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West Berkeley Traffic to Worsen (News Analysis)

By Toni Mester
Friday May 04, 2012 - 11:12:00 AM

A second public hearing on the West Berkeley Project (WBP) is scheduled before the City Council on Tuesday May 8 starting at 7 PM, a special meeting with a single item on the agenda: the proposed master use permits allowing increased development. A summary of the first hearing on May 1 can be found on Berkeleyside, and the complete video posted on the City Council web pages. 

Of the many significant impacts documented by the Project’s Environmental Impact Report, traffic numbers the most, 23 out of 33 potential problems including air quality, obstructed views, noise, and conflicts of land use. 

It’s funny how traffic creeps up on us. A generation ago, a driver could get around West Berkeley without delays. By the early 1990’s, not much had changed. The West Berkeley Plan EIR of 1993 recorded the east bound evening rush hour traffic on Dwight Way at San Pablo Avenue as 570 vehicles, and the north bound traffic on Sixth Street and University at 765. By 2010, the EIR for the West Berkeley Project counted the peak evening traffic as 1218 at Dwight and San Pablo, more than double, and Sixth and University at 846. 

What happened in the interim? The expansion of the Bayer campus at the base of Dwight Way under the Development Agreement of 1993 gradually increased hires by the hundreds, and even with a robust traffic demand management (TDM) program that provides shuttles and loads employee Clipper cards, the majority of the approximately 1300 Bayer workers still commute by car, as shown in their annual report. 

Failing grades 

Development creates congestion, and delays increase dangerous queues and emissions. The exhaustive traffic analysis (pun intended) in the West Berkeley Project EIR conducted by Wilbur Smith Associates studied 65 intersections in West Berkeley and rated them by standards known as LOS (levels of service), measuring the vehicle waiting time at each intersection. A failing grade of E or F is considered unacceptable. 

In the peak evening commute hour, the current failing intersections around West Berkeley neighborhoods are clockwise from the Gilman 1-80 interchange (a palpable F): Gilman at 2nd and 4th; San Pablo Avenue at Gilman, Camelia, Virginia, University, and Bancroft; and University at the Frontage Road and 6th. 

Twenty years from now in 2030, with or without the proposed development, additional intersections will also fail according to the projections: University at 7th and 8th, San Pablo at Cedar, Channing and Dwight, and Dwight at 7th. The only intersection that would fail solely as a result of the West Berkeley Project would be 4th and Allston, due to developments near Aquatic Park. 


We are doomed to evening gridlock on the City’s main arteries because of regional population growth. With or without the West Berkeley Project, traffic will soon become insufferable, but the proposed development will make it worse. A close analysis of the numbers shows that the WBP would increase the waiting time at almost every neighborhood intersection. 

What can be done? The West Berkeley Circulation Master Study of 2009 recommends a menu of TDM’s including shuttles, car pools, transit subsidies, bike storage, and flexible work hours while Peter Eakland, the traffic engineer working for the Peerless project, suggests changing the design of key intersections to speed traffic, but all these mitigations require political will and money. 

In his EIR comments Eakland says that a Nexus study and transportation services fee are “common knowledge” but the proposed zoning ordinance makes no mention of such. The ordinance lists affordable artist space, job training, and TDMs as optional benefits. On May 1, comments made by Council members indicated their displeasure at the paltry benefits. The Sierra Club Northern Alameda County group “advocates that a robust transportation demand management program be required in any large parcel development permit or agreement.” 

The segment of I-80 past Berkeley is operating at capacity at peak commute hours and susceptible to spillover and dangerous back-ups at Ashby and University and at that Devil’s crossroad, the Gilman interchange. The EIR suggested some structural improvements like ramps, roundabouts, and auxiliary lanes, which prompted Lisa Carboni, the District Chief for CalTrans to respond “these projects have not been approved”, meaning funds are not currently available, and cannot be considered mitigations. 

Smart growth assumptions 

Will housing in the MUPs absorb the traffic created by increased jobs? The EIR acknowledges the City’s policy to provide infill housing but does not attempt to quantify its effect on congestion. The traffic projections are based on the volumes generated by similar developments. 

Only wishful thinking would assume that most new residents will work in West Berkeley, located at the center of the Bay Area, a convenient place from which to drive to any number of destinations. Many independent workers such as sales people, contractors, consultants, architects, actors, musicians, and other professionals need to drive within a wide radius, and a West Berkeley home would suit them well. 

Another factor that belies the “balance” of housing and jobs by numbers is the size of new units, which in Berkeley have mostly been small studios and one or two bedroom apartments. Family housing typically requires three bedrooms. To qualify as permanent infill that might prevent suburban sprawl and long commutes, new housing would have to be competitive in the market. The outlying cities offer a greater supply of affordable homes that are fit for families. 

A final misconception is that new hires will take public transit to their jobs in West Berkeley. The Bayer experience shows us that most employees will drive, for convenience or necessity, even when the employer underwrites alternatives. Where transit exists, many people simply prefer the privacy of their vehicles. Sustainable growth strategies that promote transit ridership, whether prescribed by a local program like Berkeley’s climate action plan or state law like SB 375, can not force personal transportation choice. A green intent is no guarantee of green results. 

The City’s annual climate action update in March bluntly states the problem: “According to the best available data, while the community is making significant gains at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in certain sectors, we currently are not achieving targeted reductions in community-wide GHG emissions…. Reliable transportation data are not available, but given the increase in transportation related emissions at the state and national levels, and given the increase in Berkeley’s population since 2000, it is reasonable to assume that Berkeley’s transportation-related emissions have also not decreased significantly since 2000.” 

Density that is situated in the wrong place, near one of the most congested freeways in the Bay Area, can become more of problem than a panacea for climate change concerns. 

Possible solutions 

What can be done to alleviate congestion, cut emissions, and protect our residential neighborhoods from excessive spillover? Homes in the MUR district and in the nearby Rosa Parks residential neighborhood south of University Avenue will be hardest hit. A prohibition against heavy trucks entering the Rosa Parks neighborhood would protect their almost three thousand inhabitants, including 600 children. The inner Ocean View and many other neighborhoods already have such cordons in place. 

To keep development within livable bounds, a compromise suggested at the Council meeting that would allow maximum heights but impose a project-wide average height and guarantee setbacks from homes in the MUR holds promise, as does the development agreement option that would ensure adequate transportation fees and TDMs as well as other benefits. The City can also maintain the current ceiling on research and development. The new allowances for R&D in formerly protected industrial space are bound to increase traffic because the number of employees per square foot in R&D is roughly quadruple the number in industrial use. 

Housing policies that encourage and incentivize the building of family sized units and facilities for children like day care and play areas would create more opportunities for live/work proximity and stable communities. 

The City should not overlook the dangers of congestion on disaster response as the major escape routes towards the Waterfront in case of an earthquake and/or firestorm dangerously narrow at the freeway overpasses. 

The effects of increased traffic from the West Berkeley Project and regional development including the LBNL second campus in Richmond will be felt throughout the City, on feeder streets from Euclid Avenue to the MLKy Way and many roads in between. To think otherwise is both wishful and irresponsible. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.