Oakland’s roads have been dangerous for decades. Dozens of people are injured and killed in collisions each year, and this traffic violence, as some have taken to calling it, exacts a disproportionate toll on Black and brown residents. Much of the carnage is due, at least partly, to road conditions, including poorly designed and maintained infrastructure that facilitates unsafe driving.
For the past year-and-a-half, Jose Fermoso has been covering road safety for The Oaklandside. He recently talked with our news editor Darwin BondGraham about his reporting and 2022’s biggest stories.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jose, you grew up in Oakland. Do you always remember the city’s roads being dangerous for pedestrians, bicyclists, and even motorists to drive on?
They’ve been terrible as long as I can remember. But even when my parents and my grandparents lived in Oakland, as far back as the early 1960s, they weren’t great.
I distinctly remember, back in the 1990s and early 2000s, wondering why people were allowed to drive as fast as they did without some legal repercussions. Or why there wasn’t enough quality infrastructure that would make collisions less likely, such as adding speed bumps, especially around schools or other high-traffic areas like downtown or Jack London Square. I attended elementary school near the Dimond District and high school in East Oakland and both of those areas were riddled with potholes, malfunctioning traffic lights, and bad driving conditions like super-wide streets that made drivers speed up as if they were on the freeway. I almost got hit several times on 98th Avenue back then.
I think it’s important to understand the context of what it means for Oakland’s streets to be historically dangerous. It was a city built around state highways to get around the Bay Area, to and from other cities, especially as more people from San Francisco moved to this side of the Bay. Some of Oakland’s worst streets today, like International Boulevard, were built as state highways to fit as many cars as possible. That street is still technically a state highway. When the size of the streets over the decades didn’t really change, when people started to drive faster with more powerful cars, and when the lack of physical upkeep over decades led to worse conditions, it all combined to create a disastrous situation for everyone.
Can you describe for us how big a problem road safety is in Oakland? Is it worse here than it is in other cities?
It’s a big problem. In the last three years, there have been something between 30 and 40 deaths a year from traffic collisions, and many more people suffer serious injuries that affect their physical and mental health for years, if not for the rest of their lives. And those numbers, it’s important to note, are likely not complete. Many communities, especially those where immigrant and low-income families live, are usually not comfortable calling local authorities for collisions or other traffic issues for fear of unfair policing.
That fear is not unfounded. In the past, members of the Oakland Police Department were found to have pulled over an inordinate number of Black and brown people on traffic stops, often leading to confrontations and bearing an unequal level of the policing burden. Even when the police try to do a good job in a lawful manner, such as trying to apprehend a person who collided into another car or stole something valuable, they have on few occasions made things worse, such as unlawfully chasing a suspect on the streets at high speeds, leading to innocent deaths. That’s what happened this past summer when Lolo Soakai was killed while eating burritos with his mom and his cousins on the sidewalk. A high-speed police chase through one of the city’s most dangerous roads, International Boulevard, ended when the speeding suspect, Arnold Linaldi, crashed into the group.
To answer your question about it being worse, based on our population, it’s up there. San Jose, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles tend to suffer higher fatalities a year than we do, but they are much bigger cities population-wise. San Jose is twice Oakland’s size but, but the rate of traffic fatalities is higher in Oakland. All of the cities in the nation that have a high rate of traffic fatalities have the same issues: poor infrastructure and an overall focus on car-centric design for mobility.
As you’ve been covering road safety and speaking with people who have been advocating for change for years, sometimes decades, have you gotten a sense of whether or not Oakland seems to be getting a handle on this problem?
Government officials, local, statewide, and nationwide, are paying attention to the increasingly louder calls for change to reduce traffic violence. The truth is that this change has been in the works for a long time. There have been discussions since the early 2000s in Oakland to add bicycle lanes to city roads to not just improve conditions for recreational and commuting bicyclists, but to narrow the roadways to slow cars down. But taking away part of the road available to cars wasn’t politically viable for a population wholly focused on using their car as their primary form of transportation. That’s changing, and the reason why is because government leaders are taking their cues from traffic experts and advocates by adopting their language and applying it to their own work.
Even the language around the types of people who are most affected by traffic violence has changed. In the past, politicians talked about traffic violence affecting everyone equally. But in Oakland, the six-year old transportation department has created an equity index that helps lawmakers and their own engineers figure out which roads are most in need of fixing. They’ve found that East and West Oakland neighborhoods, where Black and brown and Asian people live, have had the most potholes, the worst traffic lights, and are absent stop signs and functioning lights. All these issues have, over the years, caused these communities to suffer the highest rates of deaths and serious injuries in the city. So when lawmakers are speaking to the public now, or seeking to grant funding to improve infrastructure, they often refer to this inequity. When Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, came to Oakland to talk about new federal funding available to Oakland, he spoke of the “overburdened and underserved” populations that needed acknowledgement and help through direct roadway assistance.
What role is protest playing in to make street safety a more visible and urgent issue for the city’s leaders to address?
We saw a protest movement here in Oakland pop up at the beginning of the summer that, from the beginning, saw council members attend to try to learn more about how and why these collisions have been happening. More residents are speaking out at City Council meetings, advocating for things like Vision Zero plans, which are policies that are known to help reduce traffic collisions, buffered and protected lanes, center hardlines, sharrows, and bulbouts. And this has led to direct changes on the ground.
When the wine expert Jonathan Waters died at Shattuck and 55th Street in North Oakland when his bike was hit by a car, advocates gathered at the location to protest the street conditions. They noted that the intersection had bike lanes with faded paint and that cars constantly swerved into oncoming traffic when making left turns. A couple of months ago, center hardlines, which are short thin poles, were placed in the middle of the roadways to prevent this driving maneuver after the city, its transportation department, the Bicyclists and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, and the City Council all called for specific physical infrastructure to be added there.
The protests have opened city leaders’ eyes to the level of need and to the level of frustration Oaklanders feel. The Rapid Response Traffic Violence team, which got their start at the Waters protest in early June, has had the most influence of any group. There are many reasons why they’ve been so influential but the main one is that they’ve been a constant presence on Oakland’s streets. Every time there is a fatality, they gather at city corners, handing out traffic violence data for passersby and memorializing the lives that are lost.
Speaking of the people who have died, one major thing the Rapid Response group has done is quite simple: they put up placards with the name of the collision victim and the day they died, as well as a powerful message that resonates for everyone: “A Driver Killed Our Neighbor Here.” That statement is important because it reminds people who come from all types of backgrounds to remember that everyone has a stake in making street conditions safer. It also reminds people that anyone’s neighbor, maybe someone you love, could also suffer this type of tragedy. And finally, it places a visual reminder on the street for drivers to pay attention while pointing out the incontrovertible fact that yes, drivers are usually the cause of the tragedy, and that they have the power, with their foot on the pedal, to make it stop.
Protesters like the Rapid Response group have also worked on political campaigns to bring in more money to pay for all the work that needs to be done. In the last few months, members of the group campaigned for voters to pass the nearly billion-dollar infrastructure bond Measure U, including working with council members and city officials on the actual language of the bill. They’ve also pressured the City Council to look at changing the city’s fire codes so that roads can be narrowed, and worked with the Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Commission to get more people to ride bikes as an alternative to cars.
At this point, what seems to be holding Oakland back from considerably reducing the number of traffic fatalities on its roads?
Money is the most important thing.
The city is facing a funding shortfall and it could affect the redesign and development of a lot of the streets. Even though Measure U passed, the people that actually change things on the ground, including the Department of Transportation and Public Works, are usually understaffed and underfunded. I’ve spoken to many of the engineers and planners who work for the city and they say a lot of their colleagues have left or choose not to work for Oakland because of the lower pay compared to other cities, and because there are not enough staff to get work done. The Telegraph Avenue protected-lane project was stalled for years as a pilot program, in first gear, you might say, because the project’s management changed hands several times. There are a lot of great projects in the pipeline that will eventually transform the city streets but if there are not enough people pouring the cement, designing the lanes, and getting input from residents, things will just slow down.
The other big thing is enforcement. People in Oakland, as we discussed, are understandably wary of more police presence. But if people all over the city speed, crash into buildings and people, and appear to do anything they want without someone trying to stop them, then improved infrastructure won’t help as much as it could. The city just this year reduced the speed limits around ten schools and will reduce speeds near other schools next year. They will also reduce speed limits around business districts. Without new roadway infrastructure, though, and continued poor enforcement, will anyone abide by the new limits? Everyone I talk to doubts it.
I reported earlier this year that despite sky-high numbers of drivers running red-lights and making dangerous moving violations, there are only 35 OPD patrol officers on the streets at any given time, in a huge city of 78 square miles. Even with more than 3,500 stops a year, it doesn’t seem to put a dent in the problem. Just last month, the OPD brought back its traffic patrol unit (which had been cut a few years ago due to budget problems) and they seem to be out in the community a bit more. We’ll see if that makes a difference.
Technology is also an issue with enforcement that could come up over the next few years. Red light cameras were taken away because of privacy and inequity concerns in the early 2010s but the state legislature is considering a speed camera bill next year that could bring a version of the program back to Oakland. But where will those cameras be placed, how and where will the information be processed, and again, who will enforce the penalties against those that choose to continue to speed? That remains to be seen.
There are some massive street redesigns planned for Oakland, like San Pablo or 14th Street. Which of these projects do you think has the most potential to make a dent in the safety problem?
The redesign of San Pablo Avenue is still years away but it will change West Oakland. New bikeways, larger sidewalks, new traffic lights, and bulbouts to cross shorter streets will make it safer for pedestrians. It could become a huge transportation hub, with an expected Tempo-style bus taking people to and from the Jack London District and the expected Howard Terminal stadium area all the way past Berkeley to Richmond. And that new focus will move a lot of people away from central Oakland, where there are a lot of collisions, to a better-designed street. But it’s imperative for the city, along with its regional partners, to figure out exactly how to add that fast bus service to the street without creating a speeding superhighway that could make it even more dangerous than it already is, like a similar project on International Boulevard has done, leading to numerous deaths and constant danger on the street.
Several other major streets with a lot of collisions are also in line for upgrades, including Bancroft Avenue, Foothill Avenue, and a re-do of International, which the city right now is studying with AC Transit. But it’s San Pablo Avenue that will go from being one of the worst, most dangerous streets to potentially one of the best, and that’s a big deal.