Public Comment

Bike Safety as Political Fodder

By H. Scott Prosterman
Thursday September 03, 2009 - 11:13:00 AM

Bike safety has been part of the script for every Berkeley politician since the Free Speech Movement. Unfortunately, this generation of Berkeley politicians has done nothing to improve it. They talk big about asking people to give up their cars and ride a bike but have done nothing to initiate an education program, improve existing laws, or even enforce them.   

Even if you don’t ride one, in this town as a driver or pedestrian, you have to deal with them. Hence the need for a comprehensive transportation safety improvement program. In 2008 the Daily Planet printed my commentary “Car, Bike and Pedestrian Citizenship.” That was a preliminary attempt to create a new mindset in Berkeley that is neither anti-automobile nor anti-bike. As a famous Los Angeles criminal once said, “Why can’t we all just get along?”  

My interest in these issues arises from my need to ride a bike for daily commuting and having survived a hit-and-run in 2005 and a “dooring” in 2007. As such, I enlisted as an “ad-hoc member” of the Berkeley Bike and Pedestrian Sub-Committee, which falls under the city’s Transportation Commission. In that capacity, I have found a puzzling and alarming resistance to a series of proposals to improve bike safety in Berkeley.  

The sources of resistance include Mayor Tom Bates, Councilmembers Linda Maio and Max Anderson, and some that may surprise you, such as Transportation Commissioners Marcy Greenhut and Eric McCaughrin and Eric Anderson, the city’s professional bicycle safety coordinator/ consultant! The latter three chose to not have this committee meet two months out of the last four! 

The fact that Berkeley does not have a mandatory helmet law for adults illustrates the problem. These Berkeley elected officials and commissioners have resisted my proposals for mandatory helmet legislation for adults in Berkeley, though they are required for bikers and skateboarders under 18. My proposals to improve bike safety have included the following:  

1) A comprehensive and visible public relations campaign to prevent and reduce incidents of “dooring.” This would include new signage in parallel parking areas, and a forceful and visible PR campaign (billboards, T-shirts, bumper stickers, leaflets). Ideally, this would be one facet of a comprehensive transportation-education campaign. DMV covers all the bases in the Driver’s Manual; Berkeley needs to do the same with a focus on the realities of bikes.  

2) A moratorium on the so-called “traffic-calming circles.” Maio and other politicians have championed these things for supposedly slowing traffic in residential neighborhoods. Whatever traffic slowing is actually accomplished is offset by the reality of what they bring: terror to bikers and pedestrians and confusion to drivers. 

Because these islands are too large for the narrow streets, they force vehicles into crosswalks. A bike can go in a relatively straight line through intersections with traffic circles, but vehicles must make a sharp right and then a sharp left to navigate them, encroaching into the biker’s right-of-way. A biker going straight has to stop to avoid getting hit by a veering car. Pedestrians in the intersection also experience a moment of terror when they see a car veering toward them before it makes the corrective left turn. 

Many drivers are apparently confused about how to navigate a wide traffic circle through an intersection of narrow residential streets. Most cars simply do not stop; rather, they slow down a little and then gun their engines through the intersections to get through the confusing mess as soon as possible. In the process they inevitably encroach on a crosswalk or a pedestrian’s right of way. 

3) Legislation to require adults to wear bike helmets in Berkeley. The Tour de France finally came around, but Berkeley is resisting it. 

4) Creating a program to make helmets available to low-income citizens. 

5) Fast-tracking new bike racks where parking meters have been removed, and requiring owners of apartment buildings to furnish them. Parking meters have been removed in commercial districts but have not been replaced by bike racks. 

6) An accurate study of the number of car-bike and bike-door collisions in Berkeley, with data on the nature of injuries, citations for fault, etc. An attempt by Councilmember Anderson was woefully incomplete and failed to include my accidents from 2005 or 2007. 

7) Improving pavement conditions on roads that carry heavy bike traffic. Milvia and Addison streets near City Hall have some of the worst. Small streets immediately parallel to major arteries need the greatest attention. 

8) Improving lighting conditions in residential neighborhoods. Many street lights blink on and off, and no one at the Department of Public Works seems to know why. 

9) The importance of not being “anti-automobile,” as most of the committee members admittedly are. Diminishing the space on the road by putting up barriers to eliminate parallel parking spots does not help cyclists. A narrower thoroughfare intensifies the competition between cars and bikes for space on streets, which are already narrow. Bikes lose every time.  

10) Additional punitive sanctions for drivers and passengers who cause injury by dooring. Lately, drivers have been double parking to let out passengers, who quickly open their doors without looking.   

The current crop of Berkeley politicians have done nothing to contribute to the city’s progressive and liberal tradition of thoughtful legislation. Indeed, the mayor and council are content to cruise on the accomplishments of their predecessors. Repeatedly the mayor and aforementioned council members have refused my request to attend the Bike Committee meetings or even send a representative. In public meetings, Maio urges her constituents to give up their cars and ride a bike, but public records reveal that she owns at least two cars, and I’ve never seen her on a bike. 

I hardly consider the effort to create more residential and office density to be in keeping with local political tradition. There needs to be a coordinated, comprehensive effort that accounts for car traffic, bikes and pedestrians, rather than increased efforts to build more high-rise apartments and office buildings in a small town where the vacancy rate is already high. 


H. Scott Prosterman is a Berkeley resident and bike rider.