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Protected Bike Lanes Key to a Calmer, Thriving Telegraph Avenue in Oakland

Drivers encroach on the crosswalk on Telegraph Avenue, where people often have to wait extensively for traffic to stop before crossing. Photos: Melanie Curry

At an open house meeting on proposals to redesign Telegraph Avenue in Oakland Saturday morning, attendees arrived to find the street blocked off by police investigating a hit-and-run crash in which a driver killed a pedestrian. The scene underscored the need to make the commercial corridor safer for people walking and biking, though the proposals to remove traffic lanes and add improvements like protected bike lanes, landscaped medians, and sidewalk extensions still saw opposition from a few at the meeting.

About 50 people attended the second of three open houses hosted by the city to hear from residents and merchants about the proposed options for Telegraph. The third open house will be held this Thursday evening.

Posters presented copious amounts of information about conditions on Telegraph, including a map of crashes in the area, and research showing the economic revitalization that results when streets are redesigned to become destinations, not just throughways. A recent survey of people who use Telegraph found that 60 percent wanted protected bike lanes on the street, including 53 percent of "frequent drivers."

In a presentation, Phil Erickson of Community Design and Architecture said that the number of people walking and biking on Telegraph have been growing steadily. The city is looking to accommodate all users on the commercial corridor, he said, but it's rife with problems like driver speeding, inadequately-sized bus stops, and pedestrian crossings that are often dangerous and difficult to navigate. The city has proposed options for three segments along Telegraph, between 20th and 57th Streets. Options for the inner and outer segments include parking-protected bike lanes, though the middle Temescal segment doesn't, because city planners say it might slow down the higher volumes of car traffic.

Some in the crowd objected to removing traffic lanes or parking because they think it would increase car congestion and air pollution. One man said there would be “strong neighborhood opposition” to any plan that included bike lanes on Telegraph, and another interrupted Erickson's presentation to say that people on bikes should stick to other routes.

A young woman, brave enough to speak into the charged atmosphere, responded, “But what if my destination is on Telegraph?”

One of the boards presented at the meeting. Click to enlarge.

City staffers maintained a neutral position, saying that they were only looking to listen to public feedback. Still, their goal is to "make Telegraph as safe as we can for everyone using it,” said Iris Starr, a city transportation planner.

“Our goal is to bring residents and merchants together to collaborate," said Starr. "We want to come to some kind of consensus on what should be done; the city is not dictating the end results."

Telegraph sees over 1,200 people bicycling each day, even though it has no bike lanes. Demand for bicycling on the corridor is clearly high, but to make it comfortable enough for most Oaklanders, high-quality protected bike lanes are key to lowering the barrier of perceived risk.

That principle has been underscored by research by Rebecca Sanders, a post-doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley's Safe Transportation Research and Education Center, on the perceptions of riding risk from the Bay Area and the metro LA area, as well as similar research done by Meghan Winters in Canada and Jennifer Dill in Portland.

As motor traffic on the street is calmed by lane removals, and bike traffic goes up, commercial corridors tend to see more people shopping by foot and bike.

A bicyclist opts for the sidewalk at a busy intersection on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland's Temescal neighborhood. Photos: Melanie Curry

“If we want to make this street a livable community street, a place that's a destination rather than a place for pass-through traffic, then we need to put in facilities that actually communicate that vision," Sanders told Streetsblog.

Sanders pointed out that merchants are "understandably concerned" about the impacts of changes to their street, but that a growing body of evidence shows the economic, public health, and environmental benefits of safety improvements like those proposed. In San Francisco neighborhoods where similar improvements have been proposed, studies have consistently found that merchants tend to underestimate the number of customers that arrive without a car, and that those who do drive spend the least on a weekly basis.

Research from the East Bay's San Pablo Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles "shows the same thing," said Sanders. "You're not disadvantaging a merchant along Telegraph Avenue in Temescal by prioritizing bicycle travel. You're actually contributing to long-term economic vitality... People who walk and bike tend to do things like grab a drink or grab a bite to eat."

Bike lane opponents often call for sharrows instead, which don't remove traffic lanes for cars but only remind street users that bicyclists are allowed to ride in them. But Sanders said those don't do much to make more timid riders feel comfortable. “There will be cyclists who are experts who don't need any special facility, and that's great — but they are less than 1 percent of the population."

“There are lots of really great people in the community who are dedicated to making Temescal a livable, exciting place to be," said Sanders. "I have no doubt that if they're allowed to carry this vision forward and create a more bikable, walkable, livable street in a relatively short amount of time, then people are going to look back and say, 'Why was this ever even a question?'"

The City of Oakland will hold another open house on the Telegraph redesign this Thursday evening, May 1, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Humanist Hall at 390 27th Street.

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