Column: The Public Eye: Lights Out on Berkeley Transportation Planning?

By Michael Katz
Tuesday October 24, 2006

It’s worrisome enough that Berkeley has failed to maintain a relatively simple blinking crosswalk at the risky Ashby/Piedmont intersection, as the Daily Planet reported on Oct. 6. 

But it’s really disturbing that Berkeley transportation manager Peter Hillier hadn’t been told about this months-old hazard until the Planet called him. And that traffic engineer Hamid Mostowfi is evidently refusing to fix it, for no stated reason. 

This is just one of several complaints that I’ve recently read or heard about Berkeley transportation management. 

For example, recent Daily Planet issues have contained an ad from a neighborhood group calling itself “” Its members complain that the city abruptly declared their block a no-parking zone, despite overwhelming local opposition. Their Website explains the issue in some complexity. 

Easier to understand is the botched stoplight phasing at Oxford/Hearst. That signal was given separate turn phases to reduce delays. Yet somehow, everyone now seems to wait longer to get through the intersection—especially pedestrians. 

Still easier to understand are the unwarranted “No Turn On Red” signs that have sprouted at that intersection and others. They’re widely ignored, because they’re unnecessary—“Yield” signs would have worked fine. 

But more importantly, no one recalls any public process by which Berkeley residents decided to give up our God-given Californian right to turn right on red. 

Then there was the recent change in Claremont Avenue’s posted speed limit—reportedly in response to one individual’s request, with no consultation of other nearby residents. 

Most notoriously, there were the 22 car parking spaces on Telegraph Avenue that suddenly turned into motorcycle parking spaces. This wasn’t because the Harley-Davidson community had requested more chopper parking. 

Rather, one of the kids on the city’s Bicycle Commission—sorry, “Transportation” Commission—apparently came up with a creative reading of the state’s lane-width requirements. And sold that to a city traffic engineer, who decided to just restripe the lanes and narrow the parking spaces to motorcycle width. 

He never bothered to warn adjacent merchants, who were understandably livid. Councilmember Kriss Worthington has reportedly persuaded the city to undo the fiasco, at a roundtrip cost of perhaps $65,000. 

Three common threads run through these stories. First, the Transportation Office has evidently done odd things by following procedures so by-the-book as to produce absurd results. 

Second, Transportation has tended to do odd things based on requests from one or two individuals, without consulting other affected parties. 

Third, Transportation has been slow to undo odd things—and has failed to do needed things—because of a broader reluctance to consult with the public. 

It’s not just ordinary city residents who can’t tell what Hillier’s priorities or guiding principles are. Professionals at some other agencies say they’re just as mystified, because Hillier and his staff have withdrawn from some joint meetings. 

This is all a paradox. Hillier came to Berkeley from Toronto, a lively big city that runs so smoothly that actor Peter Ustinov once called it “New York operated by the Swiss.” 

The department under which Hillier’s Transportation Office has been placed, Public Works, is one of Berkeley’s most responsive. Claudette Ford and her crews seem to get potholes filled almost as soon as residents report them. 

Hillier himself is perfectly courteous in one-on-one communications. And I’ve heard of at least one neighborhood that’s as happy with his work as the folks with the website are displeased. 

Mostowfi, I should also acknowledge, promptly answered an inquiry from me last spring. (I had asked him about a bizarre new curb extension at the Le Conte/Hearst intersection that dangerously blocks bicyclists’ paths. He couldn’t explain to me why he’d built the thing, but I appreciated his taking the time to try.) 

Overall, Berkeley transportation management didn’t used to be such a black box. One of Hillier’s predecessors, Jeff Knowles, actively engaged the community. He wrote newspaper commentaries offering the public a menu of traffic-management options, and invited our responses. 

So if we assume that good people are now producing disappointing results, the question is: why? 

One theory is that the Transportation Office’s recent snafus and stonewalling reflect higher officials’ lapses in exercising real oversight. Back when Knowles was polling the public about how to manage everyone else’s cars, we still had real debates on the City Council and its advisory commissions. 

That was when commissions held wide-open public workshops (not hand-picked “task forces”), and welcomed members of the public to participate as equals. Zelda Bronstein’s Planning Commission even transformed the city’s General Plan revision from a cloistered staff function into a remarkable citywide exercise in participatory democracy. 

Now, under Mayor Bates, public meetings tend to be short and collegial. Because they’re meaningless—all the real decisions have been made ahead of time, in private. And because commissions are stacked with compliant yes-people. 

The message from City Hall now is: Trust us to run things from the top down, because we’re experts. 

Except they’re not, and we can’t. Just ask the Telegraph merchants whose customers can hardly park, because 22 parking spaces evaporated. Or the Ashby BART neighbors who almost ended up with a megadevelopment made to order for a few well-connected boosters. 

On the whole, Berkeley’s government runs uncommonly well at the staff level. But it ran best when there was scrappy argument, and public clamor, at the elected and commission levels—and two uncoopted factions kept a vigilant eye on each other. 

A second theory is that Berkeley’s current transportation problems are rooted deeper and further back. Until a staff reorganization midway through Shirley Dean’s mayoralty, transportation management was itself productively divided. There were transportation planners in the Advance Planning department, and an independent Traffic Engineer’s office. 

That separation of powers actually served the public well. The planners would promote all the latest fads about how to inhibit the movement of vehicles with more than two wheels. The traffic engineer would often push back, arguing for the mobility of vehicles with four or more wheels. (Fire engines, for example, have a whole bunch.) 

They’d often argue to a compromise. The result was a city where it was very easy for me to ride my bike, but where cars, buses, and ambulances still sort of moved. 

Maybe merging those two constituencies into a single office was inherently a mistake. Perhaps senior planners are best at supervising planners, and senior traffic engineers are most authoritative at supervising traffic engineers.  

Merging the two cultures may have squelched worthwhile professional debate that would otherwise be out in public. Out, for example, in the form of healthily conflicting recommendations to the Council and its commissions. Call the merger Berkeley’s counterpart to burying FEMA under, um, “Homeland Security.” 

In any case, transportation issues rile Berkeley residents as much as anything does. How those issues get managed shouldn’t be a mystery. 

In this election season, you might hope that everyone in city government—from top electeds down to crews on the street—might recognize the merit of letting more sunlight flow into and out of the Transportation Office. 


Michael Katz served on the Berkeley Traffic Commission. For one meeting. It was great.