Several cars drive north on Bancroft Avenue in Oakland, from the perspective of the road median.
The Oakland Department of Transportation will be reducing speeds on nearly 60 roads over the next few years. Credit: Amir Aziz

One year after Assembly Bill 43 was signed by Gov. Gavin Newson, Oakland officials announced at this month’s Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Commission meeting that they’ve selected a list of streets where they want to cut speed limits. The law allows cities to reduce speed limits by five miles per hour in business districts that see a lot of pedestrian and bicycle activity, in addition to vehicle traffic. 

According to the law, each district must include features such as nearby parking areas, streets with four or fewer traffic lanes, and traffic signals or stop signs “at least every 600 feet.” Eligible blocks also need to have retail, commercial, dining, or professional businesses, like doctors’ offices. 

The law was changed from the long-standing policy known as the “85th percentile” rule, which set speeds based on how fast people tend to drive on roads that have certain design features like straight wide lanes or narrow curving lanes. 

The roads chosen by the Oakland Department of Transportation include prominent stretches of downtown business areas like 11th Street from Broadway to Harrison Street, and Franklin Street from 22nd Street to 7th Street. OakDOT Assistant Director Megan Wier revealed at the meeting that 26.5 miles and 57 corridors in Oakland are eligible for speed reductions. 

“This work is a critical policy advancing our safe Oakland streets goals to prevent severe and fatal crashes, eliminating severe and fatal injury inequities, including racial disparities impacting BIPOC communities that exist in Oakland,” Wier said. 

The city hasn’t yet changed the speed limits for any roads because the City Council has the final word on any modifications. The council is expected to pass an ordinance on Dec. 6 establishing new speed limits in areas selected by OakDOT.

The city hopes to save lives by reducing speeds at which collisions happen

OakDOT said its engineers took equity and historical injury data into account when choosing business districts. Previous department assessments designated nearly 30 high-injury corridors where pedestrians and bicyclists are most at danger of being struck by a vehicle. 

Speed is the biggest factor in determining whether a collision will be fatal or not, with higher speeds resulting in more severe injuries and deaths for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers. OakDOT’s Wier said at the recent bike and pedestrian commission meeting that 90% of pedestrians hit by drivers going 40 mph die, but only 10% die in 20 mph collisions. Studies by other organizations, including the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, have confirmed that speed is the main factor in almost 30%of collisions ending in death. 

Wier, who recently moved up in the department from her role as Safe Streets Division manager, expects speed limit signs will be changed across the city in 10 of its business corridors by next summer. The 47 additional corridors could see their speed limits cut by the end of 2025 if the work is funded in the 2023-25 budget.

The majority of fatal collisions in Oakland are in Black and brown communities, with a proportion of incidents occurring on or near International Boulevard, Foothill Boulevard, Bancroft Avenue, and MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland. However, most of the list streets selected for speed reductions are in downtown and Uptown Oakland, areas that have seen more affluent residents locate there over the past decade. No part of International Boulevard is being proposed for a potential speed limit reduction right now, even though approximately 25% of the city’s traffic fatalities are on this road, according to OakDOT. City officials wrote in a report that changes to International and other East Oakland streets are “under consideration” but that they must coordinate with AC Transit, the agency that operates bus lines along these roads. AC Transit is worried that lowering speed limits could cause longer wait times for riders waiting on buses, which will also have to follow the reduced speeds.

Not everyone thinks that reducing speed limits in communities of color is an equitable approach, however. ACLU California Action, a state civil liberties group, said that it could actually lead to “an increase in speeding citations falling disproportionately on communities of color,” the group wrote in a letter to state lawmakers last year.

To address this criticism, the bill was amended to help city residents get accustomed to a new speed limit: anyone exceeding the new speed limit by 10 mph or less for the first month after implementation would only receive a warning citation.

Will drivers abide by lower speed limits? Locals aren’t so sure

Early data shows lowering the speed limit on roads like International Boulevard might increase wait times for buses by about a minute, which many people in East Oakland might accept if it makes the street safer. 

Esther Salinas, the owner of La Popular, the artisanal gift shop on International Boulevard and 36th Avenue, is one of those people. In a phone interview in Spanish, Salinas said she wants to see OakDOT lower speed limits as soon as possible because waiting longer would invariably lead to more deaths. 

“We want security for us and for our customers,” said Salinas. “People pass red-lights and they drive on the bus lane. As a person who is scared and wants improvement, please tell them to lower it as much as possible and soon.” 

Jose Aguilar, owner of Los Compadres Tacos and Grill, a restaurant located on one of International Boulevard’s few blocks that will have its speed limit reduced in the next few months, said he doesn’t think it will make a difference. 

“If you want to avoid collisions, you need more vigilance and cops need to give out tickets,” he said. “On this street, people don’t drive at 35 mph. They drive above 45 mph and up to 60 mph.” 

Aguilar also said that lowering the speed limit on International Boulevard without first fixing AC Transit’s problems with its Tempo-only lane would cause even more collisions. That’s because he says that based on his experience, there are just as many cars on the roads but with one fewer lane, leading to impatient driving and dangerous speeding on the bus lane. 

“I think AC Transit wanted people to take the bus more than cars, but it hasn’t worked out,” he said. 

Bike and pedestrian commission member Alex Frank said at this month’s meeting that he was concerned about the locations of the streets selected and wondered why International won’t be getting speed reductions across much of its span.

“As a cyclist, I actually don’t think buses should be going more than 20 miles an hour. They’re pretty scary when they do, they take a long time to stop and they’re pretty dangerous if they’re going fast,” he said.

Wier said in an email that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and city are funding a study of 42nd Avenue and the area around International Boulevard that will look at ways to quickly improve street conditions. This could include lowering the speed limit on International including other changes to slow traffic. She said city staff will update the council at their Dec. 6th meeting about the status of this study.

According to OakDOT, some streets that need speed lowering are overseen by the state, including San Pablo Avenue between 67th and 53rd streets. This means that the state will have to weigh in before speed limits can be reduced in these areas.

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.