Oakland resident Thom Donnelly attended last week's protest at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 55th Street. Donnelly is one of many people who are fearful of speeding cars coming off the 24 freeway into this stretch of road. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Nikki Brown-Booker fears crossing 55th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in her wheelchair. With cars speeding off Highway 24 onto the three-lane MLK Way, she says many drivers treat pedestrians like an afterthought. 

“I often have to stop in the middle of the crosswalk because I can’t make it all the way across,” she told The Oaklandside. Brown-Booker uses an electric wheelchair that moves at slow speeds. Her chair and her physical condition don’t allow her to maneuver quickly to avoid drivers who might not be paying attention or are speeding or driving hazardously. 

The area is frequented by pedestrians and bicyclists headed to and from businesses, homes, and to UCSF’s Children’s Hospital. According to the City of Oakland, from 2015 to 2020 65 people were hit on MLK between 47th Street and 60th Street. 

Last week, a couple of dozen people gathered at the corner of 55th and MLK in a protest action calling for Oakland to make pedestrian safety upgrades. The intersection is missing accessible pedestrian signals, which help visually-impaired people cross by using audio to alert them when it’s safe, and there are no digital signs counting down crossing times to let people know how much time they have to get out of the road.

“This was a chance for us to let the city of Oakland know about changes that need to be made, for people to connect with each other, and to renew our sense of hope and commitment that we can make changes together,” said Jessica Lehman, the executive director of Senior and Disability Action, the nonprofit that organized the protest.

Through chants, posters, and a loudspeaker provided by the owner of a local art studio, the group got the attention of hundreds of drivers over the course of an hour. They stopped traffic at all four crossings, which was described by a passing pedestrian as “soft, but powerful social unrest.” They were also joined by members of the Traffic Violence Rapid Response Team, a group of Oakland and Berkeley residents who came together this year to protest traffic fatalities. 

Oakland’s Department of Transportation is currently in the planning process to fix parts of MLK Way through one of its big paving projects. That’s supposed to start in 2024, with possible improvements like a new protected bike lane and better signage. But residents fear that’s too far away and people will be harmed in the meantime. 

A car crash almost every week

Pedestrian advocates, including members of the Senior and Disability Action network, crossed Martin Luther King Jr. Way on August 12, 2022. Credit: Jose Fermoso Credit: Jose Fermoso

Earthly Coffee and Tea at 55th and MLK Way has lost planters in front of the cafe to speeding cars, while Morey’s Art Studio next door has had its shop windows shattered by crashing vehicles. 

“There’s been a collision here every week for the last six weeks,” Donald Morey told us in an interview inside his studio. The constant crashes have forced him to move his main desk away from the front windows because he fears being crushed. The Flint, Michigan native would like to see one lane removed from MLK as well as speed bumps added on 55th to slow cars racing toward MLK from Shattuck Avenue.

In the last year, Earthly Coffee and Tea owner Tristan Goldstein has tried to get the attention of the city’s transportation department to improve street conditions. Since he started his business more than ten years ago, Goldstein has heard customers worry about getting hit. One of Goldstein’s neighbors, a 65-year-old man who lost his sight a few years ago, is no longer willing to cross the street without help. One time, the man thought of using his phone’s Facetime app to call his sister from the street corner so that she could look through his phone’s camera and help him see traffic and navigate. Fortunately, Goldstein said, the neighbor didn’t go through with it. 

“I don’t want a guy who’s lived in the neighborhood for 60-plus years not able to cross the street,” Goldstein said. “That seems ridiculous to me.”

After the city ignored Goldstein’s pleas to do something immediately, pointing to the coming paving project instead, he got in contact with Lehman at Senior and Disability Action. The nonprofit recently convinced San Francisco’s municipal transportation department to increase crossing times city-wide to three feet per second, giving slower moving people more time to get across a road. The National Association of City Transportation Officials have previously recommended a cycle time between 2.5 and 3.5 feet per second. Oakland does not appear to have a time designation standard for crosswalks on its code of ordinances. 

Lehman said groups representing pedestrians, seniors, and disabled people, have been advocating successfully in San Francisco for a long time and it’s paying off.

“A few years ago we also came up with a community process that the [San Francisco Department of Transportation] had to go through before they eliminate a bus stop to evaluate the potential impact on seniors and people with disabilities,” she said. Advocating for the most affected communities, Lehman added, should be built into future decision-making in Oakland. 

A long history of protests for safer streets

More than two dozen residents and local advocates joined together to teach passersby about the history of collisions at this dangerous intersection. For example, Studio Morey’s art studio has been hit repeatedly by cars in the last few months. Credit: Jose Fermoso Credit: Jose Fermoso

North Oakland resident Cathy Leonard, who runs the Oakland Neighborhoods for Equity group, said the community has a long history of protesting for streetscape improvements. In fact, one of the Black Panther party’s first protests occurred in 1967 at 55th and Market streets, when Panthers demanded the city to install a traffic light after children were hit and killed. Even so, the community hasn’t seen the kinds of infrastructure improvements necessary to prevent traffic deaths. 

“It feels like you’re screaming in the dark for attention and nobody’s listening,” Leonard said. 

Oakland’s transportation department is guided by an equity framework, and in 2017 it began the process for a comprehensive city-wide Pedestrian Plan. The department also maintains a Geographic Equity Toolbox, which helps the city prioritize street changes based on historical and current inequities.

But OakDOT is still criticized by some community members who feel it isn’t doing enough, or investments aren’t actually being made in the right areas of the city. Recent plans to add a protected bicycle lane in the north side of Lake Merritt prompted some residents like Leonard to complain that too much money was being spent downtown instead of West and East Oakland. 

Brown-Booker, who is Black and has lived in North Oakland for more than 20 years, said neighborhoods along MLK Way have become gentrified. The worst part, she says, is that the population has grown and brought a lot more traffic to the area. 

“There’s just a lot more cars. I notice it in the parking on my street on 60th Street. Every household has at least two cars, sometimes more,” she said. 

She sometimes has to travel several blocks out of her way to Avalon or Alcatraz streets if she wants to cross to the west side of MLK Way because those lights are longer. (We previously reported on how intersection lights in Oakland may be too short based on recent national research into yellow stop light timing.)

Cities aren’t built for walking

Lehman said that the rise of technology in cities like San Francisco and Oakland in the last few years has complicated commuting for disabled people. Double parking by delivery drivers working for companies like Amazon or GrubHub, and Uber and Lyft drivers, tend to block pedestrian ramps. Drivers are distracted texting, and bigger cars make it harder for drivers to see disabled people using wheelchairs, or children.

Thom Donnelly, a Laurel District resident who attended last week’s protest, said he has been coming to this part of the city for 40 years and is a cafe patron. Despite all the changes he’s seen since he brought his family from San Francisco to Oakland in search of a more diverse community, Oakland still has a lot of charm. But part of preserving that charm, he said, is keeping people safe by making cars slow down. Unfortunately, many people have become desensitized to Oakland’s dangerous traffic.

“You get used to things and I don’t really think about it until I get here to MLK,” Donnelly said. “And every time, I see people [running red lights] just to get down the road 10 seconds faster.”

People should always be cautious crossing a street, Goldstein said, but it shouldn’t be incredibly difficult or especially risky. “Yea, you’re a squishy thing crossing the street, in front of the metal. [But that’s why] we should not wait for paving project to have safe streets now.”

Correction: We incorrectly identified several North Oakland streets as “avenues.” The story has been corrected.

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.