Public Comment

Commentary: Adeline Should Not Be So Wide By DAVID SOFFA

Tuesday March 28, 2006

The prospect of rebuilding the gutted neighborhood at the Ashby BART station brings fresh awareness of older problems in our area. For the new life to take root and grow we have to dig out the gravel in the garden that is stunting the existing growth. Every gardener knows this is where the real work is. It is an essential effort that will enable the whole place to thrive. 

Let us consider Adeline Street in Berkeley, between Shattuck Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. For many drivers it is a wide and welcome relief from the more constricted streets that feed this stretch of Adeline from both ends. However, the real character of Adeline is best experienced at night time. This is the same landscape that edges our interstate freeways: an unfriendly concrete desert. But our well-lit wasteland does not serve something wider, faster and darker; it divides quiet residential neighborhoods. 

Years of walking kids to school in the mornings have given me plenty of first-hand experience trying to get across this barrier. It is done daily, but long experience has only reinforced the sense of danger I feel heading out into traffic at those crosswalks. Traffic reluctant to stop, eager to get to smooth wide space just ahead. 

What were they thinking? Adeline reflects the intentions of the traffic engineers very well: streamlined frictionless flow, to bring traffic through this area as quickly as possible. Why would anyone want to stop here? At least they were consistent. It is the same pat from the back of the shovel they gave our neighborhood when they dug up the three blocks of homes for BART’s Ashby parking lot.  

Frictionless flow has its place in the river of life, but life is nurtured and experienced best in eddies and quiet backwaters. The vast streams of traffic going through the Adeline/Ashby intersection do not leave much room for peace and quiet at the edges, and that underlies many problems well known to people who live around, or try to cross over, or hope to run a business near that intersection. An illustration of the problems of being so near the fast lanes is found in the beautiful center divider area with its forty-year old trees and well-kept lawns. It is a fine park, almost entirely not used at all. It is not connected to anything else, and Adeline’s traffic makes it extremely dangerous all along its edges. One step over the six-inch curb and you are history.  

There is a spot along Adeline with a quiet edge, where a little eddy was designed in, and the contrast is amazing in its clarity. The line of parking spots and the wide sidewalk on Adeline just north of Ashby have supported the whole curved corner’s worth of commerce while also being about the only pleasant spot around to stop and rest.  

When we do not have quiet edges we make them ourselves, for survival! There is not much here to work with except space, and we back away, putting a little more distance between ourselves and danger, and so we have a wide wasteland, with traffic. To help get a handle on just how wide I measured the marked crossings at the Ashby/Adeline intersection. I had to walk 200 feet curb-to-curb to cross Adeline, or, 150 feet from the Safety Island‚ to the other side. For some perspective I measured San Pablo Avenue at Dwight Way. That curb-to-curb distance is 76 feet. San Pablo also has a line of cars parked along its curbs there, and this acts as a buffer zone for the first few steps away from the curb—the distance of actual roadway a pedestrian has to cross is about 60 feet. Getting across Adeline is something like crossing San Pablo three times!  

Does Adeline need to be so wide to handle a high volume of traffic? The City of Berkeley says that 18,100 cars go by on Adeline in a day versus 29,500 cars for San Pablo at Dwight Way. I think the answer is no.  

So how did this come about? One possible clue is that the Adeline right-of-way is 100 feet wide. As a former engineering student I can imagine the thrill felt by the designing engineer when it became apparent that Adeline was going to be built using this cool round number. San Pablo Avenue at Dwight Way is home to a growing little commercial district. This group of businesses has managed to thrive alongside San Pablo, a California State Highway with high traffic counts, because San Pablo Avenue is the size it needs to be rather than a designer’s fantasy, and it has been detailed to serve pedestrians and shops as well as cars, trucks and busses.  

The area alongside our stretch of Adeline has also grown since it was designed. Grown in spite of the engineers and designers‚ attitudes and intentions, in spite of the difficulty the rush of traffic on our frictionless street imposes on natural growth taking root. The inhibiting influence of the street itself is well documented, and the attitudes that underlie its design are also still with us. Attitudes displayed in Safeway’s pullout because they thought the area just would not support a real supermarket. Attitudes we spent millions of dollars entrenching with reinforced concrete and are now an expensive problem to remove. But think of the Cypress Freeway, think of the Embarcadero in San Francisco. There is real human cost to supporting and continuing these deeply flawed installations, and real value in fixing them. When we remove them we are not just taking out concrete and steel, we are digging out an entire value system that looked at our part of town and saw—not much. 

Adeline is not as bad as the Cypress or Embarcadero freeways, and to help it we won’t need something that registers on the Richter Scale. The fix is not nearly that dramatic or expensive. A fairly simple adjustment will do. The main problems are too much space and the lack of a quiet edge. We just need less road and more places to stop. 

For starters why don’t we just close half of it? A few cones and flashing lights and we could try it out for free, just to see. We could close the western half, and steer all the traffic into the other side. Just half of Adeline is still a full size street! For the first time since the trains came out it would be an appropriate size! The street would belong to all the people, not just the motorists. We would be happy to share, we would never let go back to how it was! 

South Berkeley is our home. Our streets are our lifelines and our connection to the city we share and love. Adeline must support all of us as we live and thrive. Like the sign says at the edge of town, we are HERE already. Let us feel something of Berkeley’s true character as we travel on and live alongside this important thoroughfare.  


David Soffa is a Berkeley resident.›