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Repairing the Gash in the Heart of Oakland

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The 980 Freeway created a 560-foot-wide gash through Oakland.

I-980 created a 560-foot-wide gash through Oakland. Photo: Roger Rudick

On a rainy morning in Preservation Park in Oakland, I met with Andrew Faulkner and Jonathan Fearn, advocates with “Connect Oakland,” to discuss their organization’s vision to remove the 980 freeway, which sits between downtown and West Oakland.

“The 980 freeway was supposed to save downtown,” said Fearn. Instead, he explained, it became a 560-foot-wide asphalt moat, combining with the 880 and 580 to encircle West Oakland with wide freeways. Fearn and Faulkner see connections between the highway and many of West Oakland’s problems.

“It’s part of a larger pattern of dislocation and disinvestment in the community,” said Christopher Sensenig, an urban designer and founder of Connect Oakland.

The freeway resulted from an aborted attempt to build a second bridge from Oakland to San Francisco. Even though the bridge never happened, the road that would feed cars to and from it was already in motion. All the planning to build the 980 caused investors to abandon the area. Advocates for the freeway then sold it as a way to invigorate downtown Oakland, by building a giant “glorified offramp,” as Faulkner called it, that would lead directly into parking structures.

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A Downtown Oakland for Everyone

Egon Terplan is SPUR’s regional planning director. This piece is reprinted with permission from the October 2015 of The Urbanist.

Photo: Sergio Ruiz

Franklin Square. Photo: Sergio Ruiz

After years of struggling to attract investment, downtown Oakland is enjoying a renaissance. Organic, bottom-up growth and targeted public investment are resulting in new cultural events, art galleries, restaurants, bars and retail stores. The population and job base are growing, companies are relocating or expanding downtown (including Uber, which in September, announced its purchase of the former Sear’s building), and commercial vacancies are declining.

Oakland’s urban center is poised to take on a more important role in the region. We believe that the best path forward is to plan for growth — and to shape that growth to make downtown Oakland a great place that provides benefits to all. Downtown Oakland is an opportunity to demonstrate that equity and economic growth can go hand in hand.

Downtown faces key challenges today. While the number of jobs is growing, the economy remains fragile. Institutional lenders have been hesitant to invest in downtown projects, large anchor tenants are scarce and commercial rents are rarely high enough to cover the cost of new office construction. Many in downtown, and Oakland generally, struggle to secure affordable housing and high quality employment. Downtown’s parks, plazas and streets need upgrading and maintenance. Its centers of activity — such as City Center and Jack London — are spread out and density is uneven, contributing to a final challenge: Public safety concerns deter some from spending time and investing in downtown.

SPUR’s new report, “A Downtown for Everyone: Shaping the Future of Downtown Oakland,” from which this article is excerpted, looks at solutions to these challenges, as well as ways to take advantage of unique opportunities. Unlike many urban centers, downtown Oakland has the infrastructure in place to support growth. It is at the center of the Northern California rail network and has more BART trains passing through it than any city in the region. Downtown’s streets are largely without congestion and could be reimagined to provide more space for buses, bicycles and pedestrians. There are also many acres of vacant land and surface parking lots right in the middle of downtown. This means downtown could add thousands of new jobs and residents without displacing any current homes or businesses. Add to these opportunities the creativity and energy of Oakland’s residents, and there is an opening for downtown Oakland to demonstrate a new path forward for cities.

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Via Streetsblog California
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Talking With Matt Nichols, Oakland’s New Transportation Policy Director

Matt Nichols is Oakland’s newly hired policy director for infrastructure and transportation. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf created the position to shepherd her proposed reorganization of transportation planning, design, engineering, and construction into one department, and to oversee the creation of a cohesive transportation policy. Nichols has been in his new job for about two months, and he’s excited about this chance to formulate policies to guide infrastructure.

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Matt Nichols, Oakland’s new policy director for transportation and infrastructure. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

“It’s a new way to ask the question for Oakland,” he said. “Up until now, transportation has been a maintenance issue. Arguments for changes on the city’s streets have come from the grassroots/advocacy level, and gone upwards. To have the mayor directing transportation policy is a great thing.”

“You can transform cities just through policy,” said Nichols. “It takes a bigger vision of the city–this isn’t just about carrying out projects.”

Last week Mayor Schaaf submitted a budget proposal that, among other things, would create a new Department of Transportation. The proposal lists principles for the new department: safe streets for all, great neighborhoods, transportation options, economic development, and sustainable infrastructure. Supporting these principles will mean creating bike-friendly, pedestrian-friendly, transit-friendly streets — where now many Oakland streets are wide roads that parallel freeways and present unsafe conditions for people who are not in cars. Supporting these principles will require a major shift away from business as usual.

“One thing we have learned,” said Nichols, “is that you just can’t build enough car infrastructure. That’s because, one, there’s not enough money, and two, it doesn’t work anyway.”

His first two goals are to create a more effective system for delivering transportation projects, and to find new resources. The two goals are interconnected, as the creation of a “project delivery pipeline” will help the city obtain more funding.

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Via Streetsblog California
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What Oakland Mayor’s Proposal for a Department of Transportation Means

Oakland

For the city of Oakland, the creation of a Department of Transportation is a first step towards formulating a cohesive transportation policy. Photo: Telegraph Avenue, looking towards downtown Oakland. Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

This week, Streetsblog California takes a look at changes occurring in Oakland, California, related to the way the city plans and implements transportation projects.

Today, Ruth Miller, a local planner, former Streetsblog contributor, and a member of Transport Oakland, writes about what the formation of a Department of Transportation will mean for Oakland. Later this week look for Streetsblog’s interview with Matt Nichols, the city’s newly hired Director of Transportation Policy.

Like a surprising number of other cities, despite its size, Oakland, California, currently does not have a Department of Transportation. Decisions about transportation projects from signal timing, to paving, to designing and applying for grants to fund a bike and pedestrian bridge over the estuary leading to Lake Merritt, have been made within either the Planning Department or the Department of Public Works — or both.

But if Oakland’s new mayor, Libby Schaaf, has her way, this will change soon. Her proposed 2015-17 budget, currently under discussion, includes within it a reorganization of city departments to create one specifically for overseeing transportation policy and decisions — a Department of Transportation. Advocates for better transportation choices in Oakland, including the advocacy group Transport Oakland, believe that creating a DOT could help the city better plan for and manage its transportation.

DOTs often publish mission statements.

For example, the Los Angeles DOT “leads transportation planning, design, construction, maintenance, and operations in the City of Los Angeles.” The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which is equivalent to a DOT, works “to plan, build, operate, regulate, and maintain the transportation network” [PDF]. Essentially, these and most other city DOTs lead transportation projects from policy through planning, implementation, and maintenance. Because they govern the full life cycle of transportation projects, DOTs have the ability, and thus a certain obligation, to work strategically.

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New Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf: “Time to Re-Envision Our Roads”

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New Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf showed promise as an executive with a smart vision for her city’s streets at the annual kick-off party for Young Professionals in Transportation’s SF Bay chapter this week.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf: “Our roads were built to accommodate more cars than they need.” Photo: Cynthia Armour/Twitter

In an interview at the event with Sam Greenspan of the podcast 99% Invisible, Schaaf said “it’s time we re-envision how we use roads” and that “we need to create a physical environment that encourages active transportation.”

An Oakland native and former council member, Schaaf was endorsed by Transport Oakland, a group formed last year to advocate for safer streets and better options to get around the city.

Here are some highlights from Schaaf’s appearance this week:

  • “I think it’s time we re-envision how we use roads. It’s their public right-of-way. We’ve got a great story to tell at Lake Merritt… There used to be a freakin’ freeway on either end of the lake, and we removed multiple lanes of traffic, we put in a public plaza on one end, where there are free Salsa dance lessons — I mean, it is a party going on every weekend where there used to be roads… Nobody misses those lanes of traffic at all. Our roads were built to accommodate more cars than they need.”
  • Schaaf intends to hire Oakland’s first mayoral transportation advisor, whom she “plans to announce soon.”
  • When asked about how she sees Vision Zero, she said “twenty is plenty” (referring to the UK-based campaign for 20 mph speed limits), and noted two recent pedestrian fatalities within the past week. “I don’t think anybody supports traffic fatalities,” she said.
  • “Oakland is multi-modal… we need to create a physical environment that encourages active transportation. It’s good for our health, for our social interactions, for our humaneness.”
  • When asked about expanding Oakland’s bike network, Schaaf pointed to the city’s first protected bike lane going in on Telegraph Avenue this year. She also emphasized the need to re-pave the city’s roads since potholes “can be deadly” for people on bikes, and because the costs of road maintenance increase dramatically when neglected for too long.
  • Schaaf plans to campaign for a transportation bond measure in 2016 to add to Measure BB, the half-cent sales tax increase approved by Alameda County voters in November that will raise $7.8 billion in transportation funding over 30 years.
  • On the proposals for streetcars on Broadway and San Pablo Avenue, and the contrast with bus rapid transit improvements, she said “that’s going to be a big hot debate — one (bus transit) is more of a transportation solution, and the other is more of an economic development solution.”
  • “The issue about bus vs. rail is part of the gentrification and equity conversation… it’s incredibly important to educate our elected officials not to always just look at the shiny, pretty thing, because buses are what we need to actually get people to their jobs.” (No comment specifically on the Oakland Airport Connector, though it sounds like her take could apply to that project.)
  • Schaaf noted the blight caused by freeway underpasses, and suggested turning them into a “tunnel of wow” possibly with decorative features, shops, and amenities to make them feel safer and more attractive. “What about those freeways?” she asked, stopping short of mentioning freeway removal.
  • On the proposed second Transbay BART tube through Alameda and Mission Bay: “It will not be cheap… I think it will really reduce congestion. I hella love Oakland, but we do need to think regionally, and it would make a lot of sense for the region.”
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Oakland Council Approves Protected Bike Lanes on Telegraph Ave

Oakland has approved a redesign of Telegraph Avenue that includes protected bike lanes separated by curbs and parking spots. Image: Oakland Public Works

The Oakland City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a road diet and parking-protected bike lanes to Telegraph Avenue, eliciting cheers from East Bay bike advocates.

The vote allows the city to begin work on the first phase of the Telegraph Avenue Complete Streets plan, which covers the segment between 41st and 19th Streets in downtown. Planners hope to include the road diet and protected lanes in the city’s scheduled repaving of Telegraph Avenue in the spring, using inexpensive materials to get it on the ground quickly.

Of the 20 people who addressed the council about the Telegraph plan, 17 were supporters sporting green stickers that read “Protected Bike Lanes,” and three opposed it. Supporters included reps from Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, Bike East Bay, neighbors, business owners, a developer, and others who bike.

Parking-protected bike lanes are coming to this section of Telegraph, looking towards downtown from 24th Street. Photo: Melanie Curry

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Parking-Protected Bike Lanes Partially Back in Oakland’s Telegraph Ave Plan

Parking protected bike lanes are back in Oakland’s final plan for Telegraph Avenue. Image: City of Oakland

If all goes according to plan, Oakland could get its first parking-protected bike lanes on Telegraph Avenue next spring.

The final draft of the Telegraph plan was released this week, and previously-dropped parking-protected bike lanes were re-introduced in downtown Oakland, between 20th and 29th streets. Buffered bike lanes are planned on the block south of 20th and between 29th and 41st streets.

The Telegraph plan would remove a traffic lane in both directions between 19th and 41st streets, which should calm traffic while creating room for protected bike lanes and shorten pedestrian crossings. The plan includes transit boarding islands and the some relocated bus stops, as well as the removal of on-street parking between 55th and Aileen Streets under the Highway 24 overpass. Removing parking there would provide bike lanes connect to the 55th Street bicycle route.

The Telegraph plan was revised after the latest round of public meetings held in September, where safe streets advocates blasted planners’ move to drop the originally proposed parking-protected bike lanes.

However, planners still punted on protected bike lanes for the busy and complex middle section of Telegraph, between 41st and 52nd in the Temescal neighborhood. At the busy intersection with Telegraph and 51st, car traffic comes off the freeway and double turn lanes enter northbound Telegraph. The section also includes an oblique intersection at Shattuck Avenue.

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New Planning-Savvy Advocacy Group Pushes for a People-Friendly Oakland

Oakland, criss-crossed with freeways and overly-wide streets, could become people-friendly with the right leadership, says a new group called Transport Oakland. Photo via Transport Oakland

A group of planning-savvy Oakland residents and workers has formed Transport Oakland to advocate for sustainable transportation and livable streets.

With declining car traffic and exciting developments on the way like bike-share and bus rapid transit, the group says the growing East Bay port city could become a people-friendly mecca — given the right leadership.

Transport Oakland “started informally,” said Liz Brisson, a spokesperson for the group, who works as a San Francisco transportation planner, along with some of the other members. “A group of planners and advocates got together to talk about what we would like to see in the city, and why there are problems preventing things from happening.”

While Transport Oakland is working with groups like Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, Bike East Bay, and TransForm, the group takes a different approach to organizing for better transportation choices, such as making candidate endorsements and offering nuanced recommendations on local transportation reforms. “It’s an interesting group, and different than a typical advocacy group, in that a lot of people involved are planners or engineers that just happen to live in Oakland,” said Brisson.

Unlike other similarly-sized cities, Oakland has no transportation department or director to oversee funds and projects — its transportation planners work within the Public Works Agency. Its city council also has no transportation commission appointed to help inform decisions about transportation issues, and the city has no overall strategic plan or vision for transportation.

The city even has $15 million in earmarked transportation funds that haven’t been used for unclear reasons, the group found in its research. The numbers come from audit reports from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission on Measure B transportation sales tax revenue [PDF] and the Vehicle Registration Fee program [PDF], both approved by Alameda County voters.

Transport Oakland decided that its most effective first action would be to encourage city leadership on improving transportation in the upcoming election. “There are three different levels of involvement that affect transportation outcomes,” said Brisson. “There are policymakers, there’s staff, and there are advocates. We agree that Oakland could use more involvement from all three. We have specific ideas modeled after other cities about how transportation should be planned, funded, and delivered, and we need policy maker involvement to create those changes.”

Transport Oakland’s first step was to interview and endorse candidates for mayor and the three city council seats that are up for election next month. “We’re not a PAC (Political Action Committee), we’re just volunteers,” said Brisson. But the group aims to influence city policymakers by publicly endorsing candidates with progressive views on transportation. In the interview process, they also aimed to educate candidates about smarter transportation policy.

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Oakland Unnecessarily Pits Safe Bicycling vs. Transit on Telegraph Avenue

At two workshops last week in Oakland, attendees overwhelmingly called for a bolder plan to make Telegraph Avenue safer and include protected bike lanes. Oakland planners ditched their original proposals for parking-protected bike lanes, instead proposing buffered, unprotected bike lanes on most of the street. In Temescal, the street’s most dangerous and motor traffic-heavy section, planners insist on preserving all four traffic lanes, with only sharrows added. But when asked to choose between removing parking or removing traffic lanes, it was clear that the majority of residents who attended both meetings would be willing to give up parking.

The majority of residents who attended two workshops would be willing to give up parking for protected bike lanes on Telegraph Avenue. Photo: Melanie Curry

Still, a few kept the discussion circling back to the potential tradeoffs between bike safety and transit reliability. Oakland city planners trying unsuccessfully tried to get traction on the idea of moving the bike route a block away to Shattuck Avenue, despite Telegraph being a clear magnet for bike traffic even without any bike infrastructure.

Several people at the workshops argued adamantly that sharrows are not a reasonable alternative to bike lanes. “Please remove sharrows as an option,” said one attendee. “I don’t want to share facilities with a car. We’ve tried it, and I hate it. It’s not safe.”

Oakland planner Jamie Parks opened up group discussions at both meetings by admitting that sharrows are “not the ideal bike facility, but this is the most constrained and congested section of the street.”

“The tradeoffs include removing parking or removing a lane of traffic,” he told attendees. “If we were to incorporate continuous bike lanes, what would people be willing to give up?”

“Parking!” one person shouted from the back of the room at one meeting. Discussions at both meetings stayed mostly polite, and there seemed to be general agreement that providing parking was not as important as safety.

But not everybody agreed. One dissenter said, “I just don’t think politics will allow for the abolition of parking.”

Only some parking spaces on Telegraph would need to be removed to provide bike lanes. But the city doesn’t seem to be seriously considering it, despite strong evidence in other cities that as motor traffic is calmed, and bike traffic goes up, commercial corridors tend to see more people shopping by foot and bike. Oakland’s own findings show that parking spaces in Temescal rarely approach 85 percent of capacity, even at peak times, and that better parking management could make even more spaces available.

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Costly New Parking Garages Still Gobbling Up Land at BART Stations

Oakland and BART officials cut the ribbon Monday on a new parking garage for a “transit village” being built at MacArthur Station. Photo: BRIDGE Housing/Twitter

BART continues to encourage the construction of multi-story parking garages at its stations, despite the exorbitant costs and lost potential for valuable land that could be put to better use.

On Monday, Oakland and BART officials held a press conference and ribbon-cutting ceremony to tout the opening of a 481-space parking structure at MacArthur BART station. The structure was built at a cost of $15,371,000, or about $32,000 per space (based on a 2012 figure), and is part of a “transit village” housing and retail development. But like most park-and-ride fortresses, it will mostly sit empty when commuters aren’t using it to store cars, which is most of the time.

The only media coverage of the MacArthur press conference was a San Jose Mercury News photo slideshow showing Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, two BART board members, an Oakland council member, and a developer rep cutting the ribbon, before heading up to the empty rooftop to take in the views.

Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich, who sits on the BART board, said he’s “appalled that we wasted tens of millions of dollars building a commuter garage at an urban station like MacArthur.”

“Ridership kept growing at that station despite the reduction in parking during construction, which demonstrates that we could have done perfectly well without it,” he said. “Many of our highest-ridership stations — Balboa Park, Berkeley, 19th, 16th, 24th, Glen Park — have little or no commuter parking. At stations like MacArthur, Ashby, West Oakland, and Lake Merritt, we should be phasing out parking as we build transit villages, and enhance walking, cycling, and local transit access instead of building structured parking.”

Only 10 percent of people using MacArthur station drive there, the Mercury News reported in 2011, and five shuttles operate in the station area.

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