A Park too Far: Walk Oakland Bike Oakland Infrastructure Tour

'Flatlands Neighborhoods Ride' tours the links between infrastructure, disparities, and Oakland history

The Original Scraper Bike Team's Reginald "RB" Burnette at Sunday's Flatlands Neighborhoods Ride. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless noted
The Original Scraper Bike Team's Reginald "RB" Burnette at Sunday's Flatlands Neighborhoods Ride. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless noted

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

At 66th Avenue, west of Interstate 880, at the terminus of the Bay Trail’s Zhone Way in Oakland, there’s an art installation and a small park called the ’66th Avenue Gateway’ project. It’s a beautiful spot with a grand sculpture, but good luck trying to get there from the neighborhood, less than a mile away, near the Coliseum BART station. “This is why the Coliseum is a failure,” said Robert Raburn, a BART director and cycling advocate who helped guide yesterday’s “Flatland Neighborhoods Ride” of Oakland. Sponsored by Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, the 17.5-mile ride around the city, which was attended by some twenty people, was a voyage through the history of infrastructure and how it ties into ongoing disparities.

Image: Google Earth
Image: Google Earth

Getting from the nearby neighborhood to this waterfront park by foot or bike requires navigating a giant freeway overpass/ramp complex with a narrow sidewalk and no bike lanes; 880 creates an effective barrier between the water and the community that is typical in Oakland. “We floated an idea of putting in K-rail or something on the overpass to create a place for pedestrians and bikes,” said Raburn, but to no avail.

880
I-880 divides East Oakland from the waterfront.

The stop at the Bay Trail park was near the end of the three-hour ride, which started at Rockridge BART. The ride was an educational tour of the pavement and infrastructure conditions in wealthier, well-connected (and historically white) neighborhoods versus the neighborhoods of East and West Oakland. Tom Holub, a planner with BikeLab, narrated most of the ride. “Cycling is a great way to get a feel for the city. And everywhere we go will be affected by the infrastructure.”

Holub talked about how freeways, the elevated BART tracks, and other large infrastructure projects divided communities. “We’ll discuss how decisions got made on infrastructure, and then hold in your minds… why has cycling and infrastructure and complete streets become identified with gentrification?”

Tom
Tom Holub lead the ride and explained the interplay between Oakland’s history, race relations, and infrastructure

On the way from Rockridge to Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the ride stopped in front of the elevated structure of the BART tracks that creates the first divide between Rockridge and points west. Holub explained how the Black Panther movement viewed black communities as a colonized nation within the U.S., almost like Algeria was occupied by France. The way the BART line and the freeway system was built through African-American communities reinforced that view. “The freeways and the BART project demolished housing. Like an occupying force, they literally destroyed houses by ramming through them with a surplus army tank,” he explained.

tank
Holub showed this sad picture of West Oakland homes getting demolished by a tank.

Before the freeway building age, West Oakland was actually the gateway for the entire Bay Area to the rest of the world. At Oakland’s main train station, seen below, passengers coming from as far away as Chicago would transfer to ferries or take Key-system trains (Oakland’s historic rail transit system) directly across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. “This station had a forty-foot ceiling–it wasn’t like the little whistle-stops we have today in Emeryville and Jack London,” said Raburn. “This was a first-class station.” Unfortunately, I-880 now makes it impossible to connect the station with any of the Bay Area’s rail lines and, of course, the Key car trains were removed from the Bay Bridge in 1958.

Oakland Station
Oakland Station, once the gateway to the entire Bay Area, was cut off and then abandoned

“This was the center of the East Bay,” said Holub. Not only did trains connect across the Bay, but the Key and Southern Pacific streetcar systems went all over Berkeley, Oakland and beyond. But then, of course, those systems were destroyed. “We started to build freeways that hemmed in the community.” That hemming-in continues to cost and stratify Oakland. It’s clearly evidenced by the quality of the street itself. In Rockridge, streets are lined with trees and the pavement is in relatively good condition. In West Oakland, the pavement is in terrible condition (as seen below). “The neighborhoods suffer from de-investment; the streets are un-rideable,” said Holub.

West Oakland pavement
The pavement in West Oakland is in terrible condition…and that’s not a coincidence, explained Holub

The riders then continued on to the edge of I-980, which splits downtown Oakland from West Oakland. “This is three blocks from City Hall,” said Holub, during a stop at the edge of the freeway. But, from that vantage point, downtown Oakland is a world away.

He explained that decisions about where to put the freeways correspond to the old “redlining” maps. Redlining was a racist policy of denying home loans to African Americans (or anyone who lived in predominantly African-American communities). “Once the federal government started insuring home loans, the only places that were seen as good investments didn’t have ‘negros’ living there,” as the old loan guidelines and bank documents dictated, said Holub. Deprived of the ability to borrow money, purchase homes, and accumulate wealth, black neighborhoods suffered–they were further deprived of basic services, and quickly became blighted. Then infrastructure, such as freeways, was put through these blighted neighborhoods, forever cutting them off from the economic region as a whole. “The old redlines from the 1930s match the racial divides we see today,” said Holub.

Victorian
One of the few Victorian homes in West Oakland that avoided destruction when I-980, just out of frame to the right, went in, splitting West Oakland from the rest of the city

This, he explained, is why suspicion of “complete streets” advocacy exists. “Just putting RB [of Scraper bikes, in the lead image] on the Oakland Bike and Pedestrian board doesn’t change the dynamics of the city.”

So what would change the dynamics of the city? Holub said that some of it will require repairing the fabric of the city, with proposals such as filling in I-980 and turning it into a boulevard, to reconnect West Oakland with downtown. That would be a good start, but there remain infrastructure divides throughout Oakland. The 66th Avenue Gateway park, mentioned at the start of this story, was completed in 2008 with Measure DD funds. DD was a $198.25 million bond measure for waterfront improvements.

But because of the physical divisions that remain throughout Oakland, there are still a lot of bridges that need building before neglected communities will have access to such parks and the other benefits of living in a diverse, economically strong and dynamic city. In addition to the physical divisions that need bridging, there’s the need to build trust between planners and the communities that have gotten so short-changed.

Moreover, Holub warns advocates to question complete streets plans–after all, the freeways and the elevated BART structure were originally sold as progress and as solutions to ‘blight.’ Instead, they reinforced redlining and segregation with concrete and rebar. “Be suspicious. Who is being left out of the plans this time?”

The survivors at the end of the ride, at Scraper Bikes. Photo: Cathy Leonard
The survivors at the end of the ride, at Scraper Bikes. Photo: Cathy Leonard
  • Mitchell

    Eliminating 980 and replacing it with a congested surface street will not make West Oakland more accessible; it will only act as a barrier, adding new conflict points between motorists and pedestrians, and pollution from idling cars. (The neighborhood’s already gentrifying, anyway — and 980 is an essential link for traffic or North Oakland and Contra Costa heading to the airport and points south.)

    Want connectivity? Widen the sidewalks on the many overpasses and add pedestrian amenities, for more of a “gateway” effect.

    The real problem is 880 between Jack London and Downtown/Chinatown — but it would be prohibitively expensive to replace. Removing the landscaped, sunken 980 (a freeway that actually works) is no consolation prize, except for those who merely value any opportunity to spite motorists for its own sake.

  • p_chazz

    “The ride was an educational tour of the pavement and infrastructure conditions in wealthier, well-connected (and historically white) neighborhoods versus the neighborhoods of East and West Oakland.” I suppose it’s impossible to write an article about Oakland without racial polemics, but I should like to point out that East and West Oakland were historically white, too. The Fruitvale district where I grew up was historically a German-American community before it became an Hispanic community. Blacks in large numbers did not arrive in Oakland from the south until WW2.

  • Rogue Cyclist

    *Raburn

  • Eric Johnson

    Never thought I’d see the day that StreetsblogsSF would be printing screeds against “complete streets” equating it to freeway building.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    Nonsense. Removing 980 would knit the neighborhood together and make it work for pedestrians once again, undoing some of the damage caused by this freeway.

    When you say that 980 is “a freeway that actually works,” you show that you have a bad case of windshield perspective.

  • Mitchell

    I lived at 12th & Market (west of the freeway) for seven years — most of that time without a car. I walked to Broadway nearly every day. Adding a “boulevard” with a street-level crossing would only have created new hazards, and wouldn’t have made my walk any shorter. (In fact, I encountered the overpass, heading west, as a signal that I was almost home — transitioning from commercial Downtown to residential West Oakland.) A landscaped overpass with pop-up concessions or other amenities would be all the improvement I might have liked to see.

    For some people, of course, the only sort of freeway that ever “works” is one that doesn’t exist.

  • Mitchell

    I live at 12th & Market (west of the freeway) for seven years, most of that time without a car. I walked to Broadway every day. Adding a “boulevard” with a street-level crossing would only create a new hazard. (In fact, heading west, I encountered the overpass as a transition or gateway from commercial Downtown to residential West Oakland — a signal that I was almost home.) A landscaped overpass with pop-up concessions or other amenities would be all the improvement I might have liked to see.

    Then again, for some people, the only sort of freeway that “works” is one that doesn’t exist.

  • Mitchell

    There’s a time and a place for everything. Every orthodoxy will eventually generate a dissent. “Don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin” (even if you wish it were a flat tire). 😉

  • Tom Holub

    Wow, how did you get that from this article?

    To be clear, I’ve been a car-free resident of SF and Oakland for almost 30 years. I love the concept of removing 980. I generally am supportive of transformative street projects. But every project happens in a physical context and a social context. When the context includes a community that has been historically disadvantaged by top-down infrastructural planning, and we [<–watch the pronouns: who are "we"?] are proposing an infrastructural change in spatial practice, those of us who care about social justice should work really hard to better understand that context.

    A part of my answer to the question that I posed ("why has bike infrastructure become identified with gentrification?") is that disadvantaged communities, almost by definition, feel that their voices are not represented in city processes, and that their experience of change processes is that outsiders have imposed upon them their own top-down utopian values and visions, without consideration of the effects on the community. And, that those effects have been devastating.

    A bike and pedestrian plan can't reproduce the physical devastation of a freeway plan. But if we develop a bike and pedestrian plan using the same processes we used to build the freeways, we can reinforce the social exclusions of the freeway era. And I can point to several bike planning disasters (not in Oakland, yet) which did exactly that.

    So: I like to think I care about equity and inclusion. I think most cycling advocates do. So we should ask, what would an inclusive, bottom-up process for a bike and pedestrian plan (or more generally, spatial transformation) look like in West Oakland? Are we following that process today? Who is included or excluded? If we're not asking those questions, we're likely to reimpose the existing social hierarchy on the new spatial hierarchy. And it shouldn't be hard to see why that's threatening to those at the bottom of the existing social hierarchy.

  • Tom Holub

    Absolutely true. Negros were 2.8% of Oakland in 1940 according to the U.S. Census. That percentage grew to 12.4% in 1950 and 22.8% in 1960, before eventually peaking at 47% in 1980 (re-termed as Black). “Spanish origin” was not a census category until 1970, when it represented 6.7% of the city; as of 2010 the category “Hispanic” is over 25%.

    Cities change. Many ethnic groups have been subject to historical exclusions. But the difference between the decline in the Italian/German/Irish populations of Oakland (or of the East Village, if you prefer Manhattan), and the decline of the Black/African-American population of those places, is that the declines of the now-identifed-as-White populations were the result of achieving higher status and moving to wealthier places, while the decline of Black/African-American population is largely the result of continued experience of disadvantaged status, and being forced to move to poorer places.

  • Tom Holub

    Thanks for joining us, Roger, and for the great summary of the ride.

    I truly believe in Enrique Peñalosa’s vision of the bicycle as a democratizing tool. For that to be a real thing, we need to ride to all areas of the city, talk to everyone who’s biking there, and understand what the bicycle means to them. This was a start!

    For anyone interested, the route we followed is available at https://ridewithgps.com/routes/27193233

    Or you could follow a more recreational route which touches a lot of the same places at https://inl.org/cycling/rides/tour-of-oakland/

  • Roger R.

    My pleasure. And thanks for a great tour.

  • Roger R.

    Oops. Thanks. Fixed.

  • Eric Johnson

    Hi Tom,

    Thank you for your reply. I certainly agree with the gist. I think Roger’s last paragraph in particular came off as a bit abrupt and I appreciate you fleshing it out.

    I am curious about the specifics of those “bike planning disasters” and what we can learn from them.

  • Tom Holub

    The two disasters (my term, but I think it’s appropriate) I studied substantially were the Northside Greenway in Minneapolis, and the Southern Walnut Creek Trail in Austin. Both involved disadvantaged communities who felt they had had bike infrastructure imposed upon them. The situations were very different in their specifics; in Austin, the community was more or less excluded from the process (and even the infrastructure itself), while in Minneapolis, advocates did a lot of community outreach (three different consulting contracts over four years), but failed to authentically connect with neighborhood, which resulted in a pissed-off community that petitioned the city to get the infrastructure removed. My take is that advocates saw their task as marketing their vision rather than engaging with the community.

    Real engagement in a disadvantaged community is messy. It involves a slow process of identifying and sitting down with community leaders, being humble, and listening a lot. It takes time, but it’s really necessary if you want to address historical disadvantages. Especially if you’re coming from a historically advantaged community, as I am, along with many traditional
    bike advocates.

    James Rojas has done some good work on positive, inclusive process. I think the Lafitte Greenway in New Orleans may be a model of a successful engagement process, though I haven’t studied it in depth.

  • Roger R.

    Hmm. Sorry. Maybe because I had “complete streets” in quotes, which may have made it sound as if I was questioning the very possibility of a complete street? Anyway, I took out the quotes. Do think that helped?

  • I used to ride across 980 twice a day. I think you’re greatly minimizing the obstacle that it, and the freeway frontage side streets, creates. It’s wider than the blocks around it and you have to choose your cross streets to find a bridge (walking) that goes the right way (vehicular).

  • Mitchell

    As it happens, I lived at 12th & Market (west of the freeway) for seven years — most of that time without a car. I walked to Broadway nearly every day. Adding a “boulevard” with a street-level crossing would only have created new hazards (and the need for “refuge”), and wouldn’t have made my walk any shorter. (In fact, I encountered the overpass, heading west, as a transition or gateway from commercial Downtown to residential West Oakland — a signal that I was almost home.) A landscaped overpass with pop-up concessions or park-like amenities would be all the improvement I might have liked to see.

    For some people, of course, the only sort of freeway that ever ”works” is one that doesn’t exist.

  • Eric Johnson

    I reread the whole thing and it’s still striking me the same way. I don’t know what all Tom said on the tour or what you actually heard, but what you wrote goes “Look at all the terrible stuff that happened in the past. Beware ‘Complete Streets’.”

  • joechoj

    Every time I hear talk of replacing 980 with a Boulevard, I have to point out just how far astray from ‘complete street’ the boulevard designs have been. While I love the idea of turning 980 into something that better serves transit & vibrant street life, the renderings show a bloated, stretched, space-wasting design that ultimately retains the current vast distance between activated retail, homes & other points of interest.
    Far better to build a well-designed, compact street and use the remaining area for much-needed green space, sports courts, & performance spaces interspersed with pop-up vending.
    Thanks for the Oakland coverage.

  • crazyvag

    I agree with you to some extent, let’s agree that it will better than what’s the today. Compare today’s Octavia Blvd vs old elevated Central Freeway… Octavia is still fill of traffic, but traffic is confined to two narrow lanes which keep speeds down and crossing distances short. It’s a much better experience when compared to Division & Folsom in SF, but I’m sure there’s more room for improvement.

  • Mitchell

    No, this “boulevard” won’t be better than what’s there now — and I’ve explained why. Octavia is not an equivalent. 980 isn’t an elevated hulk; it’s landscaped and sunken beneath street-level; the overcrossings (on nearly every block) can themselves be improved. No need to dump through traffic onto surface streets, let alone slow it down.

  • Mitchell

    “Knit the neighborhood together”? I’ve described my experience as a pedestrian actually living there. Meanwhile, a windshield perspective remains one perspective among many. That’s a far cry from denying that it’s ever a legitimate perspective at all.

  • SF Guest

    How do you equate manufactured induced traffic and added pollution on surface streets as being ‘better’ than a multi-lane elevated freeway?

  • Mitchell

    That segment of 980 isn’t even elevated. It runs below street-level, between landscaped embankments.

  • SF Guest

    And what no one else mentions here but you is removing 980 would remove an essential direct link from North Oakland and Contra Costa County which would unnecessarily force those commuters onto the already horrendous busy I-80 corridor known as the maze.

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