Calling Attention to a Dangerous Crossing in Berkeley

Caltrans plans to add a pedestrian beacon at busy crossing, but without bicycle detection

Volunteers showed up at San Pablo and Virginia to bring attention to the difficulties bicyclists and pedestrians have crossing here. All photos by Melanie Curry/Streetsblog
Volunteers showed up at San Pablo and Virginia to bring attention to the difficulties bicyclists and pedestrians have crossing here. All photos by Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

Concerned parents held signs and acted as crossing guards this morning at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Virginia Street in Berkeley to draw attention to the dangerous conditions there for bike riders and people walking.

San Pablo is a state highway, so it is under the control of Caltrans, not the City of Berkeley. Caltrans is planning to install a button-activated signal called a “pedestrian hybrid beacon” at that intersection some time in 2019. Getting it installed will be a huge help for parents wanting to walk or ride bikes with their kids to nearby schools.

But the organizers say it’s not enough.

Volunteers stopped traffic so bike riders, including families, could cross safely.
Volunteers stopped traffic so bike riders, including families, could cross safely.

“Many parents are rightfully concerned about their children walking or biking to school because they have to dodge traffic at intersections like San Pablo at Virginia,” said Liza Lutzker, a local parent and Safe Routes to School volunteer. “So they stick to their cars instead. If we are serious about meeting our climate goals and protecting our kids, we need to fix these high-stress intersections now.”

The planned pedestrian beacon won’t include bicycle detection or any other way for bike riders to trigger the flashing lights to warn drivers to stop. That’s a problem, because Virginia Street is one of Berkeley’s Bike Boulevards. The city’s Bike Boulevard “network” is supposed to offer low-stress alternatives to busy main corridors with quieter routes along parallel streets.

But while the boulevards themselves may be relatively safe and quiet, the “network” breaks down at busy intersections. Where the Virginia Bike Boulevard hits San Pablo, riders must cross four busy traffic lanes. Drivers move fast along San Pablo, and the crossing feels treacherous, even with the yellow zebra crosswalk and the median refuge.

So this morning a few people headed out to demonstrate how great it could be and to get support for adding bicycle detection to the planned pedestrian beacon.

Holding up signs urging people to honk in support and stop for pedestrians and bicycles (see pictures) they helped people cross the street at Virginia and San Pablo.

Liza Lu
Liza Lutzker got drivers honking.

Noah Parolek, an eight-year-old out helping the volunteers, counted more than fifty bikes during the hour-plus that the street corners were manned. He also counted more than twenty pedestrians—and almost 200 honks from drivers in response to the signs.

“Can we interpret those honks as being from people who would rather be on a bike?” asked Phil Morton, one of the participants.

The traffic was no joke, despite all the waving and honking and generally cheery responses. Several times volunteers headed out into the crosswalk and drivers just kept driving through, even though they wore bright vests and carried huge signs–and blew whistles. A few cars using Virginia tried to take advantage of the gaps created by the “crossing guards” to turn right onto San Pablo, in front of or around people trying to cross.

Several truck drivers, including a city truck and a garbage truck, crossed San Pablo by creeping out into the intersection, using the size of their vehicles to intimidate other drivers into stopping. But that’s hardly an option for a person on foot or bike, especially when drivers are focused on the traffic in front of them.

People who got the unexpected help to cross smiled and expressed their appreciation. One pedestrian grinned as the volunteers stopped traffic for him. “This is the safest I’ve ever felt crossing this street,” he said.

“If there was always this level of control, I’d feel a lot safer crossing here with my kids,” said Lutzker.

Another volunteer, Monika Mann, showed up because she knows exactly how difficult it is to cross here. She was hit by a truck when she tried to cross San Pablo about a half mile south. “I got off and walked my bike, I did everything to make sure I crossed safely,” she said, “and I was still hit.”

traffic
Volunteers used cones to create temporary bulbouts. Traffic on San Pablo was fast and heavy.

The driver of the truck took off, but she was able to get the license plate and that person was later arrested, she added. She had jumped back at the last second and her bike took the brunt of the crash.

“It’s important that Berkeley amp up its bike infrastructure,” she said. “I think we have something like the third highest proportion of people who bike, but we don’t have the infrastructure to keep them safe. And the Bike Boulevards are not complete,” she said as a bicyclist pulled up, wanting to cross.

“These are important environmental and public health issues,” she added.

Ben Gerhardstein, who helped organize the event, was pleased with the results. “Today we heard time and again from people walking how much they appreciate a low-stress experience on San Pablo and Virginia,” he said. “If we were to do this at all bike boulevard intersections, we’ll see a lot more biking and walking in Berkeley.”

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    Pedestrian flashing becons don’t work at all on busy 4 lane roads. There’ve been so many fatalities that those useless flashing becons are being ripped out of streets in SF, being replaced with regular traffic signals because that’s the only thing that gets drivers to stop mid-block for pedestrians.

    It’s frustrating that traffic engineers actually think flashing becons are a useful solution.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Is the idea that caltrans autocratically dictates conditions on state routes real, or is it just something that cities say to get out of having to work on pedestrian and bicycle safety? The existence of CA-13 upon Ashby doesn’t seem to have stopped Berkeley from putting in bulb-outs and crosswalks on that road.

  • plasm980

    How about adding a button activated red light? It would stay green unless activated by a pedestrian or cyclist.

  • Flatlander

    The peer-reviewed literature on RRFBs is very positive (just google it, there are tons of citations), and I’m not aware of any fatalities in SF that occurred due to a motorist failing to yield to a ped who had activated an RRFB (doesn’t mean it’s never happened, but “so many fatalities” makes it sound like it’s a collision pattern in and of itself, of which I am very skeptical)

    Are you thinking of in-pavement flashers? Those are not as well-regarded

  • Aaron

    Fantastic!

    Of course, this action would have been equally beneficial at Virginia and Sacramento or Virginia and MLK. I cross the former with my kid once a week returning from Totland Park and am quite used to being the human shield as SOP, not a protest.

    The action would be equally meaningful at Channing and San Pablo, Channing also a Berkeley bike avenue with no controlled crossing of San Pablo, greatly reducing Channing’s appeal in that area.

    And then there is Allston and San Pablo, which I cross with a kid on bike twice a day. While not a bike avenue for some odd reason, it does have a light which is a huge help. All the same, it’s pretty sketchy for a road that has Rosa Parks Elementary School on one side and Strawberry Creek Park and the West St bike path on the other. Much of the danger we encounter on Allston is from parents shuttling kids by car.

    9th Avenue, the logical parallel alternative to San Pablo Ave boasts decent bike traffic with at least 3 schools and a major grocery store south of University, could very much benefit from improvement. There seems to be advocacy plans focusing on San Pablo brewing, but the lower hanging fruit of adjacent 9th is a mess and a prime example that putting up purple signs isn’t quite enough to calm traffic.

  • Aaron

    In Berkeley, a button activated red light is used where the West St. bike path crosses University (comparable to San Pablo Ave.) It works very well… though I still see cars run it every now and then. It definitely works better than the button activated yellow flashers a couple blocks north where the same bike path crosses (mellower) Delaware. There I think it’s more my aggressive rolling into the road than the lights that stops traffic.

    Either solution is preferable to the “State Law Requires…” signs, which are confusing and toothless. Those should be ripped out and changed to bona fide stop signs.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    How about the two deaths on the crosswalk in the foot of city hall before they finally installed a real traffic signal? Anyone who has ever tried to cross a 4 lane road with high speed vehicles knows full well that many drivers will not stop or even slow down because there’s an overpriced blinking yellow light. There were multiple fatalities and serious injuries at mid-block crosswalks with these in SF not just in the steps of city hall. They are effectively worthless because there is no measurable decrease in pedestrian collisions at 4 lane crosswalks that have them installed.

    The only way to get cars to stop is with a real red light. Why don’t they one in? Obviously they care more about saving drivers a few seconds then they do about the lives and safety of people walking and biking, which is typical behavior for Berkeley.

  • Flatlander

    Oh, sure, I’ll take your “anyone knows” over the actual research on the subject. There wasn’t an RRFB at City Hall

    And on the contrary, ped signals make it slower and less convenient to cross the street for a pedestrian in that a traffic signal requires upi to wait for the light to turn yellow (which probably won’t happen right away), then red, before crossing. Whereas with an RRFB, you have the right of way immediately. Ped signals have their uses, but to claim that they’re strictly better than RRFBs is frankly wrong.

  • plasm980

    Even with the RRFB, you’d still have to wait for drivers to react, slow down, and stop. You wouldn’t go into the street immediately after pressing the button because you’d be hit by someone who didn’t have time to stop before passing through the crosswalk. In terms of waiting time for the pedestrian or cyclist, it seems pretty similar to a light that turns yellow then red.

  • Stuart

    Define “very positive”.

    The study that seems to come up the most in top results said that RRFBs increased yield compliance from 18% to 81-88% (depending on the exact configuration). 88% is lot better than 18%, but if your goal is zero pedestrian deaths then 88% is still awful. Do you see a lot of red lights where 12% of drivers run them (and moreover, that’s consider good)?

  • Stuart

    Whereas with an RRFB, you have the right of way immediately.

    That’s true without the RRFB as well. If drivers were reliably paying enough attention to spot pedestrians at/in a crosswalk (such that it would be safe to start crossing immediately after you push the button), discussions about what kind of extra signals we need to actually get drivers to stop wouldn’t be happening in the first place.

  • I don’t have an answer, but it was certainly the excuse given for 6th & Brannan in SF….gotta let those cars off the freeway at speed.

  • Flatlander

    I don’t know about you, but my experience with ped signals is that they seldom change for a ped right away, especially on a higher-volume street or if it has recently been triggered for another ped. But RRFBs activate immediately.

    I think some people have mentioned the intersection of the bike path with University in Berkeley, and I know I’ve waited a long time for that light to change. In that case, I’d rather have an RRFB so I can cross right away.

  • Ben Gerhardstein

    Just to be clear, Caltrans is planning a pedestrian hybrid beacon for the VA/SP intersection where we did this event yesterday, not an RRFB. But, they are planning RRFBs for San Pablo & Hearst and Ashby & California.

    I think the evidence shows that RRFBs are a useful tool for enhancing pedestrian safety. But to be effective they need to be used sparingly, only in appropriate situations (e.g. not a high speed 4 lane arterial without a refuge), and ideally paired with traffic calming.

    We’re in the middle of a hearty debate in Berkeley re: RRFBs at bicycle boulevard intersections. The evidence that they work well for motorists yielding to cyclists is very very thin. So, we’ve recently requested that the city evaluate the RRFBs that have been installed at bike blvd crossings to see how well they work before installing any more. I’m not optimistic about that evaluation happening though. So, in the meantime, we want the city to rely on stop signs or PHBs exclusively at bicycle boulevard intersections.

  • Ben Gerhardstein

    Agree agree agree. The VA/SP event made a lot of morning commuters happy. I’d love to do it at other locations. Let’s make it happen.

  • Melanie Curry

    Signals are set to synchronize with each other, so they won’t change immediately unless that happens to coincide with the timing of other nearby signals. For example: people think the bicycle detection at certain crossings (Woolsey and Telegraph, Fulton and Ashby) doesn’t work–it does, but it won’t change the light right away.

  • Stuart

    There’s nothing intrinsic about round red lights vs. rectangular yellow ones that makes that an unalterable truth though.

    I should have been clear that my comment was about what should be done, based on working forward from first principles, rather than what might currently happen by default with each option. And the basic principle is that we’re starting from a crosswalk that has no signal, which means that the desired behavior is that pedestrians have the right of way, immediately. The problem that we want to fix is that cars are failing to yield (as they are legally required to do). Options for addressing that problem that include:
    1) RRFB that’s synchronized to nearby lights. Lower compliance than a red light, does make pedestrian wait.
    2) RRFB that triggers immediately. Lower compliance than a red light, doesn’t make the pedestrian wait.
    3) Standard traffic light that changes only on demand, but synchronizes the demand-based red to nearby lights. Better compliance, does make the pedestrian wait.
    4) Standard traffic light that changes only on demand immediately. Better compliance, doesn’t make the pedestrian wait.

    (3/4 could be HAWKs instead, if compliance is comparable with a standard signal; I know it’s better than RRFB, but not how it compares to standard signals.)

    The best option to get the behavior we wanted in the first place is clearly 4. If there’s a convention or a rule that says we have pick either 2 or 3, then that’s a bad rule, and we should be fighting to change it.

    In the short term maybe we have to settle for picking between 2 and 3, but changing stupid rules is a lot of what pedestrian advocacy is about. We shouldn’t abandon the longer-term fight of making the rules work for pedestrians; we shouldn’t have to give up the convenience of crosswalks to get physical measures installed to make drivers obey the law they are already supposed to be following.

  • Stuart

    Sure, but my experience is also that people have built 4-lane one-way roads that encourage speeding through areas with a lot of pedestrians. That doesn’t make it a good idea, or something we have to accept. See my response to Melanie’s comment.

  • Jean Ann Smith

    If you want another deadly intersection, try Sixth and Addison. It’s “right turn only” on Addison, so, of course, drivers disregard this and put out onto Sixth Street and wind up getting broadsided. There are no stop signs on Sixth Street, so drivers can get up quite a head of steam speeding towards University Avenue. And now there are huge apartment buildings going in which has only increased the foot traffic. Where do all these pedestrians cross on their way to San Pablo from 4th Street? Right across Sixth Street, dodging traffic all the way. We’ve had multiple horrible accidents in recent years, including a child hit while crossing. Does the City do anything to mitigate this? Nope.
    So I’ll continue to call 911 when I hear the lovely sound of tires screaming and metal crumpling. Then I’ll watch out my window as four police cars and two firetrucks show up to handle the crash. Because, after all, the police have nothing better to do than clean up after the City’s failure to act (REALLY heavy eye roll).

  • Don Nelson

    I went to Franklin School Over 65 years ago and it was a dangerous Crossing then. What’s the matter with my old hometown?

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