there are bound to be pick-up and drop-off issues in front of the new apartment buildings and retail shops, such as the dispensary and the 7-11 on Harrison. 

Lots of other complications that cropped up when the city added protected bike lanes to Telegraph Avenue could replay on Harrison Street, Campbell and others said, including increased congestion and confusion due to narrower streets, and local businesses feeling that reductions in parking are harming their sales.

Campbell also believes that a roundabout, which was discussed by Oakland’s Bicyclist & Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC) as a possible addition to the Harrison and 27th intersection, might prove to be too foreign a concept because it would require double lanes going around, possibly congesting traffic. 

Another major infrastructure project downtown. Is East Oakland getting its fair share?

Even though the city and advocates have promoted the 27th and Harrison project as a way to improve transportation access for all, some have questioned whether it’s equitable. More money for projects downtown, which in recent years has become increasingly white and well-to-do, they say, means less attention is being given to the infrastructure needs of Black and brown residents in East and West Oakland. 

Cathy Leonard, president of the group Oakland Neighborhoods for Equity, told The Oaklandside that bike lanes catering to new residents are simply the next phase of gentrification that has been happening in the city.

“T​here has always been this focus on areas like the lake and downtown and not on areas where the majority of tax-paying Oaklanders live and people who have lived in Oakland their entire lives,” she said. 

Bike and pedestrian commission member Nick Whipps, a resident of East Oakland, has also expressed concerns. At the May 2022 committee meeting, Whipps said that planning for downtown and north Oakland streets always involves protected lanes but that they’re usually absent from plans for other areas. 

“I haven’t seen that same conversation play out in East Oakland, and oftentimes streets are planned without a lot of input,” Whipps said. “And then they’re just repaved. There have been opportunities missed…to have this conversation and to try to protect bikers [there].”

The Black, Asian and Latino residents of East and West Oakland are the ones that should be getting most of the new infrastructure before other areas, Leonard said. They’ve been experiencing the dangers of collisions the longest and need it more as a means of transportation to their jobs than people biking at the lake.

“You see many people bicycling in East Oakland and it’s usually blue-collar people or the poor. They’ve been on bicycles the longest. So let’s get them where people live and fix those streets,” she said. 

Oakland native Timothy Keith says that he’s not surprised that the newest and most safe infrastructure is going up around new residential buildings in Oakland serving a wealthier class of people. 

“There’s nothing new under the sun,” Keith said. “People investing in Oakland through these buildings are going to want to have other [amenities] surrounding them. At least they’re going to be spending money, they can spend it here. I’m not angry. It’s just the nature of the beast.” 

OakDOT’s Pieth noted in the proposal that the changes won’t just make the streets safer for new residents. According to their research, about 45% of people who live in the area make less than $50,000 a year and there are several senior residences nearby. “We have greater shares of people, biking, walking, taking transit with lower incomes who may not be driving out of economic considerations,” Pieth said.

And OakDOT does have a few East Oakland projects in the early design phase or underway. The Bancroft Avenue project, which is expected to add a cycle track in the median of the street and run for nearly 30 blocks, is expected to be added by the end of 2023. Another protected lane is expected to be added to 73rd Avenue to connect with the Bancroft path, creating a protected network from the Castlemont and Eastmont neighborhoods. It will extend past the Oakland Coliseum and ultimately to the shoreline.

Jose Fermoso is a 2021 Knight-Wallace Fellow reporting on traffic and road safety for The Oaklandside. His work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Born and raised in Oakland, Jose has also worked on the bestselling unauthorized biography of Apple's Jony Ive and led all content initiatives at App Academy, the top U.S. coding boot camp. He 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.