Intersection of 27th Street at Harrison Street and Bay Place near Whole Foods sees a lot of traffic in every direction. Credit: Photo: Amir Aziz for The Oaklandside/CatchLight

The Oakland City Council will meet tomorrow to discuss their top priorities for the next two-year city budget. It’s a time for the council to debate and decide what issues they care most about solving. And this time, they’re in agreement that more needs to be done to make roads safer for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists.

Every councilmember included traffic safety proposals in their budget memos shared in advance of tomorrow’s meeting. The city council is following the lead of residents and safe street advocates who have called out the pervasive traffic violence in Oakland. Red-light running, excessive speeding, wide roads, and other poor infrastructure have over the course of decades exacerbated the city’s dangerous road issues. Last year, 35 people died on Oakland’s roads.

In her budget memo, under the heading of “Community Safety, Prevention & Healing,” Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan called out the need for protective barricades at intersections and crosswalks. 

“Vehicular violence continues to be an issue of great concern for the city with vehicles traveling at high speed [being] the source of traffic fatalities, serious injury, and property damage,” she wrote.

District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife focused on continuing to fund street paving and pothole maintenance in West Oakland, with a “focus on high-traffic areas with frequent incidents of traffic injuries and fatalities.” 

District 4 Councilmember Janani Ramachandran dedicated two sections of her budget priorities memo to roads, one to traffic safety and another to infrastructure. For traffic safety, Ramachandran is asking for road diet implementation and hardened medians, roundabouts, and more Botts Dotts, for sideshow prevention. For Public infrastructure, she asked to fully fund pothole and paving crew positions. 

Dan Kalb, Treva Reid, Nikki Bas, Noel Gallo, and Kevin Jenkins also all included specific requests in their budget memos. 

Over the next few weeks, the council will be in conversation with Mayor Thao about these priorities. The Mayor’s proposed budget is expected to be released on May 1 and Oakland residents will have two months to provide feedback before the deadline to approve the full budget arrives on June 30. 

The increased focus on traffic violence prevention in Oakland from city leaders follows years of grassroots organizing, especially by bike advocacy groups like Bike East Bay and Walk Oakland Bike Oakland.

The council’s new focus on road safety issues shows leaders finally understand the importance of making decisions around infrastructure that are preventative as opposed to reactionary, said Robert Prinz, Bike East Bay’s advocacy director. In the past, Oakland has usually only created special programs that made changes to the road in the aftermath of tragedies, including fatal collisions that killed bicyclists and pedestrians.

“The feeling from the community is they’re making it clear from the outset that not only should [Department of Transportation] funding not be touched but that [OakDOT] actually needs more funding to keep those proactive safety measures going,” he said. “We don’t wanna be responding to traffic violence. We wanna get out there before the crashes happen.”

Prinz said that the difference between this year’s budget proposals and those of the past is that the council members are well-versed in the language of collision prevention. “Collisions” used to be called “accidents” while “traffic violence” was just “crashes,” and the focus of policymakers rested largely on facilitating car trips to and from business districts. 

“There was less of a direct understanding about the connection between things like traffic, roadway design, and traffic safety,” Prinz said.

“The rapid expansion of understanding that there need to be structural changes [in Oakland] is big,” said George Spies, an organizer with the Traffic Violence Rapid Response group, which has protested deaths of bicyclists and pedestrians in Oakland. 

Spies added that it’s probably easier for the councilmembers to focus on infrastructure when they have access to cash from the newly-approved Measure U. The citywide measure allows Oakland to spend $300 million over the next four to six years on road infrastructure repair and redesign. 

In the last few weeks, the Rapid Response team has spoken to District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb and District 3 Council Carroll Fife about the most important traffic violence challenges their districts face. According to Spies, the conversation with Kalb centered on specific crossings where there were recent collisions and the discussion with Fife centered around moving $20 million from the police department to OakDOT to speed up infrastructure changes.  

Bryan Culbertson, another member of the Traffic Violence Rapid Response team, told The Oaklandside the prioritization of safety through infrastructure was critical from an equity point of view. 

Oakland’s Transportation Department released a report in 2017 that showed the majority of collisions that led to deaths and serious injuries in the city occurred in West and East Oakland, where most Black and brown people live.

“I’m glad this is a priority for the entire council after hearing from so many community members that are concerned,” Culbertson said. 

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.