SPUR Talk: OakDOT Director Kelley Says Protected Bike Lanes Should Be the Default
... before hedging his statement with a list of exceptions and political qualifications and "trade-offs"
3:56 PM PDT on September 6, 2023
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A four-year-old girl, riding on the back of her father's bike, was severely injured on August 6 when a motorist doored them at Lakeshore and Hanover. She died six days later of her injuries. Oakland DOT's director, Fred Kelley, was asked about the tragedy and other transportation issues Wednesday during an hour-long question and answer session conducted by SPUR's Transportation Policy Manager Jonathon Kass. Below is the interview, condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Jonathon Kass: You became director of Oakland's Department of Transportation in July of 2022. Tell us about your background and overarching philosophy.
Fred Kelley: Government, historically, on various levels, has failed us. It has especially failed marginalized communities in investments, dividing resources, and assuring health and safety outcomes in those communities. I joined OakDOT because of the amazing work they have done in a short period. They’ve been an agency trying to deal with systemic and institutional inequities. I started in January of 2022. With Ryan Russo’s departure, in April I became acting director and became director in July of 2022, so we just passed my one-year anniversary as Oakland’s director.
JK: I want to jump in with a timely issue that relates to equity. There’s a bill coming to the California Senate to pilot Automated Speed Enforcement (ASE) in Oakland. Can you tell us how you think about the role of enforcement
relative to roadway design changes?
FK: ASE gives us an additional tool to fight the uptick in traffic violence. I was asked to testify in July before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Oakland is one of six pilot cities and we’ve worked together with those cities and Assembly staff to drill down and address privacy and equity concerns so those wouldn't be a rationale for the bill to be rejected or put on hold again. This is the third or fourth year the bill has been introduced and it's the furthest it’s gone. We wholeheartedly support A.B. 645 as a tool to address traffic violence in addition to the work we do in redesigning our roadways. As to how to implement the pilot, my goal is to talk with the ACLU, BLM, and the Anti Police-Terror Project and try to alleviate and address their concerns.
JK: Is ASE about revenue? And how do you interact with the police department about traffic enforcement generally?
FK: ASE is not a revenue issue, this is a trying-to-save-lives issue. This bill takes away human interaction between police departments and individuals who may be recklessly driving. If this bill fails, we cannot go back to the status quo,
because that means it’s black and brown people disproportionately injured and killed.
JK: What's the interplay between DOT and AC Transit?
FK: We need them. They give people an affordable transit option. With our projects, we have to look at how we prioritize modes. Is a corridor a transit priority corridor? Is bike and pedestrian the priority? Is parking? We all dislike it, but parking is a factor politically. We need to work side-by-side with AC Transit to understand compromises to existing right-of-way to benefit marginalized communities. Other cities are going through the same questions: how do we do a road diet or speed cushions? Those are designed to slow traffic down, but they also slow down the speeds of transit buses. So it becomes a matter of what’s more important, the loss of travel time or reliability? These are trade-offs with our partners at AC Transit to work with.
JK: There was a four-year-old on the back of her father’s bike, in a kid's bicycle seat, and she died after being doored. There’s been a lot of outcry about the design of these bicycle facilities. What do you do to consider design, policy changes?
FK: It’s a combination of short-term and long-term whenever there’s any incident. DOT has a rapid reaction crew that meets with the police department and typically within a day or two of the incident they share information with us that’s typically not shared with the public. Many times there’s misinformation as to what occurred and how it occurred. These meetings buy an opportunity to hear firsthand from the investigators and then to go back to determine if there are immediate design revisions that can be made in two weeks, three weeks, a month... and then we look at long-term solutions. I know Lakeside was on the 2019 bike plan and I believe it called for protected bike lanes. These are trade-offs we have to discuss from a political standpoint. There’s only so much right of way, and we’re going to have some hard discussions in what’s the trade-off in making a protected bike lane. Some two or three feet? Does it mean eliminating parking? What's going to be the feedback from the residents and the business community? These are going to be community and policy-driven discussions that will happen in the long term. In the short term, in the next week or so, we will implement our rapid response to the incident.
JK: What is OakDOT doing to fulfill its capital projects?
FK: We are slated in the next three to five years to deliver approximately half a billion dollars in infrastructure projects in Oakland, maybe even three-quarters of a billion. Our teams have been immensely successful in getting funds. But now you have to deliver those projects. That’s where the rubber meets the road. Since I’ve started we’ve been between a 25 and 33 percent [staff] vacancy rate. We are indeed hiring engineers, planners, and parking control technicians. We are in dire need of help to deliver on our promises. We made a promise to deliver on projects. Mayor Thao has declared a hiring blitz and energized the human resources department to do whatever can be done to eliminate hurdles and obstacles. We’ve got to eliminate delays. We’ve lost individuals between the time they submit their application and an interview.
JK: There’s a lot of talk of using transportation investment to reduce segregation. What is transportation's role in integrating the city? How does that filter into specific projects or programs?
FK: How do we undo the harm? Let’s talk about one near and dear to my heart. Last year AC Transit and Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Secretary Pete Buttigieg and I did a tour of Oakland and the 980 corridor. We wanted to give him a clear understanding of how Interstate 980 divided a community. The Secretary committed to working with us to see what can be done to remove the remnants of these discriminatory practices. As you know, Caltrans is now studying, at urging from the DOT and the city council, looking at what can be done to mitigate the harm of the 980 freeway--and what it would take to reconnect those communities by removing that infrastructure.
JK: What do you hope will be your legacy?
FK: Setting the department to excel into the next decade. To continue the legacy that was part of the birth of OakDOT and make equity our north star of everything we do every single day.
JK: Before we finish, one more question about the four-year-old who was killed. If we had more protected bicycle lanes and kept cyclists out of the door zones we can avoid these incidents. You noted this is a trade-off. But is this a case where you are allowed to have that trade-off? Is this a case where you have to act for safety, even when residents show up and say loss of parking, etc. “is inconvenient?”
FK: The uptick in traffic violence is not just in Oakland, but across the nation. Our job is to provide viable options to the policymakers. To provide viable, forward-thinking options for them to make the hard policy issues. Because at the end of the day, it’s a policy decision and we have to present and advocate for certain outcomes. At that point, it becomes the role of policymakers. But let me touch base on protected bike lanes since it comes up from time to time. From my perspective, the default, if we were starting all over again, the default would be protected bike lanes. But that's also a phenomenon where one size does not fit all. Maybe not on short blocks or streets with multiple driveways. I would say "yes," protected bike lanes as the default. But are they feasible in every situation? Not necessarily. We have to present them as options and understand the trade-offs.
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