| | By Alastair Bland
Drivers may not believe it, but what's good for people cruising city streets on bikes is good for them, too. That's what advocates for cycling and walking are saying as they ramp up plans around the East Bay to swap out lanes of traffic for bike lanes and other modifications they say will increase safety for cyclists and pedestrians, ease congestion, give a boost to local businesses, and improve air quality.
Several so-called "road diets" that included protected bikeways have been completed in Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda. Now, several dozen more are in the planning stages. These projects usually roll out to the tune of objections at public meetings from business owners and drivers fearful of roadway inconveniences. Such opponents often argue that replacing lanes of traffic with lanes dedicated solely to cyclists worsens congestion, is bad for business, and serves only a few people.
And all these arguments, said Dave Campbell, are wrong. Advocacy director for the group Bike East Bay, Campbell said bikeway projects often come with sidewalk and intersection upgrades that ultimately make an entire street safer for cyclists and pedestrians, and maybe even drivers, while also offering measurable economic improvements.
"This isn't just about bikeways," said Campbell. "This is about people, and this is good for you no matter who you are."
Of about four dozen road diets completed in Oakland, not one has been reversed due to negative impacts, Campbell said. In fact, many positive impacts are quantifiable. On Telegraph Avenue, for instance, a 2016 road diet reduced five lanes of traffic to just three between 20th and 29th streets by replacing two of the lanes with separated bikeways. The project also built eight high-visibility pedestrian crosswalks. Now, according to a January progress report from the Oakland Department of Transportation, the number of people walking along Telegraph has doubled, the number of people cycling almost doubled, and retail sales in the KoNo district increased by 9 percent. The median speed of traffic flow has not been affected, according to the report, though outlying instances of dangerous speeding are less frequent and extreme now. This is important, since speeding kills people. The report points out that nine out of 10 pedestrians die when hit by a car moving 40 miles per hour, whereas nine out of 10 survive a collision in which the car is moving at just 20 mph.
But compared to calculating the social and personal health benefits of improving urban cycling infrastructure, quantifying the environmental benefits of doing so is more difficult, said Daniel Rodriguez, a UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning. "That's because, of the people you see cycling, it's hard to know how many of them would have been driving or going by bus otherwise," Rodriguez said.
In Berkeley, about 10 percent of commuters choose pedal power over vehicles, in Oakland, just 5 percent. Indeed, committed cyclists are a minority in the East Bay, and not everybody is happy about plans to turn the region into a cycling haven.
Tao Matthews, an Oakland-based musician and a resident of 18 years, is outraged by the retrofit of Telegraph Avenue. She feels the project was pushed upon a community that didn't want it, and the neighborhood will suffer economic consequences of removing traffic lanes and parking spaces. The entire district, if not the whole East Bay, she said, is too geared toward motor vehicles to be turned into a bike-friendly area. "This area is not suitable for this idiotic, idyllic idea that everyone wants to walk and ride a bike," Matthews said.
She thinks wealthy neighborhoods in Marin County and the Los Angeles area would be much better suited for community makeovers than Oakland. "Most people do not ride a bicycle here, and they would rather move out of the area than be forced to ride one," Matthews said.
Campbell and other bike advocates doubt that many people will move away to escape bicycle lanes. He has worked on hundreds of street modification projects in his 21 years with Bike East Bay. "We see it every time: People kick and scream, and then in the end, they adjust," he said.
In late 2014, after the city of Alameda painted stripes on the asphalt along Shoreline Drive as part of a bikeway project to reduce the odds of a car hitting a cyclist, dozens of upset residents packed community meetings. In the midst of a roughly equal share of bikeway supporters, opponents complained that the protected bike lane would worsen congestion and slow traffic. (In fact, it did slightly slow traffic, which was part of the point of the project.)
The new street arrangement also put a parking lane in between local residences and San Francisco Bay, prompting objections from locals concerned about aesthetics. "They complained that the cars blocked their view," said Lucy Gigli, director of the group Bike Walk Alameda.
Sonja Brooks, a board member of the KONO Community Benefit District, a local coalition of merchants, says she is all for bike lanes. What she objects to, though, is separated bikeways that remove lanes of traffic—especially in busy neighborhoods where many locals use vehicles to get places.
"It's these dedicated bike lanes that take away lanes for vehicles—I just don't think this part of Telegraph adjacent to the freeway and emergency services was the right place, and I don't think the city really considered the impacts of it," she said, arguing that limiting drivers' access to the neighborhood will disproportionately affect its elderly and physically disabled population.
Savlan Hauser, executive director of the Jack London Improvement District, is an avid cyclist and a routine bike commuter. She believes local governments have something of a responsibility to make streets safer, even if it means slightly slowing down cars or rerouting traffic. "Walking safely around the city and biking safely around the city should be the most universal, most affordable ways to get around," she said.
The city of Oakland recognizes this and has offered discount rates on its city bikeshare program for low-income residents, according to Rudy Russo, the director of Oakland's Department of Transportation. "We need to recognize in our planning that not every household can afford a car," Russo said.
Russo said the city's Bicycle Master Plan, which is to be updated over the next 18 months, will detail potential opportunities for more road diets and protected bikeways. Such improvements, Russo said, will make the city more livable for all demographic groups.
It sounds like progress, but Campbell points out that the East Bay is way behind the curve.
"What we're doing [with improved street projects] is something cities all over North America have been doing for years," he said. Mexico City, he noted, is ahead of many U.S. cities in making streets safer for cyclists and, especially, pedestrians. "So, it's not like we're at the forefront of crazy ideas. We're playing catch-up, and opponents to these projects are ignoring history. They're fighting against what the future is going to look like."
Dave Campbell believes that replacing traffic lanes with bike lanes is good for everyone. Photo by Bert Johnson.