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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In addition to building new lanes, the city has worked in recent years to upgrade existing designs by targeting streets and intersections that have high collision rates or are "conflict zones," meaning areas in which motorists have to merge across bike lanes. The city's brightly painted green lanes, for example, now help guide cyclists through complicated intersections. On our bike tour, we rode through two of them — one on Grand at Harrison Street, and another on Lake Merritt Boulevard at East 12th (just south of where Schwartz, the Transport Oakland co-founder, was struck in September).

The city has also improved existing bike lanes by widening them and painting in additional stripes known as buffers — a simple, but sometimes transformative change that can make it easier for cyclists to avoid car doors to the right or uncomfortably close drivers to the left.

Parks and Patton said the city often looks at crash data when deciding where to invest resources for bike planning. In recent years, the number of bicycle crashes has increased, but the rate of collisions has not — because the number of cyclists in the city has grown significantly. Research across the country has demonstrated that when more people bike, the overall rate of collisions declines in part because drivers grow accustomed to cyclists as they become more visible.

In Oakland, the total number of collisions involving cyclists has steadily climbed from 118 in 2004 to 221 in 2012, according to state data. Based on the number of bike commuters recorded in the Census, that means roughly one out of every 23 cyclists got in a crash in 2012. In 2004, it was about one in twenty. From 2004 to 2013, fourteen cyclists were killed in Oakland, including four fatalities in 2012, and two in 2013.

A bike crash analysis Parks provided to me, based on collisions from 2007 to 2011, identified a number of problematic corridors in which cyclists and pedestrians are frequently hit, including International just east of Lake Merritt; Grand north of the lake and in Uptown; and Telegraph Avenue.

On Telegraph, from downtown Oakland to the Berkeley border, the crash data is alarming: From 2007 to 2011, there were reports of 66 motorist-bicyclist crashes and 68 motorist-pedestrian collisions — primarily related to drivers speeding or failing to yield to bikes and pedestrians. All of those crashes resulted in injuries. The data is not surprising given that Telegraph — the last stop on our recent tour and probably the most stressful to ride — currently has no bike lanes.

Despite the fact that bikes have to compete with buses and speeding cars for space on the road, Telegraph Avenue, data shows, attracts roughly 1,200 cyclists a day — a clear sign that people will ride where it's convenient, even when it's unsafe.

The Public Works Agency hopes to dramatically improve conditions on one of Oakland's most dangerous roads through the so-called Telegraph Avenue Complete Streets Plan, a major redesign spearheaded by Parks. The most high-profile part of the plan, which the city council approved in December for implementation this summer, is the city's first-ever "cycle track" or "parking-protected bike lane," meaning a bike lane adjacent to the curb and separated from motor vehicle traffic by a lane of parking to the left.

The city will install that protected lane design — an increasingly common feature in the leading bicycling cities in the United States — from 20th to 29th streets on Telegraph. From 29th to 41st streets, the city plans to create buffered bike lanes, meaning more traditional bikeways separated from cars by a painted strip.

The Telegraph Avenue project, which also includes pedestrian safety improvements, requires the removal of one car lane in each direction and the elimination of roughly forty parking spaces total. Cycling advocates hope the plan will demonstrate the significant value of those sacrifices, showing residents and business how innovative street designs in Oakland can improve the experience of cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers while also breathing new life into a retail corridor.

And while the Telegraph plan seems to be a model for smart urban planning — in large part due to the extensive research, planning, and community outreach that Parks spearheaded for more than a year — this type of project has been rare in Oakland.

With such limited public works staffing, the city has long struggled to design and complete progressive transportation projects. And advocates argue that as a result of staffing shortfalls and other bureaucratic obstacles, the city regularly misses opportunities to redesign streets for cyclists and pedestrians and has also failed to take advantage of existing funding. That's an especially serious problem now, critics say, given that Oakland is set to receive an influx of transportation cash from Measure BB, an Alameda County sales tax that voters approved in November.

Public works has one other full-time bike and pedestrian planner in addition to Patton, plus three part-time student interns, according to agency spokesperson Kristine Shaff, who emphasized that the complete streets policy guides all staff in all divisions of the department. The bike staffing levels, however, haven't changed since the late 1990s, she said.

Last fiscal year, the city received nearly $3 million in state and county funds for bike and pedestrian projects. Since July 2013, the city has also received roughly $12.6 million total in one-time grants for a wide range of ongoing projects — including $51,000 for a bike lane on Adeline Street, $150,000 for bike parking, and $580,000 for pedestrian upgrades on Grand Avenue.

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