Trees in Traffic Circles Are Still Threatened by the City of Berkeley

Becky O'Malley
Saturday October 05, 2019 - 12:05:00 PM

It’s a time-tested government strategy: if you want to duck a controversial issue, appoint a citizen’s group to study it, and hope that the controversy will go away in time. That’s what the Berkeley City Council did when confronted with an ongoing struggle between city employees eager to clear-cut the traffic circles in flatland neighborhoods and the neighbors who have been lovingly maintaining them for many years.

There’s a plethora of news reports and op-eds on the history of what’s happened so far which can be found with a simple google search on “traffic circles Berkeley”, but in the interest of saving time and space let’s just summarize the various press reports:

Sometime in 2015 there was a lawsuit filed by someone who was injured in a collision at an intersection in the southside area which contained a planted traffic circle. The defendant driver was quickly determined to be essentially judgement-proof, so the plaintiff focused on the deep pockets of the City of Berkeley, also a defendant. The suit was handled, some say ineptly, by a new Berkeley city attorney who opted to settle instead instead of risking a trial. Analyses of the terms of the settlement differ, but the bottom line seems to be that blame for the accident, fairly or unfairly, was fixed on the vegetation in the circle, especially a tree.

This outcome was seized upon by the city’s public works and traffic staffers as an opportunity to take over the circles and strip them of most of the plantings, though nothing in the settlement specifically required this.

A public outcry ensued, resulting in a Berkeley City Council resolution in February of this year to establish, yes, a Citizen’s Task Force to study the problem and present a report on next steps. 

From the city’s web site, here’s what it was supposed to do: 

“Traffic Circle Policy Task Force Mission: 

The charge of this Task Force is to: 

1. Evaluate the City’s current traffic circle vegetation policy for consideration by the City Council and Traffic Engineer; 

2. Find a solution, through active participation and engagement with the community, that respects environmental policy, habitat, safety and performance standards, existing and future liability issues that address sight lines; and 

3. Deliver a policy to City Council for adoption prior to August 9, 2019. 

4. Conduct a community-led process to update that policy to ensure pedestrian/bicycle/ vehicle safety and community efforts to beautify traffic circles. 

Eleven members will be appointed by the Mayor and chosen from geographically diverse parts of the city, including one representative from Berkeley Partners for Parks.” 

Of course, August 9 has come and gone, along with many, many meetings of the Task Force. Their report, which has now reached its last draft, was scheduled for final review at the Wednesday, October 2 meeting. 

This penultimate version of the Task Force’s report can still be found attached to that meeting’s agenda as posted on the city’s web site. It’s already a magnum opus, a work of art, replete with photos, maps, diagrams and copious data. From what I know of the citizen members who worked on it, that’s no surprise, given their impressive levels of education and experience. 

On the city staff’s side, participants, from the City’s Public Works and Traffic sectors, were described by Citizen Task Force members as people who seem to view their jobs as facilitating the flow of traffic, especially the wheeled modes, autos and bicycles. None were expert in either horticulture or environmental science. And above all, they appeared to be intent on reducing the city’s liability exposure in subsequent lawsuits if any to zero. 

Since Wednesday’s meeting my telephone line and my email have been aflame with outrage from involved community members. 

Why? Because the city staffers who have been participating in these many meetings said this: "Thank you for all your hard work and willingness to work with our concerns and for your efforts to concur with staff considerations, unfortunately we are just not there…There will be a companion report to your task force's proposed policy." 

In other words, one member said, there will be an “evil rebuttal” from city staff. 

The person who quoted the staff statement to me viewed it as a not-so-veiled threat, coupled with what city employees told them about what they plan to recommend to the council. The bottom line seems to be that citizens want existing trees in traffic circles to survive and staff still plans to cut them down. Period. 

One refrain that especially irked a couple of my informants was a traffic engineer’s claim, voiced several times on Wednesday, that he is just trying to protect “a slender small child chasing a ball into the street on a dark and stormy night.” Attendees claim that he implied that the citizens just didn’t care about kids, despite the fact that one of the most vocal residents was the parent of two little ones himself. (And children running around in the street on dark and stormy nights are at risk from much more than trees in traffic circles.) 

Trees. Why do Berkeley’s notorius tree-huggers care so much about trees? Well, climate change, for one thing. From a recent article in the National Geographic: 

“Trees—all plants, in fact—use the energy of sunlight, and through the process of photosynthesis they take carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and water from the ground. In the process of converting it into wood they release oxygen into the air. In addition to the CO2 that trees capture, they also help soil capture significant amounts of carbon.” 

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the world needs every tree it can get. From Sierra Magazine: 

“Carbon sequestration becomes easier to grasp if you consider a single tree. Plant, say, one silver maple today, and in 25 years—assuming it survives—it will have sequestered about 400 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.” 

Evidently city staff is now recommending the that there be NO trees in any traffic circle. In return, there’s a weak offer to plant more trees in those very unpopular bulb-outs, but inevitably those would be small spindly specimens, a poor tradeoff for mature trees like the elegant dawn redwoods which now grace several circles. 

Staff informed task force members on Wednesday that the Task Force’s scheduled report to the city council has been moved from the Oct 15 Council meeting to a Special City Council meeting to be held Tuesday, November 12 at 4pm. This gives those who question the staff’s plan one more chance to speak their minds in the period set aside for comments on non-agenda items at the regular council meeting on the 15th. Office visits to inform councilmembers of the public’s views can also take place in the interim. 

Between now and November 12, the Planet would welcome informed Public Comment articles from members of the Task Force and the public at large. Send them to opinion@berkeleydailyplanet.com. There’s no official word limit, though we believe people stop reading online at about 1000 words.