If you live on Ashby Avenue and wake up in the middle of the night, as I do sometimes, you can tell what time it is by how much noise comes in through your closed bedroom window. If it’s relatively quiet, with only the occasional roar of a really big truck which rattles the windows, it’s probably about 3 a.m. The trucks at that time of night are fewer, but they compensate by gunning their engines up to about 50 mph (when the speed limit is 25.) Commuters get going about 4, at a high speed because they’re not so numerous until about 5, eventually slowing down to just under 30 mph between 6 and 9. By that time traffic is often bumper-to-bumper, with students and employees who come by bridge and tunnel on their way to the UC campus. It’s pretty much impossible to sleep past about 6:30 because of the noise volume, even in the winter when the windows can be kept closed.
In the afternoon the traffic out of town often starts as early as 3:30, perhaps because more classes are scheduled in the morning and early afternoon. The afternoon traffic is unpredictable, and since we’re not often home at that time of day not such an annoyance. The trucks rattle the kitchen windows at dinnertime, of course. When we’ve gone somewhere by car and are forced to drive on Ashby to get home in the afternoon, it can take as much as half an hour to go from Shattuck to our house east of College. On Sunday afternoons there is often heavy eastbound traffic all afternoon. Who can tell who these people are, or what they’ve been doing? Shopping in Emeryville and avoiding traffic on 24 perhaps?
Why should any of this be of concern to anyone who is lucky enough to live behind a barrier on Berkeley’s many lovely protected side streets? As a number of those drivers who objected to the narrowing of Marin said, people on busy streets knew what they were getting into when they bought their houses, right? It’s true that we would never have been able to afford the very comfortable house we’ve lived in for 30 years if it hadn’t been on Ashby, so I’ve always been somewhat reluctant to complain too loudly about traffic here. But the thing is, it’s gotten a lot worse, and if those who try to plan our lives have their way in several current schemes, there’s more to come.
In the discussion about building the big Berkeley Bowl on Ninth and Heinz, planners answered worriers about increased traffic on local streets by pointing out how traffic could actually be off-loaded to Ashby. I immediately flashed on Saturday mornings with even more noise than weekdays, with hundreds of suburbanites coming through that nice new extra bore they’re going to add to the Caldecott Tunnel and heading right down Ashby to the mega-Bowl in search of a recreational shopping experience in Berkeley. I know, it might do wonders for the city’s retail sales tax take, but at what cost to Ashby residents?
And then there’s the university’s long-range development plan. Can the equivalent of the Empire State Building really be added to downtown Berkeley without massively increasing the traffic load past our house? I doubt it. But since it looks like UC Berkeley is going to get away with skipping a real EIR by contributing a couple of million more dollars to the city of Berkeley’s budget, we won’t know the true impact of the university multifarious expansion plans until they’re a fait accompli.
Noise, irritating though it is, is not the only major problem with the blithe willingness of city and university to increase Ashby traffic. High cancer rates among residents of streets like ours are well documented, and we have lost too many of our neighbors to cancer to be comfortable with the statistics. But according to an environmental consultant we know, it’s the excessive noise which is both illegal and easily documented, and which could be the basis for an environmental lawsuit by Ashby residents. If Caltrans, UC and the city of Berkeley persist in denying the obvious impacts which plans now in the works will have, that might be our only remedy.