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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On February 24, sixty-year-old Barbara Burns was riding her bike on San Leandro Street in the Elmhurst district of East Oakland when a pickup turning onto that road crashed right into her, police said. The driver, a 52-year-old Oakland resident, was not injured.

Burns was pronounced dead on the scene.

On a Monday afternoon in February, Jason Patton and Jamie Parks took me on a bike ride around downtown and Lake Merritt. They are the two Oakland Public Works Agency officials at the forefront of bike and pedestrian planning for the city. Patton is the city's bicycle and pedestrian program manager, which means he decides where and how to implement bike lanes, and Parks is the city's complete streets program manager, meaning he coordinates transportation planning in development projects.

Like me, both are avid cyclists who rarely drive cars. I crashed and totaled my car in a non-injury accident a year ago and have been biking full-time ever since. While some assignments have been challenging — such as reporting on a story at Grizzly Peak in Berkeley — I've been much happier on a bike. (I grew up in New York City and have always hated driving).

Patton owns a car but said he only uses it for out-of-town hiking trips or to get groceries when it rains. Parks doesn't own a car, but uses a car-sharing service when he needs to drive. Even some of the most ardent transportation activists I interviewed — cycling enthusiasts who believe Oakland's street projects have regularly failed to incorporate progressive bike infrastructure — praised the efforts and vision of Patton and Parks, who are both data-driven planners working to push innovative designs.

"The way I approach projects is really by recognizing that streets are a huge public asset for Oakland and we need to make those streets as safe and accessible as we can for all Oaklanders," Parks said.

On our recent bike tour, we rode down some of the city's most effective bike lanes as well as on busy streets that lack bikeways and desperately need them. We started at City Hall and headed to Lake Merritt along 14th Street — a stretch of road that currently has no bike lane, but still attracts many cyclists. "If we can close this gap, there's this really, really nice access to the center of downtown," Patton said as we biked east on 14th, whose bike lane runs through West Oakland but disappears in downtown.

This year, the city will be studying the feasibility of adding bikeways to the downtown section of 14th Street by taking out a car lane in each direction, Patton explained, noting that the city gets frequent complaints from cyclists who have to ride there and end up in conflicts with drivers. The policy question, he said, is: "What if 14th Street were just to become a slower street and that was okay?"

Just south of where we were standing at 14th Street near the lake, bikeways are also in the works on 8th and 9th streets, which will create more east-west connections for cyclists, and on Oak and Madison streets, which will establish much-needed north-south bike routes from the lake to Jack London Square.

This is at the core of public works' cycling infrastructure strategy: expanding the network of bike lanes out from existing ones and strategically building bike-friendly routes that connect neighborhoods and destinations. Since creating the first bike lane on West Street in 1997, the city has installed 52 miles of lanes for cyclists. The city has also created a wide range of other street designs for bikes and now has a total of 146 miles of designated bikeways — a 25-percent increase in bikeway mileage since 2010.

On parts of Mandela Parkway, Market Street, MacArthur Boulevard, and Grand Avenue, for example, the city has painted conventional, striped lanes that create a pathway exclusively for cyclists. The other main design, which is significantly less effective and less safe for cycling, is called a "sharrow," meaning a marking on the ground indicating that cars should share the road with bikes (located on parts of 40th Street, San Pablo Avenue, Fruitvale Avenue, and Foothill Boulevard, for example). Since 1995, Oakland has completed forty "road diets," meaning projects in which the city has sacrificed or minimized car lanes to make room for other uses, including bike lanes.

Oakland's 2007 bike master plan calls for a total of 245 miles of bikeways, which means the city has a long way to go — especially in East Oakland. East of 38th Avenue, most key corridors identified in the master plan as needing bikeways — including MacArthur Boulevard, International Boulevard, and San Leandro Street (where the fatal bike crash happened a few weeks ago) — still lack lanes or sharrows of any kind.

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