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Bike boulevard becoming a Berkeley reality

By Erika Fricke Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday February 21, 2001

Bright purple signs along Bowditch Street and Hillegass Avenue declare the streets to be “bicycle boulevards.”  

But does decreeing it make it so? While parts of the quiet residential streets seemed a bicycle haven Tuesday, the intersection at busy Dwight Way, which runs straight through the boulevard could shatter a biker’s nerve. Although another purple placard signaled the bicycle boulevard crossing, drivers on Dwight rushed by, ignoring the sign along with the cyclists and pedestrians waiting  

to cross.  

“If they really wanted to do something for cyclists they’d close off the street,” said Manuel Vallee who cycled down Bowditch to campus midday. “Having pretty signs is just manipulation. It’s all for show.” 

Berkeley officials said they hope a series of bicycle boulevards, roads particularly amenable to cyclists, will increase bike traffic throughout the city. The first part of implementation, the signs decreeing the Hillegass/Bowditch bikeway, went up last week. Rochelle Wheeler, senior planner, said that the rest of the signs should be up by the end of the year. But everyone agrees it will take more than signs to create bicycle-safe streets. 

Quoting the most recent census, Sarah Syed, program coordinator of the Bicycle-Friendly Berkeley Coalition said that only 10 percent of the people who live and work in Berkeley bike to work. She compared that to cities in Europe where up to 30 percent of the population bikes to work. The most recent data from the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Task Force discovered Berkeley has four times the number of bicycle injuries compared to similarly-sized cities in California. 

Bicycle boulevards are supposed to resolve the paradox. On the boulevards cyclists and automobiles are supposed to exist on an equal footing, said David Campbell, president of Bicycle-Friendly Berkeley Coalition. “The intent would be that everyone shares the road equally,” he said. “The cyclist can ride down the middle of the lane and the car is expected to pass them as they would another car. The cyclist uses the street like anybody else uses the street.” 

Cyclist Vallee was not impressed with the idea that cars and bikes could share the road. “That’s already the case according to California law,” he said. Although laws for all streets are the same, Syed hoped the signs would create an impression that cars are “guests” on bike boulevards. 

The boulevards are based on Bryant Street, a Palo Alto street dedicated to cyclists. Former Palo Alto Councilmember Ellen Fletcher was instrumental in promoting that bike boulevard. She described it as a “tremendous success.” “It has the advantage of attracting novices because there’s less traffic,” she said. “And also the gung-ho cyclists.” 

An important part of making the Palo Alto system work was removing stop signs along the bike routes so that cyclists could ride straight through, while making it difficult for cars to do the same. Traffic calming devices to slow cars, and stop signs facing cross streets make the bike boulevard work, she said. 

In Berkeley, planners chose residential, quiet streets, already equipped with traffic calming barriers to serve as bike boulevards. In addition, planners will coordinate with neighbors to choose from a “tool-kit” of traffic calming devices to ensure that traffic along bike boulevards goes slow, even when stop signs are removed. “Generally the wider and straighter a street, the faster a car will go,” said Campbell of Bicycle-Friendly Berkeley. “A traffic circle actually creates vegetation in the middle of the street that tells the motorist and everybody else that they have to slow down.”  

Other pro-bicycle techniques include lights that change to green automatically for cyclists, such as the one at Martin Luther King Jr. and Channing ways, and a painted square at the front of an intersection, where bikes can wait in front of a line of cars, and make their turns first without weaving in and out of traffic. The city expects to spend $2 to $3 million dollars on the project, much of which will go for traffic lights. 

While one passerby who was driving said that slow traffic sounded like a good idea, Joseph Johnson Sr. laughed. “I think at first people are going to be a little frustrated,” he said.  

But automobile drivers aren’t the only ones that are going to have to be convinced about the new bicycle routes.  

Tangent rode his bike Tuesday on Telegraph Avenue – on the sidewalk. “I have little to no respect for bicycle laws,” he said. “I’ve been hit too many times by cars.” He said he didn’t think anything short of getting cars off the road would create a respectful relationship between riders and drivers.  

Bike boulevard advocates hope time will prove him wrong. “In it’s inception it was a very powerful vision,” said Jen Collins, program coordinator for the Bicycle-Friendly Berkeley group. “While it’s definitely moving forward, it’s being gradually watered down.” She said plans for car-free streets, and boulevards with different colored pavement have been discarded; nonetheless, she believed that changing drivers’ mentality could make a difference.  

Tuesday afternoon, the ride along the bicycle boulevard was calm: no cars double parked in the middle of the street, no buses pulled over into the bike lane. One bicyclist rode in the center of the lane, experimenting with the sensation that the road belonged to bike and rider. A block over, on busy College Avenue, cars whizzed past and signs for four different buses pockmarked the side of the road. A purple sign encouraged cyclers to detour left onto the bicycle boulevard. The advice made sense.