Although Berkeley residents have refused to take up speed radar guns as residents did in Arlington, Va., they are nonetheless determined to slow and decrease traffic on their streets.
“There seems to be this sense among people that they have a God-given right to go as fast as they want at all times,” said Berkeley resident Dr. Chris Dutra who works in the emergency room at Kaiser Permanente Hospital and has treated collision victims.
“I’ve seen what speed and force can do to the human body,” he said.
Dutra was among the 40 residents at the South Berkeley Senior Center who attended the first in a series of five city-run workshops on traffic control. Although the city’s bicycle and pedestrian safety task force says that fatal collisions involving bicyclists or pedestrians are rare in Berkeley, the number of pedestrians injured from 1994-1998 averaged 143 per year.
The city claims twice the rate of pedestrian injuries than does the state of California as a whole and has the highest pedestrian injury rate among 44 cities of similar size.
“We’re frustrated with traffic calming because Berkeley has a pretty ad hoc system,” said Richard Thomason, transportation commissioner and chair of the Transportation Commission’s traffic calming subcommittee.
Nathan Landau, a senior planner at the city’s Planning and Development Department, told residents that Berkeley’s
grid system, laid out before the automobile arrived, has been under particular strain because the number of automobiles has jumped significantly in the last thirty years.
“Between 1970 and 1990 we lost 10,000 residents, but we gained 10,000 cars,” he said.
The workshops are designed to inform residents about new city procedures to implement traffic controls – referred to throughout the evening as traffic calming – and provide residents with an open forum.
Ultimately, the community input will be incorporated into the City Council’s final plan.
At Monday night’s meeting, Landau and others described the range of traffic-calming “tools” available for neighborhoods to take control of traffic problems. They might include stop signs, diverters, median barriers, lane narrowing and traffic circles.
The list doesn’t include speed humps. After an outcry from disabled residents, who said the bumps can cause great pain and even injury to disabled and elderly people, the city put a temporary moratorium on speed bumps in 1995.
Landau said that change will begin with a citizen’s request. City engineers will evaluate the problem the resident has described. If they find it serious enough, public meetings will be held and task forces formed to consider solutions.
If a problem exists, but is not urgent, the resident must circulate a petition asking for traffic control measures. The petition must be signed by 51 percent of the households in the area. Following this, an education and enforcement plan will be put in place that might include signs warning motorists to slow down or radar trailers, which show drivers their speed.
After a three-to-six month evaluation, the city can either proceed with public hearings and task forces or it may decide that no action is warranted. If the city opts for control measures, ballots will be sent to neighborhood residents. Half of the households must vote and of those and a two-thirds vote is required. Any final changes must then be approved by the Transportation Commission and City Council.
“We’ve set a high threshold,” Landau said. “It has to be a neighborhood plan under the proposal or it’s going to die on the vine.”
Some residents complained the threshold was set too high. “On all the other streets besides ours everyone has speed bumps,” said Ann Sieck, who said she doubted that her street would come up with the necessary votes for available traffic control measures.
“One of my neighbors has grandkids,” she said. “Does one of them have to be killed before something gets done?”
The next Traffic Calming Workshop will be at 7 p.m. Sept. 28, at the West Berkeley Senior Center, 1900 Sixth St.