Shifting Gears: Oakland's Bicycling Future 

How Oakland can become a world-class city for biking — and save lives, boost the economy, and improve the environment at the same time.

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With significant new funding for street projects on the way, a bike-share program coming to the East Bay, and new transportation leaders in Oakland City Hall — including Schaaf's recent hire, Transportation Policy Director Matt Nichols — advocates say momentum is building. But can Oakland build a world-class bicycling city?

In 1997, Oakland created its first bike lane on a roughly one-mile section of West Street from Grand Avenue to MacArthur Boulevard in West Oakland. It was an experiment that was long overdue. For decades, transportation officials had focused on building Oakland's freeways and streets to support the flow of cars through the region. In the 1950s, the construction of the elevated Cypress Freeway section of Interstate 880 cut West Oakland in half. Then in the 1960s, the state and federal governments cut another large swath through the city — from East Oakland to North Oakland — with the construction of Interstate 580.

Like cities across the nation, Oakland further embraced car culture by designing streets and highways with the expectation that vehicle traffic would continue to increase for decades to come. But those projections turned out to be wrong. "The roads were built to accommodate more cars than needed," Mayor Schaaf pointed out in a recent interview.

Indeed, traffic data shows that the city streets were over-built for cars. Transport Oakland, for example, compared city-commissioned traffic counts at 32 intersections around downtown and found that, on average, there has been a roughly 25 percent decrease in car traffic from 1999 to 2013. During that time, Oakland's population increased by more than 40,000.

Similarly, on Telegraph Avenue, a key north-south thoroughfare that the city recently studied, officials found that the volume of cars on the road has declined over time — dropping substantially after Highway 24 opened in North Oakland in 1968 and then decreasing by 26 percent between 1969 and 2013.

All of this data points to what's obvious to many people who regularly walk and bike around Oakland. "We're not going to make Oakland a better city by giving more space to cars," said Dave Campbell, advocacy director of Bike East Bay. "The beauty of it is we don't need to. Driving is not increasing in Oakland."

In some places, he added, "these streets are largely empty of cars."

Unlike in San Francisco, where the streets are congested and every parking space is contested, there's room to reimagine the streets in the East Bay. "We forever thought the number of people driving was going to continue to climb and we all know that it hasn't," said Fine, the Transport Oakland member. "So now we're stuck with these streets that could function as secondary freeways."

In some ways, that's a blessing in disguise. "It's a giant resource that we have, which are these streets that aren't being used," said Liz Brisson, another co-founder of Transport Oakland who is also a senior transportation planner for San Francisco.

Over the years, Oakland officials have increasingly recognized the importance of reclaiming street space for non-car uses — both in city policies and transportation projects. In 1999, Oakland created its first Bicycle Master Plan, which the city then updated in 2007. That plan offers an analysis of existing conditions, a blueprint for the city's future bikeways, and an outline of the benefits of building better bike infrastructure in the East Bay.

According to the 2007 master plan, 85 percent of Oaklanders live within two miles of a major transit station — meaning an easy twelve-minute bike ride away. At the same time, while motor vehicles are responsible for 47 percent of Oakland's greenhouse gas emissions, biking, of course, is the most environmentally efficient mode of transportation (along with walking) and is a year-round option in the climate-friendly Bay Area.

Biking also brings critical health benefits. Half of Oakland public school students are obese or overweight, and more than 40 percent of the leading causes of death in Oakland — including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes — are related to physical inactivity, the city's bike plan notes. Thirty minutes of biking a day can go a long way toward preventing those illnesses.

The city has reiterated the importance of supporting bicycling in a number of new policies over the years. Oakland's 2012 Energy and Climate Action Plan — aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emission levels by 2020 to 36 percent below those in 2005 — called for a 20-percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled by supporting walking, bicycling, and transit. And Oakland's so-called "complete streets policy," which the city council adopted in 2013, includes the goal of designing, building, and maintaining safe and convenient streets for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, people with disabilities, seniors, and children.

Underlying many of these policy objectives is the recognition that the city has an immediate public safety obligation to make the streets safer for residents. That's because data shows that people are increasingly choosing to ride bikes on streets that aren't yet designed to accommodate them.

Since January, when I started reporting this story, there have been at least two violent collisions in Oakland involving vehicles crashing into cyclists. The first victim, 25-year-old Greg Lowrie, was hit by a pickup truck in West Oakland on his way to an appointment at a health clinic on January 13.

His mother Maggie Lowrie, whom I met at Highland Hospital a week after the crash, told me that he was knocked unconscious into a coma and suffered brain damage, a crushed pelvis, a broken neck, and other serious injuries. Bicycling, she said, is the primary mode of transportation for both her and Greg, who suffers from a chronic heart condition. Currently unemployed, they have been living out of an RV in West Oakland and can't afford a car. Two months after the collision, he is still unable to talk, eat, or move his body on his own, she told me recently.

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