OAKDOT Director Fred Kelley attends the vigil by Rapid Revolt group in West Oakland on 14th. & Poplar. Credit: Amir Aziz

Over the last six years, Oakland’s Department of Transportation has sought to improve street conditions by building its way out of decades of poor infrastructure planning and deferred maintenance. With hundreds of millions at its disposal thanks to 2014’s Measure KK, dozens of streets were repaved and many are now in the process of being redesigned with pedestrians and bicyclists in mind. 

But as Oakland residents know, most of our streets are still dangerously designed in ways that facilitate hazardous driving, which causes serious injuries and deaths. It turns out you can’t quickly turn a ship going in the wrong direction. 

Earlier this year, Ryan Russo, OakDOT’s first director, announced he was leaving. This past summer, OakDOT’s assistant director Fred Kelley was appointed to lead the agency. 

The position is difficult and high-profile. Kelley is expected to set the agenda about what is built in the city and when. Kelley will engage with county, state, and national leaders to seek grants and other investments in Oakland’s infrastructure. And most importantly, he will need to speak to the concerns of residents who have spent many years waiting for road fixes, repairs that if delayed too long can and sometimes do lead to tragic collisions. 

Since there’s a lot to know about his philosophy and goals, we decided to interview Kelley.

The following has been edited for length and clarity. 

Let’s start with your background. You worked in Hayward as a project consultant and had other leadership positions early in your career. What did you learn in those jobs, especially the latest one, that you’re using in your capacity as the new director? 

In Hayward, I was with the Public Works department. There was not a separate transportation department in Hayward. My role and responsibilities were almost exactly what it is here: overseeing transportation and the different divisions. Major projects included paving and responding to constituent complaints and traffic safety. Basically doing the same thing at a smaller scale. I think that prepared me for the responsibilities from a technical standpoint. Obviously, you come to a much bigger city with a different political environment and that technical aspect and experience help, but you’re starting all over again, relearning.

I also dealt with regional agencies, which is extremely important because they are partners. We didn’t do what we did by ourselves. Alameda County Transportation Commission and the sales tax agency are, for example, extremely vital. They funded a lot of projects that we undertook and also delivered projects themselves that are within the jurisdiction of Hayward. Having a relationship with Caltrans is extremely important. I think we had five major projects going on, interchange projects in Hayward, with Alameda CTC before I left. 

Prior to that, the majority of my career was as a leader with several major engineering firms in the Bay Area. I worked on a few major iconic projects, all the way from mega-infrastructure projects down to small development projects, like complete streets, light rail, commuter rail. [All] are helpful when we tackle some of the challenges we have in Oakland.

What made you want to get started in this profession?

My mother, my grandfather, are all public servants. I got a feel for public service at a very early age. And I’m a student of history and I’ve seen how government can be helpful, or government can be complicit in spreading inequities, like decisions where infrastructure and funding is is placed. So, for instance, how the 980 freeway divided the Oakland community. That’s not something that is unique to Oakland, but that’s something that has transpired across the country where marginalized communities are impacted by policy decisions made in a transportation arena. So I’ve seen all that. I read about all that. I studied that. And so, initially, when I came into public service, my only goal was to make a difference. I come from one of those marginalized communities, and my concern was, how can I help? How can I help make a difference?

Sometimes it feels to me like there’s a zero-sum game between advocates for bike infrastructure and those wanting better infrastructure for cars in Oakland. What should be the bigger priority? Building new infrastructure for biking and walking or improving roads for safer driving? 

I’m not sure that I would call it a zero-sum game, but I would say that we do have finite resources. And when we look at developing projects, there are sometimes difficult trade-offs that have to be made. But I think that in each case, we’re looking at safety and providing resources that can assist. 

In providing and building and implementing additional bike and ped infrastructure, many cities are overbuilt with one consideration in mind—being autocentric. 

So anytime we implement a project, we’re asking ‘Do we need this? All this car capacity?’ The answer in most cases is no. And what can we do to take this capacity and provide infrastructure for other modes such as bikes and pedestrians? But at the end of the day, safety is preeminent, whether that be safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, or automobiles. They all work hand-in-hand. We do want to build out our infrastructure because it sorely needs to be improved upon.

Let’s talk about some of the major projects in town and let’s start with International Boulevard. From my reporting, people say they use the BRT but its benefits have not outweighed its severe problems. Mainly, there’s more pedestrians being hit by cars, especially with bus boarding in the middle of the street as opposed to the sidewalk. What can Oakland do to improve conditions there?

International Boulevard goes back before I arrived but I believe the design, the initial conceptualization of International, goes back 10-15 years. At that time, I don’t think anyone could conceptualize that individuals would utilize the BRT lane to bypass the mixed flow traffic lane or to utilize the BRT lane to enable bad and sometimes criminal behavior. This was designed with best practices at the time. Now, fast forward 15 years later, and we realized that, oh, there are behaviors that—I don’t wanna say promote—but there are behaviors that are occurring based on the current design. That could never be anticipated 15 years ago. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. 

So what are we doing now? We’re working very closely with Alameda CTC, AC Transit, and council offices to try and come up with strategies that will enable BRT to continue on International Boulevard, but also provide mitigation strategies that will deter unsafe and criminal behaviors. 

Right now there are $400,000 in funds that AC Transit for a study to determine that types of strategies could be implemented along the corridor. At the end of the day, it is a delicate balance of providing mitigation strategies, but also not being detrimental to the bus and the whole purpose of having the BRT service. The City of Oakland has put in $400,000 to match AC Transit funds. This is gonna be the pilot. We’re also looking at additional funding.

I wanted to ask you about the protest movements that have been happening in Oakland since the start of the summer. People are drawing more attention to what they call ‘traffic violence’ and they’re holding rallies at spots where pedestrians and bike riders have been killed by drivers. Can those protests mobilize actual changes and affect what you do? 

Absolutely. The answer is twofold. From an internal standpoint, at DOT, absolutely. Unfortunately, these tragedies bring home to us the realities of what’s happening on the street on a day-to-day basis. And it makes us realize how important our jobs are, how important our jobs are in mitigating and or eliminating these incidents that happen far too often. But I think also from a policy standpoint, I think it makes our elected officials focus on finding strategies to assist DOT to mitigate these tragedies. It brings it home. It makes it real. And our job, I know everyone, every man and woman in this department, wants to do whatever they can to make sure that these tragedies and these protests happen on a more infrequent basis or eliminated all together.

You can create laws, you can even redesign the streets. But what is your philosophy around traffic enforcement in Oakland? Do we need more or fewer cops? Should civilians be deputized to enforce traffic laws? What’s the role of technology on the streets?

I personally am not in favor of deputizing civilian staff to handle traffic enforcement. It’s just not something that I, or we as a department can support. OPD has low levels of staffing and has to prioritize handling 911 calls. And I know that they’ve had to shift out of the traffic enforcement arena. 

My understanding of what we really need, Jose, and what, unfortunately, pains me that didn’t happen, is the automated speed enforcement bills that have died in state law committee two years in a row, which would allow us, this would be a five-year pilot, which would allow us to implement automated speed enforcement at various locations. That takes bias out of the enforcement. It also takes away the danger of a civilian employee pulling over an individual. We think that that could be game-changing. Unfortunately, it’s died in committee. There have been two major opponents, and those two major opponents have been the ACLU and the law enforcement unions. The  ACLU was worried about privacy and the law enforcement unions are worried about losing employees from a staffing standpoint because they would no longer be needed to enforce. And so therefore their numbers would diminish. 

I’m one of the biggest advocates of privacy. The bottom line is, though, we’ve got people dying in the streets every day. Without there being some sort of deterrent that individuals are aware of, their behaviors aren’t going to automatically change. There has to be some sort of enforcement mechanism. For next year, we are trying to get the bill out of committee and on the governor’s desk in the next session. I think that would be huge for the city of Oakland. 

If you were gonna talk to the people that are causing these collisions, running red lights, and speeding dangerously in Oakland, what do you say to them? 

You know, it, it’s funny, Jose, it seems like, with Covid, Covid introduced this period of insanity and lack of personal responsibility. I don’t understand what’s happened, but what I would say is, people are dying. 

People in the community are dying and what’s happening more so is people in marginalized communities, brown and black people are dying at a disproportionate rate in our community, in Oakland. It’s impacting our community in a way that I don’t know that these individuals who are engaging in this bad behavior recognize. But there are no ramifications or there’s no downside for them. Again, people are dying and people are being severely injured. So there are ramifications for someone. I would hope that individuals will wake up and recognize there is a downside to their behaviors when they get behind the wheel of their vehicle. 

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.