Car-free downtown could be a reality for Berkeley

By Jia-Rui Chong Daily Planet staff
Tuesday March 19, 2002

Berkeley could soon join cities like San Francisco that regularly set aside a car-free area, if a project presented last week to the city’s Transportation Commission is given the green light. 

At Thursday night’s meeting, Transportation Commissioner Dean Metzger proposed that, as part of the national Try Transit Week, a rectangle of downtown Berkeley could be reserved for buses, bicycles and pedestrians on Sept. 7 and 8 at the end of that special week. 

The car-free area would be bordered by University Avenue, Oxford Street, Bancroft Way and Milvia Street. 

Though many people have complained – loudly – about the city’s transit situation, Metzger said he has seen very little leadership in the matter. The city usually does nothing for Try Transit Week, so Metzger thought he would put forth a concrete proposal. 

He also named the groups that would need to be involved: the city, UC Berkeley, AC Transit and several citizens’ groups. 

“It’s an attempt to see if there’s support for a car-free downtown,” he said. 

If the weekend is successful, Metzger said, Berkeley could hold an event like this once a month or once every three months. 

Dave Campbell, president of the Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition said he liked the idea of a car-free day and pointed to the success of car-free Sundays in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. 

“We’re taught that the roadway is for vehicles and for vehicles only, that it is not part of the community,” said Campbell.  

“This would return the streets to the community.” 

But businesses like the Santa Fe Bistro, whose patrons are very likely to drive in to downtown, are concerned that a car-free downtown could affect business.  

“If they provide parking spaces for people, it could be a good thing. But considering the shortage of parking spaces at present, it could be a problem,” said the bistro’s manager, Mohsen Kamrani. 

Kamrani’s concerns were echoed by the merchant’s group, Downtown Berkeley Association. 

“The car-free weekend would have to be well-publicized in advance,” said Deborah Bahdia, the association’s executive director. 

“Some customers might now know in advance, get angry, turn around and decide never to come back to downtown. That’s how some people make decisions,” she said. 

Bahdia said she only became aware of the idea on Sunday, but hopes that if the project goes through, the DBA will be involved. 

Councilmember Dona Spring, whose district includes the downtown area in Metzger’s proposal, said that while she was fond of the idea, the city would have to make sure to involve the businesses. 

“Saturday is a big day for businesses in downtown Berkeley,” she said. “A lot of people go shopping on Saturday so they have to try to be sensitive to businesses that need to clear a profit each day,” said Spring. 

Peter Hillier, assistant city manager for transportation, cautioned that the proposal was still in the early stages. 

Although the commission deemed Metzger’s plan interesting enough to think about, it has not yet begun to hammer out the devilish details. 

“What is critical is the extensive planning,” said Hillier. “It is key that stakeholders are part of the planning process.” 

“But the likelihood that it is done this year is really slim,” he said.  

Hillier said that his office is so busy with other transit projects in the works – including talks with AC Transit about shortening bus routes to keep them on schedule and expanding the Eco Pass program for free AC Transit rides – that the car-free weekend is not a high priority. 

Metzger said that a subcommittee meeting on Thursday can move the process along, but he was not optimistic that anything could be decided before the next Transportation Committee meeting in late April.