Public Comment

Commentary: What is Traffic Safety Fodder for?

By Dave Campbell
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:50:00 AM

Last week’s Berkeley Daily Planet generated a good stir of thought on bicycle safety, but most of it misses the point, kind of like the guy who wrote the letter railing against new pavement at North Berkeley BART. Arguing for helmets, for parking fees for bicyclists, for us all to ride like Lance Armstrong, or against traffic circles all loses us in the forest. The focus on traffic safety should first and foremost be on creating great streets in Berkeley where everyone can safely use the roadway. Think about Fourth Street in Berkeley—the shopping district part. You don’t need a helmet when riding this street, you don’t have to be an experienced bicyclist to ride there, pedestrians can safely walk around and cross the street with no traffic lights, and no amount of bicycle parking fees will accomplish anything. The street works for everyone, it’s a great street. All streets in Berkeley should be like this. But as long as traffic engineers are required to move more cars along the street, we’ll never have streets like this, streets that are safe. 

As for fodder, bicyclists should be happy we are good fodder for politicians—given the progress we have made in making Berkeley a bicycle-friendly town. I wish traffic safety were as lucky. No doubt, Berkeley is generally a good town for walking and bicycling and the numbers show it. Far more people walk and bicycle in this city than any other city in the East Bay and our numbers rival many of the neighborhoods of San Francisco. But with greater numbers comes greater responsibility and Berkeley most certainly has a responsibility to continue to create better streets, in fact world class streets—that’s the goal. 

A quick recap: 

1. Berkeley has been working for years to implement its 1998 Bicycle Plan; 

2. Berkeley is about to adopt it’s first formal Pedestrian Plan, 

3. Berkeley continues to earn Safe Routes to School and Safe Routes to Transit grants to make it safer to walk and bicycle to school and transit. Good news—the city just received a $900,000 grant for ped/bike safety improvements for Thousand Oaks, Berkeley Arts Magnet, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks schools, and the city is busy implementing a $500,000 Safe Routes to Transit grant to bring the Berkeley Bikestation above ground and greatly expand its capacity of secure bike parking for downtown; and 

4. Traffic calming of its neighborhoods is something for which Berkeley is famous. Some may not like traffic circles, but most bicyclists do and neighbors love them because they slow traffic and they look good—especially with a variety of plants growing in them. 

A lot of people have played a significant role in all of this good work—the City Council, the Transportation Commission, the Public Works Department and the Bicycle-Friendly Berkeley Coalition. 

Yet with all this progress, it is safety education that has been one of the best stories. There is still a lot of work to do to redesign streets like Ashby ave. to make crossing safer, but pedestrian and bicycle safety education is in full swing. The bicycle coalition offers free urban bicycle safety classes this Fall. Transform has taken on the Safe Routes to School Program started by the bicycle coalition years ago and is teaching ped/bike safety to thousands of kids. Berkeley’s Health Department offers kids bike rodeos both after school and every Spring at San Pablo Park, which include free bicycle helmets, and the bicycle coalition will soon be adding more kids bike rodeos, family cycling clinics, and how-to-ride-a-bike classes in Berkeley and beyond. As a result, thousands of pedestrians, bicyclists and kids are safer. 

The group that needs to step up more is not the city but rather UC Berkeley. The university draws too much daily traffic into the city. Over 50 percent of university staff and visitors drive alone to campus every day, clogging our streets with traffic and making a simple task like crossing the intersection of University and Shattuck unnecessarily dangerous. And the numbers are getting worse, not better. The university, as well as all employers in Berkeley, needs to acknowledge this problem and I’m confident the university will step up their efforts. Senator Steinberg’s SB 375 Redesigning Communities to Reduce Greenhouse Gases requires adoption of sustainable transportation plans by all state agencies and specifically requires a reduction in vehicle miles traveled—i.e. less traffic. For a university that sits right next to a BART station and has 15 bus lines traversing it’s campus, much more can be done to encourage transit, walking and bicycling. 

Often, our first instinct is to keep putting bandaids on problems—a traffic signal here, a left turn pocket there, a helmet, etc. While the Bicycle Plan and the new Pedestrian Plan will go a long way to improve things and bicyclists should wear helmets at least until all streets are truly safe to ride on, we really have a great opportunity to address the problem at its source thanks to both state legislation SB 375 and Berkeley’s own locally adopted Climate Action Plan, which places a strong emphasis on reducing drive alone traffic. As part of this effort, UC Berkeley and all large employers in town need to provide transit passes to employees, like the bus passes the university provides for its students and the city provides for its staff. And we need to quit building parking garages and paving over tennis courts for parking spaces. Imagine if the university, Alameda County’s largest employer, could eliminate 10,000 car trips every day in Berkeley. Imagine if new downtown housing included a transit pass for every resident or was car-free. Imagine if the goal was not to move more traffic but to reduce the amount of traffic on our streets. Well, that goal is right around the corner and the bicycle coalition looks forward to working with the city and the Uiversity to keep their eyes on the prize—world class streets. 


Dave Campbell is president of Bicycle-Friendly Berkeley Coalition