Commentary: Let’s Talk About Car-Free Broadway

How come San Francisco's main commercial street is car free, but Oakland's continues to be a traffic sewer?

An unintentional car-free Broadway, late in the marathon on Sunday. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
An unintentional car-free Broadway, late in the marathon on Sunday. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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Two or three times a week I ride my bike through Oakland from my home in Jack London Square to a fitness class on Piedmont Avenue.

I ride a circuitous route to make use of the short segment of protected bike lane on Lakeside and to avoid riding on Broadway as much as possible, since I find it to be a particularly stressful street, full of impatient, aggressive motorists. I’m still forced to ride on Broadway for part of the trip, making the best of its narrow, door-zone, always-blocked bike lanes. I’ve basically never done the ride without having at least one scary close-call with a motorist running a red light (as happened today) or cutting through the bike lane to go around stopped cars.

Until last Sunday.

As I rode back from my class in the afternoon I realized most of Broadway was closed to car traffic for the Oakland marathon. It was late enough that there were few runners left.

So, for one day, Broadway was an unintentional pedestrian and bicycle paradise. I took it most of the way home.

I’ve never felt so calm riding a bike in Oakland before. It was like I’d been magically transported to the Netherlands for a few minutes. There was only one other occasion where riding on a major street in the Bay Area felt similar–it was on the opening day of car-free Market Street at the start of 2020 (shortly before COVID).

There were still cars on Broadway, but the police cordoned them off at intersections. Motorists crossed slowly, politely, with civility and consideration, under the watchful eyes of Oakland police officers directing traffic.

Pedestrians calmly crossing an intersection on Broadway.
Pedestrians calmly crossing an intersection on Broadway.

It’s funny how nice motorists can be when the threat of a citation is immediate and credible.

OPD directing cars through intersections on car-free Broadway
OPD directing cars through intersections on car-free Broadway

Think of the similarities. Market Street is San Francisco’s main commercial thoroughfare. Broadway is Oakland’s. Market Street has BART and multiple Muni lines, so there are very viable alternatives to driving for everyone. Broadway has BART and multiple AC Transit lines. Both terminate at an Embarcadero with ferry services. Both have nearby freeways that parallel, I-80 for Market Street and I-980 for Broadway.

Albeit, Broadway doesn’t have streetcars or a light-rail subway. But that’s an accident of history because Oakland’s historic Key System street railway was destroyed.

The "boat train" carried VIPs on a car-free tour of Market Street when it opened in ???
The “boat train” carried VIPs on a car-free tour of Market Street when it opened in 2020.

Meanwhile, the only safety project Oakland has in the works for the street is the “Broadway Betterment Traffic Safety Improvement Project.” But that modest project only runs a few blocks. From the OakDOT project page:

The Oakland Department of Transportation (OakDOT) is proposing safety improvements on Broadway between Embarcadero and 6th Street for summer/fall 2019. Currently, Broadway is part of Oakland’s High Injury Network, meaning it has a high rate of serious and fatal crashes. These are mostly due to speeding and poor pedestrian visibility.

What about the rest of Broadway? The plan is mostly just to leave it a high-injury corridor.

The 980 Freeway parallels Broadway just a couple of blocks away. Would Broadway even be missed by motorists?
The 980 Freeway parallels Broadway just a couple of blocks away. Would Broadway even be missed by motorists?

“I proposed this [car-free Broadway] many years ago as part of the Downtown Specific Plan, and it was shot down, even with National-class designers working on the project,” wrote Bike East Bay’s Dave Campbell. He told Streetsblog his group needs to focus on projects that are currently in play. “Let’s get 14th approved first, okay?”

Fair enough. But wouldn’t it be great if 14th intersected with a car-free Broadway? How about starting with a pilot to close a stretch of it on Sundays, as was done for the marathon?

If car-free Market in San Francisco went from “radical” to reality two years ago and Berkeley is talking seriously about car-free Telegraph now, maybe it is time to think about it for Broadway in Oakland. Or is it too much to ask to have one stretch of street, out of all the thousands of lane miles of street and freeway in Oakland, where motorists don’t dominate?

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