Eyes on the Street: History of Oakland Chinatown’s Barnes Dance

grandpa_and_kid_2.jpgPerhaps the nicest pedestrian scramble in the Bay Area

Unlike numerous pedestrian tragedies that go unnoticed and unmitigated, when a man was killed at the corner of 8th Street and Webster Street in Oakland’s Chinatown in 2002, the community banded together to get a large federal grant to transform not only the dangerous intersection, but the entire neighborhood.

The man who was killed was the father of a board member of Asian Health Services (AHS), a non-profit health care provider in Oakland; the organization vowed to do something about it.  

AHS Planning and Development Manager Julia Liou spearheaded the project, eventually convincing policy makers on the city council to support changes.  While AHS had never done pedestrian or transportation advocacy in the past, Liou emphasized the public health benefits of safer pedestrian amenities.

Former council member Danny Wan became a champion of the project and helped convince the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce that safer pedestrian conditions would bring more foot traffic, which would improve business.  

The only resistance they encountered was from City of Oakland traffic engineers, who initially expressed concerns over liability if a driver got frustrated waiting for the all-red cycle and mowed down a pedestrian.

“I don’t think there were any engineers then who were willing to think outside the box,” said Liou.  “Public Health, planning?  They just wanted to move as many cars through the intersection as quickly as possible.”

pregnant_mom.jpgSafe for all users, young, old and pregnant

When a trial at 8th and Webster was finally implemented (transportation study, PDF), Liou and project leaders were vindicated

The project was such a success, Liou, the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, and Councilmember Wan sought federal funding for an expanded scope of work called Revive Chinatown (PDF).  They contracted with CHS Consulting to lead community workshops and craft the project design around imagery and principles relevant to the stakeholders, such as the Qiling good-luck charm on project signage.

In 2004, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission awarded a $2.2 million dollar federal grant to Revive Oakland to complete the transformation of four intersections in Chinatown.  They re-timed traffic signals to give exclusive crossing time for pedestrians (23 seconds by this author’s recent count), built pedestrian-scale lighting, bulb outs, directional way-finding, pedestrian countdowns, and high visibility crosswalks and diagonals with a design from the Ching Dynasty.  

While Liou couldn’t convince merchants to support removing an entire traffic lane and widening the sidewalks, she was pleased with the outcome.

“It was about telling the community that we want to improve the area, make it more pedestrian friendly, more viable economically, and a more vital destination.”

Old_lady_walker.jpgNew curb cuts and high visibility crosswalks (check the diagonals!) with a Ching Dynasty design
Kids_cross.jpgA very nice day for a walk

  • This was a cool project, and is one of the better scrambles I’ve seen. Here are digital renderings of the project when it was still in design phase:
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/manila_ave/photos/album/1987918210/pic/list

    It’s great that the community made a positive difference, instead of randomly rioting around where I live downtown.

    Other scrambles I’ve seen are in SF financial-a couple on montgomery street, and one on market (just 2-way) at bloomingdales…

    I hope that the city closes Market to all private car traffic soon. Would make the street much more usable and friendly.

  • Matt H

    This was a great project, and went a long way to making a strip of shops and restaurants into more of a destination. Would love to see a lot more of these in downtown Oakland. Thanks for the coverage.

  • Peter

    that thing is incredible. i can’t believe i didn’t know about it. shows how much better we need to do in organizing and sharing information.

    good job!

  • The scramble on Montgomery is lousy for pedestrians, though, because it won’t let you walk on the green phase when there might be any cars wanting to turn that direction. Scrambles should be designed to give pedestrians *more* crossing time than they would otherwise have, not less.

  • @Ken

    There are actually a ton of scrambles in downtown SF, several around Moscone and the one-way streets aroung the Transbay Terminal, in addition to many in the traditional north of Market FiDi

    I’m with you on closing Market too!

  • Joanne

    I have been trying to get Oakland’s traffic engineering department to take the intersection of 40th and Broadway seriously for years. That intersection is where two of the busiest AC Transit lines meet (the 57 and 51….well over 1,000 people get off and on at that intersection), is full of pedestrians walking to and from Piedmont Avenue/MacArthur BART/Kaiser Hospital, is a primary school bus stop for Oakland Technical High School, and has become the defacto cut through for way too many automobiles who go that way because there are no articulated left turn signals forcing them to wait.

    It was only when I basically wrote a grant for the City that they bothered to try an find money to improve the intersection, in the name of the students (Safe Routes to Schools grant). The bottom line is that there are so many non-student pedestrians going through here that the City doesn’t really care about (not to mention the AC bus drivers who have to turn the 57 bus here, without the benefit of a left turn signal).

    In fact, despite its “pedestrian first” policy, Oakland has done a terrible job managing life for existing pedestrians during its ongoing condition of “under construction”. It has also done a disservice to future pedestrians as it moves towards “10,000 residents” downtown. In theory, those 10,000 new residents will walk around town, but the City doesn’t consider it reasonable to expand sidewalk capacity with the high density developments it is approving. Instead, everyone is just going to have to squeeze in to the available space, along with all the sidewalk furniture (newspaper displays, mailboxes, street signs, fire hydrants and the monstrous, graffiti-ridden AT&T boxes popping up all over town to provide digital cable service). I have spoken to developers who have volunteered to pay for sidewalk expansion and bulbouts at busy intersections, but the City’s engineering department won’t let such projects be implemented.

    If they really were afraid of liability, they would do a better job of ensuring that private residences are repairing severely dilapidated sidewalks (as it is the responsibility of the adjacent property owners in Oakland to fix sidewalks). Or the City would make sure that it allows developers to fix sidewalks as part of their projects, rather than mandate they keep old curbing up around new, ADA curb cuts….creating a huge tripping hazard (see the corner of Pleasant Valley and Piedmont Avenue).

    I do love the scrambles in Chinatown. I’m jealous, but that neighborhood completely deserves such a unique and beautiful feature.

  • Dale

    Why is it called a Barnes Dance? Is that another expression for ped scramble? Where did it come from?

  • Dale: it’s named for traffic engineer Henry Barnes (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/barnes.cfm). It’s the same thing as a pedestrian scramble.

  • Sorry, Dale, I should’ve linked to Barnes in the article. Good summary here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Barnes_(traffic_engineer)

  • Tommy G.

    To those who mentioned closing Market:

    As someone who usually drives in the city, I definitely think that closing Market to private cars would be a great idea. Everytime I end up on that street, I’m relieved to be on a street that I know, but there is so many different uses going on and so many no-turns, buses, trains, and islands, that I usually regret ever getting on the street in the first place. The only people who get any use out of it are probably cab drivers, but it could be such a lovely pedestrian/bicycle/transit boulevard. Maybe even some trees down the middle. Think of the beautiful shopping district they could create along it.