Checking out Oakland Bike Infrastructure with WOBO

Chris Hwang, President of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Chris Hwang, President of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Streetsblog did a survey tour of Oakland bike infrastructure last Friday with Walk Oakland Bike Oakland (WOBO) president Chris Hwang. The group’s mission statement, from its web page, is a familiar one for safe-streets advocates: “We want every person who lives, plays, and works in Oakland to feel safe and comfortable walking and bicycling, and that they know how to make their neighborhood a better place to walk and bike.”

Oakland is poised to make some real strides in that direction. With the passage of Measure KK last November, the city now has $600 million to spend on street improvements, including for bicycle and pedestrian safety. Oakland is also well along with the creation of its new Department of Transportation, under the guidance of Nelson\Nygaard ‘s Jeff Tumlin.

Oakland has gotten on the protected bike lane bandwagon, as part of its complete streets project on Telegraph. That project, by almost any measure, has been a success and is a sign of things to come. But that’s still going to depend on the activism of groups including WOBO and Bike East Bay.

“We’re encouraging people to look at their lifestyles and ask how much do we depend on motor vehicles,” Hwang said to Streetsblog. “We can’t reach climate action goals if we don’t change. But to change, we need better amenities.”

So how is Oakland shaping up at street level?

Hwang started the survey tour at the bike corrals on Oak Street in front of the Oakland Museum of California. Going north from there, Streetsblog and Hwang encountered a familiar issue–cars driving on the bike lane.

ChrisHwangWithBikeAtRackonOak
WOBO President Chris Hwang at the bike corral on Oak Street. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

So why is Oakland still painting unprotected bike lanes? It’s a bit unclear, but Hwang has found one of the biggest problems is, once again, resistance from those concerned about giving up street parking.

But that doesn’t explain the treatments, seen in the photos below, on nearby Lake Merritt Boulevard, where there’s a curbside lane and no parking anyway.

Landscaping protected by a sinuous fence. Cyclists protected by a stripe. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Landscaping protected by a metal fence. Cyclists protected by a stripe. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Why would traffic engineers go to all the trouble of putting in this barrier, but on the wrong side of the bike lane? Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Why would traffic engineers go to all the trouble of putting in this barrier, but on the wrong side of the bike lane? Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Hwang was pleased with the green, kermit paint that’s been added to the lane in places, which she said helps cue motorists to stay off it. That’s good, but Streetsblog found it imponderable that the city put in fences to keep cars off the sidewalks and off the landscaping, but placed it on the wrong side – right of the bike lane. For the same amount of money, they could have put protection on the left side of the bike lane, creating a fully-protected space for cyclists. Another option is to put the barrier on the sidewalk, a few feet to the right of the curb, to create a raised bike lane–it’s a wide enough sidewalk to carve out some space for bikes. But putting it to the right of an on-street bike lane makes no sense and makes for some very uncomfortable cycling.

Mixing a bike lane with the high-speed turnout at Grand and International makes cycling here very uncomfortable. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Mixing a bike lane with the high-speed turnout at International makes cycling here very uncomfortable. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Streetsblog continued the tour, coming across this turnout at Lake Merritt and International. Cars made right turns, sweeping across the bike lane at high speeds. Hwang said the city insisted on keeping it wide so buses could make the turn. Oakland needs to go back here and add some kind of physical protection for cyclists, and perhaps phased signals, so cars are forced to slow and cross the bike lane at a sharper, safer angle.

Hwang then stopped by a senior living facility on Lakeshore, where paratransit needs to pick up elderly patrons. The population of Oakland is aging, she explained. The need to pick up and drop off elderly passengers can cause pushback against curbside bike lanes and parking removal. But this problem only exists because Oakland spent so many years building far-flung shopping centers so it’s now almost impossible for the elderly to walk to things. “Markets are far away,” said Hwang. But this is part of what WOBO is lobbying to fix. “We want communities that are more livable.”

Hwang then stopped at El Embarcadero, at the northern end of Lake Merritt. This stretch of road was recently put on a diet; instead of having two separate sets of motor-vehicle lanes, the lakeside lanes were transformed into an inviting, red-brick pedestrian path. The other two lanes were changed from one way to bi-directional traffic, as seen in the lead photo.

But this highlighted another issue. Some cyclists want to use the red-brick path, but the divided median of Lakeshore Avenue inadvertently cuts it off and makes it difficult to use it to go anywhere. “Street medians are great,” said Hwang, “But it’s better to do some temporary pilot first.” Because that median was done in concrete, it would be a big project now to create an opening so cyclists can use the brick path to get between Lakeshore and Grand. Hwang wants to see temporary infrastructure–planters, safe-hit posts, etc–used first and concrete second, so designs can be tweaked and perfected as failings and unintended consequences are discovered.

Streetsblog hopes KK will provide enough money to fix the road surface. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Streetsblog hopes KK will provide enough money to fix the road surface. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

From there, Streetsblog and Hwang continued up Grand. A road diet and lane reduction has made Upper Grand more comfortable for cycling. “Counts and speed measurements show it caused no delays,” she said. In fact, that was a theme on many of Oakland’s streets–they are generally excessively wide for the traffic volume, the good news being there’s no strong argument for not reducing speeds by adding good safety infrastructure and calming traffic.  Unfortunately, the recent storms have made much of the road surface pockmarked, as seen in the above photo. Streetsblog hopes city services will get this fixed quickly.

Streetsblog and Hwang then turned onto Piedmont towards 40th, and from there onto the infamous green “super sharrows,” which make cyclists share an excessively fast car lane on a busy road. More on that in a previous post.

Telegraph is a work in progress. For example, it surely needs bus boarding islands, because these mixing zones don't work. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Telegraph is a work in progress. For example, it surely needs bus boarding islands, because these mixing zones don’t work. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

From there, Hwang led Streetsblog onto Telegraph’s parking-protected bike lanes. Telegraph is a great first step and a template for what can be done on downtown streets everywhere. But Oakland made some of the same mistakes other cities have made–expecting cyclists and buses to jostle for position at bus stops in a “mixing zone” not made for comfortable cycling. The mixing zone also invites incursions from motorists, as in the above photo. “Bus-boarding islands are in the plans,” said Hwang. “In about two years.”

More photos of Telegraph below.

The addition of some safe-hit posts and kermit green helps make intersections on Telegraph a bit safer. Streetsblog/Rudick
The addition of some safe-hit posts and kermit green helps make intersections on Telegraph a bit safer. Streetsblog/Rudick
Some people still don't get it. Oakland DOT needs to borrow those signs from SFMTA on Valencia. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Some people still don’t get it. Oakland DOT needs to borrow the parking signs from SFMTA on Valencia. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Of course, even a protected bike lane breaks down if motorists park on it. Streetsblog came across this car (seen above) doing just that. As with SFMTA’s short chunk of protected bike lane on Valencia, Oakland put the parking meters on the right side of the lane, so drivers are sometimes confused and continue to park against the curb. Streetsblog hopes SFMTA will be kind enough to send over some of the laminated flyers it attached to the Valencia parking meters to help motorists get with the program. Either way, Telegraph follows Hwang’s recommendation that temporary measures precede concrete so the treatments can be tweaked.

Hwang, meanwhile, stressed the importance of an active community in getting safer streets. “We try to encourage people to be proactive,” she said. That means people who care about livable streets have to get out there. “WOBO’s mission is all about sustainability and livability, but we’re hamstrung if we can’t get people involved.”

  • Mitchell

    Traffic snarling is not traffic “calming.” Obstructions don’t calm anything; they induce frustration and road rage, even in the most careful of drivers.

    Meanwhile, the protected gnat lanes have created horrible congestion on Telegraph Avenue. If that was the intent, they’re a success. Bikes should use quiet side streets, not major traffic arteries, if they want to be “comfortable.

    Measure KK funds should first be used to fix Oakland’s terrible potholes. We can talk about gnat lanes after the last pothole is filled.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    You are confused. This is not NextDoor.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Generally if you were going from the OMCA to, say, Lakeshore, you wouldn’t take that bike lane on Lake Merritt Blvd. Most people would go down 10th to Peralta Park (temporarily: through the parking lot of the civic auditorium) under the boulevard and down the stub of Lakeshore, or stay on the lake path.

  • Jame

    You should review the actual results of the Telegraph bike lane. Even though you think the new configuration has “slowed things down,” actual speeds are basically the same for the drivers. A few seconds “delay” max. So basically unnoticeable.

    Secondly, here is the impact you do not see. People like me stop driving on Telegraph and bike instead. I almost never drive on Telegraph anymore at an point. And I never drive to Uptown. I always take transit or bike there. This reduces the traffic and leaves you with more parking spaces. Everyone wins!

    Here is a tip – the reason bicyclists do not always use the “side streets” is the same reason you don’t when you are driving – it is slower and the place you want to go is on the main street. If my destination is a ways away from the main street, I’ll use a side street provided it has minimal conflicts and triggered traffic lights for the busy streets. Otherwise, the main street is faster.

    More people biking and walking = more parking for you.

  • mortacai

    You make a good point that some factions believe that if something is bad for drivers it is good for everyone else.

    But as always the world is much more complex and nuanced than such simple and mindless identity politics concepts, A delayed, frustrated and confused driver is a bigger danger to those around him than a calm driver who is making good progress.

    I wonder how many cyclists and pedestrians have been hit by a driver who became incensed with the “calming” of his highway. We should instead be looking to make roads better for everyone and not just for the minority who don’t drive as if they are somehow magically holier.

  • mortacai

    First you say that “a few seconds don’t matter” but then you complain that the side streets are “slower”

    Which is it?

  • RichardC

    It takes more than “a few seconds” to bicycle blocks out of your way to get where you’re going. And in any case, there is no “quiet side street” connecting North Oakland to the middle of Uptown at 19th & Telegraph. All of the options at some point end up on Telegraph, Broadway, MLK, San Pablo, etc., so your question is irrelevant. We need safe space on major streets to get to downtown/uptown.

  • mortacai

    Fair enough on the routing, but I still think that the “it’s only a few seconds” line cuts both ways. For instance cyclists use it to justify not coming to a complete stop at stop signs and lights. And yet when a driver is slowed down, “it’s only a few seconds”, and so it doesn’t matter.

  • RichardC

    I’d say it’s pretty simple: a few seconds aren’t worth significant increased safety risk. Driving fast on city streets significantly reduces safety. Not coming to a complete stop on a bike at an intersection of two quiet side streets when no one else is coming does not.*

    *Note I am not defending anyone who blows through a red light/stop sign too fast or when others have the right-of-way.

  • joechoj

    This is a great overview of Oakland’s bike lanes and their shortcomings. With East Bay Bikeshare about to launch, many new condos about to open, and new bike lanes in the works, Oakland’s biking scene and streets will see a lot of change in the next 2 years.

    Thanks for the continued attention to Oakland street issues.

  • Jame

    The changes on Telegraph either had zero impact on travel times or added 10 seconds, what I wold consider unnoticeable. On the flip side, some of the designated side streets for cyclists are 1/2 a mile away! Depending on your trip – that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

  • Does any one know what the (graffiti) painted bike tires signify? (Not guess.)
    I see them around Oakland, wondering if anyone knows the story behind it.

  • Mitchell

    Who conducted that survey? The same people responsible for the gnat lanes in the first place? There seems to be a bias there; I’d love to see the methodology (and the potential conflict of interest).

    Nearly every time I drive that stretch of Telegraph I get stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle (confused or lost, or a delivery truck looking for an address) — but now there’s no passing lane. The anti-car folks love to induce congestion, and then to denigrate drivers as “always stuck in traffic.” It’s become a pretty transparent dodge by now.

  • Jame

    How fast should care really be going on a street with a lot of buses, pedestrians, driveways and traffic lights. Telegraph is the worst street to drive up. The lights are horribly timed, there are giant potholes and lots of people crossing at intersections. I don’t understand exactly how much faster people can logically go. Now it is safer for everyone. No people rushing over to the other lane because the car in front of them have stopped for a pedestrian.

    We have spent a lot of energy optimizing for speed on streets with a lot of types of users and uses. Now when we account more of the users and usage types in the street it is “too annoying.”

  • Mitchell

    Just what I’d expect: invoking potholes as a “traffic calming” device (except, of course, when they’re in the gnat lane). The fact that Telegraph is pockmarked with potholes (and cluttered with gnats and lumbering fart-boxes [“buses”]) is a problem, not an asset.

  • Mitchell

    I saw the title on Google News, and (as an Oakland resident) decided to see what’s up with the gnat infestation. As I said, It’s time you folks got some pushback.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    It’s the German flag, obv.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    You’re really coming across as the kind of person who deserves all the ridicule you no doubt receive. Perhaps if you learned to engage in constructive conversation rather than calling names, you would be getting more out of life.

  • Mitchell

    Ridicule begets ridicule — and that cuts both ways. I find plenty of good in life, but the current “get people out of their cars” orthodoxy (and the consequent gnat infestation) is a petty but increasingly frequent irritation — and it’s about time more people spoke out about it.

    Too many “New Urbanist” types seem to think “vibrant” is a synonym for “congested.” How’s that for putting it more politely?

  • webmasterted

    It’s in recognition of the Ohlone people. I saw one with a more detailed scrawl once.

  • Chanty

    I couldnt agree with Mitchell more. Its pretty clear to me that these decision makers are either childless, have nannys with cars so they can bike to work (must I remind the urbanists there are no school buses in Oakland and an elementary school child riding a bike to school esp. in the rain could be classified as child neglect), have no kids but will move when they do when they realize it is not possi le to bike or take public transit with your kids to school, get the groceries, do the laundry and still have any time or money left for extracurricular activites or even christmas gifts and the last most likely possibilty, these decision makers and shills have kids and continue to drive because they have very, very important jobs forcing the rest us back to neandrethal times before the invention of the animal powered cart where everyones daily commerce was confined to a 5 square mile area.

  • thielges

    “Ridicule begets ridicule” – translation: “one time somebody treated me badly and I am now using that as an excuse to treat everybody else badly”.

  • Prinzrob
  • Prinzrob

    It also seems silly to prioritize the convenience of people in vehicles which require no physical effort over people walking or biking who are exerting themselves physically. When a driver is delayed it just means they have to press their toe on the brake a few seconds longer. I don’t understand why that is such an unreasonable ask for some people.

  • Thanks!

  • That explains the wheel in the middle of 20th and Broadway, too! Thanks!

  • Mitchell

    When you finally end up in a congested area (i.e., on Telegraph, Broadway, etc., downtown), it’s time to get off and walk!

  • RichardC

    Mitchell, that’s an interesting idea. I assume you also think that when going to a congested area drivers should get out of their cars and walk instead? We could solve a lot of our traffic and safety problems that way!

  • Mitchell

    Drivers DO get out of their cars and walk. It’s called parking. We may be slowed down to a snail’s pace, which is presumably good for pedestrians — but neither motorists nor pedestrians should also need to deal with gnat-like bikes darting in and out.

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