Oakland’s roads are so dangerous that, for many residents, risking their lives to get around is a regular part of living in the city. But this doesn’t mean people accept the conditions of Oakland’s roads and traffic.
Rather, in recent years the city’s residents have become aware of their power to make roads safer. They’ve pressured the City Council to add protected bike lanes, lobbied state and federal agencies to award money to the transportation department for new stop lights, and educated their neighbors about the lives lost from traffic violence.
The Oaklandside has closely covered this progress. Starting in 2021, our newsroom has reported on the dangers prevalent in Oakland through a systemic lens, looking at how street designs and decades of underinvestment in infrastructure and maintenance have created the current conditions. The University of Michigan supported the first year of this work through the Knight-Wallace fellowship program and last month, we announced the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will fund two more years of reporting focused on engineering solutions.
Our work’s impact was reflected in the budget priorities Councilmembers published last month. For the first time in years, all of them prioritized traffic safety by asking for barricades at intersections and sidewalks, hardened medians to stop sideshows, and faster repairs to potholed streets.
Oaklandside readers have taken notice and pushed us to look deeper into ways to improve the community’s understanding of systemic traffic violence. One of these people is Emily Frank, an Oakland resident, UCSF pediatrician, and science teacher at Oakland public schools.
Frank helped create the Public Health Summit at Castlemont High School, in East Oakland, an event that exposes students to potential careers in public health and science. The summit is part of the greater College and Career for All Initiative, a program funded by Oakland taxpayers that has increased OUSD graduation rates in the last eight years. This initiative encourages students to choose pathways in health science, engineering, law and social justice based on their passions and interests.
OUSD has seven high schools with Health Pathways. Castlemont High School, where this year’s summit occurred on April 28, has a Community Health Equity Academy.
“We wanted to connect these students [throgh this event] to professionals from the expansive field of public health specifically for hands-on experiences and interactions with folks they see themselves reflected in,” said Katie Cugno, a career technical education coach for OUSD.
This year’s event included local public health organizations like Expecting Justice, the Native American Health Center, and the California Bridge/Opioid Harm Reduction Center, and 12 workshops about everything from mental health to design thinking.
“We want students to walk away with two things: That public health is awesome, and anything and everything is public health,” said Frank. “Our motto is ‘Public Health Is Everything.’ Journalism can be public health, as is construction. If you help build good roads that [helps save lives].”.
As a reporter focused on transportation as a public health issue, Frank asked me to present a 45-minute workshop for students. I was excited to do so.
It would be an opportunity to explain to students how journalism works, how the history of transportation systems has led to high rates of collisions, and how reporting on those systems can impact public health itself. Most importantly, it might help some students pursue journalism or public health as a career.
I worked with Frank and her colleague Cugno on developing a lesson plan. They recommended I ask students questions and tell them why my work matters to me personally. They also pointed out that connecting with students through their experiences navigating Oakland roads is important.
Even though I’ve presented my reporting before, preparing for this presentation was a useful exercise in reflecting on how to explain my work at The Oaklandside.
We created a four-part lesson that included an introduction to myself, my work, and systemic reporting, a summary of my articles and how I pursued stories, and a live case-study of student experiences using publicly available tools. If any teachers find this useful, please feel free to adapt the material for you own lesson plans, or let me know if you want me to present to your class.
Explaining why it’s important to take a systems approach to problems like roadway safety
I connected with students by telling them about my roots in Oakland. I’m a native Oaklander whose family owned the El Progreso bakery on International Boulevard for 30 years and I care about what happens on the streets of our city because my family members have had to navigate underfunded areas where Black and brown people live. My family’s old shop, which is now a paint store, fronts a dangerous intersection, just six blocks away from where one of the worst collisions in recent history happened. This is just one example of how dangerous Oakland’s roads are. More than 30 people died in traffic collisoins in the city last year, and hundreds more suffered serious injuries.
After defining the problem, I asked students two simple questions, in Spanish and English: Why are so many people hit and injured on our streets? And who is responsible?
Several answered that people are speeding and driving recklessly. Although true, I pushed them consider the systemic nature of the problem.
A single collision might have been caused by a person’s decision to speed or drive recklessly. But if thousands of people have been hit and killed in Oakland over time, and if Oakland residents get hurt a lot more than residents of other places, there are systemic forces at work. Poorly designed systems encourage people to make bad decisions by making it easier to do the wrong thing than the right thing. Over the last two years, after talking with city planners, road engineers, and collision victims, it’s clear systems have a lot to do with traffic violence.
In the early 1900s, when Oakland’s population was expanding, streets were designed to be wide enough to accommodate trains. Then, in the 1950s, trains mostly disappeared and cars became the dominant form of transportation, but Oakland leaders kept streets the same width, allowing for multiple car lanes. These wider, multi-laned streets encouraged people to speed, researchers have found.
“Can you think of any other flaws in the system of streets that you experience every day,” I asked the students.
Several said, some in Spanish, that traffic lights often don’t work. I told them about one of my reports where I found that yellow lights are often timed to flash for too short a period which encourages people to race through red lights, causing crashes. Also, if stop lights aren’t positioned directly above the street, in the middle of a crosswalk, it’s too easy to miss them.
Potholes, too few speed bumps, and unpainted crosswalks also came up in our conversation.
Then I told them about one example in the last year where a poorly designed street contributed to a tragedy, one that probably could have been avoided.
In June 2022, Dmitry Putilov, a deaf man, was killed in front of his two children while they were on a bike ride. According to witnesses and a video, Putilov was crossing 14th Street in downtown Oakland. His children were behind him when a black Infinity sped up through the intersection and hit him.
Protesters, including the Rapid Response Traffic Violence team, said later that if the city had been quicker to narrow of the street and add protected bike lanes, including curb bulb outs that would have made that crossing shorter, Putilov might be alive today. In 2017, the city received $10 million from the state to make that change but it still has not happened.
If part of better public health is saving people’s lives, and if, statistically-speaking, better infrastructure leads to saving lives, then reporting on the systems of traffic violence also improves public health.
An exercise to have the students speak from their own experiences
To give students some hands on experience researching the problem of road safety, we did an exercise about the potential hazards they would face walking, biking, taking the bus, or driving through part of Oakland. They could use Google Maps on their phones or computers to trace their steps. In a larger classroom, teachers could probably make kids break into groups for this exercise.
“Let’s start by creating a list of problems you see in parts of Oakland on your journey,” I told them.
The students spoke up about the traffic problems they would encounter along specific routes. Then, I pulled up UC Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System to show them exactly how many collisions occurred on a few of those routes over the last five years. Even though they said they experienced speeding and a general sense of danger on the roads, they were surprised at the thousands of serious injuries and deaths that appeared on the map.
“That many, really?” one said in Spanish.
We also discussed how traffic advocates and engineers are using a new kind of language to name traffic violence problems and change the way we collectively think about the issue.
For example, I explained, many people have used the word “accident” for decades to refer to a car crash that hurts or kills someone. But this word assumes that a crash was an unfortunate mistake made by the people driving, or by a pedestrian or bicyclists. Many public health practitioners don’t use the word accident because it absolves the driver, the road design, and government leaders who could change a road’s design from any responsibility. They now prefer instead to use the more neutral term collision or crash. Using this language allows for a detailed investigation to define what actually happened without inaccurate assumptions. It also forces people to think about the “bigger picture” of their systems of roads.
Looking at the systemic reason why collisions happen is a public health approach to traffic violence. When epidemiologists try to find the reason why epidemics happen, they look at demographic data, risk factors, and other trends. Similarly, when I look at the whole picture of a collision, I try to find as much data and information to determine whether it’s part of a pattern.
Through analysis of the TIMS map during my time with them, the students learned that Black and brown communities are more impacted than white communities by traffic collisions, there are more speeding collisions than traffic light collisions, and the faster people drive, the more likely it is that someone who is hit by their car will die.
Showing Oakland students they can realize career paths in public health
After the class, some of the students told they appreciated the presentation and I even got some happy fist bumps. In a survey, the teens said that they were more interested in careers in public health after the summit.
Frank said she’s not surprised that the students engaged excitedly with my presentation about traffic safety. “Young people love interfacing with professionals who tackle issues that affect Oakland, and they enjoy the experience of understanding the different opportunities out there,” she said.
Talking to people they might not otherwise have been exposed to—researchers, doctors, engineers, and journalists— is also important because it helps them develop a network of mentors and imagine that they too could become a public health leader. At the end of the workshops, several of us talked with kids in small groups for a networking lunch about our work.
“How many opportunities have these kids had to talk to a reporter like you?” Frank asked after. The truth is, not many. But for the OUSD students attending the summit it was a good opportunity.
“The day came with many challenges, but this was nevertheless an incredible experience for our students, and I am so grateful to each of you,” Cugno told us in an email this week.
As a person whose family lived and worked in East Oakland, and who throughout the years benefitted from the education provided by extremely dedicated teachers, including in low-income schools, I told Frank that I was grateful for the opportunity and would welcome the opportunity to do it again.