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.

Page 5 of 8

But Transport Oakland, as part of its campaign during last year's election, argued that the city has failed to spend nearly $15 million in funding for transportation and street repaving. That figure comes from Alameda County Transportation Commission audits, which show that at the end of fiscal year 2013–14, Oakland had roughly $11.4 million in unspent funds from Measure B, a county transportation sales tax voters approved in 2000. That includes roughly $9.3 million for streets and roads and $2.2 million specifically for bike and pedestrian projects.

Additionally, county audits show that in 2013–14, Oakland had more than $3 million in unspent funds from a county vehicle registration fee that voters approved in 2010 to raise revenues for transportation. "There's money being left on the table," said Brisson, Transport Oakland co-founder.

The problem, advocates said, is that Oakland doesn't have enough staff to develop and push forward projects with the money it has available for transportation. While the cost of painting new bike lanes is relatively low, the planning process requires significant investment of staff time (as was the case with Telegraph Avenue).

In a more strategic process, Oakland would have a pipeline of thoughtful transportation projects ready for implementation so that public works could immediately move forward on them when funds are available and thus avoid significant delays in spending, Transport Oakland officials argued.

When asked about the unspent funds, Shaff, the public works spokesperson, sent me a lengthy email contending that Transport Oakland's claims were "extremely misleading." She stated that some of the unspent funding identified in the audits is allocated for ongoing or future projects, which take years to complete. She also noted that Oakland is in compliance with county standards for spending these revenues and has proportionally similar amounts of unspent money as other East Bay cities.

Mayor Schaaf, however, told me she agreed with the concerns of Transport Oakland. "We have millions of dollars that have not yet gotten into the ground," she said. "Anyone who walks, bikes, or even drives in the city can tell you we have tremendous need. ... I don't think we've done a good enough job in realizing the past resources that this city has received around transportation."

And Patton, the bike and pedestrian program manager, also said that Oakland hasn't always been well equipped to take advantage of the funds. Limited staffing, he said, can "create a kind of bottleneck where we need a lot of staff time to be able to spend relatively modest amounts of capital money."

Another consequence of inadequate staff resources is that public works, which is also in charge of overall street maintenance, doesn't always coordinate its street repaving processes with its bike planning. In other words, the city spends time and money fixing up roads, but sometimes fails to add a bike lane during the process — even when the street has the space and need for one.

For example, when Oakland recently repaved Claremont Avenue in the Rockridge district, it failed to add any bikeways. And the city is currently in the process of repaving the northern section of Grand Avenue in the Grand Lake district, but has no plans to add a bike lane — only sharrows — which means cyclists riding north on Grand will continue to have to merge with car traffic. That's despite the fact that in recent rush hour traffic counts, the city recorded hundreds of cyclists riding on the parts of Grand that do have bike lanes — as many as 460 cyclists in some areas.

"If we're going to repave a road ... the starting point should be, 'How do we make this street better?'" said Christopher Kidd, chair of Oakland's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, which reviews development projects and makes recommendations to the city council. "That really is the missing link," he said of Grand Avenue, noting that the City of Piedmont plans to add bike lanes on its portion of Grand just north of Oakland. In addition, Oakland's 2007 bike master plan identified both Claremont and Grand avenues as needing bikeways.

As anyone who has complained about potholes knows, Oakland struggles tremendously to keep up with basic street maintenance. Public works says the city currently has a $440 million backlog of needed street upgrades. Oakland is so strapped for cash that it currently has an 85-year repaving cycle — meaning once a street gets repaved, it's expected to endure for nearly a century.

"Oakland is always continually falling further and further behind on their maintenance obligations for these streets," said Kidd, who also works as a senior planner for Alta Planning and Design, a transportation consulting firm. "You're not going to catch up by just doing the same stuff over and over." That means when the city lets a repaving project such as Grand Avenue pass by without adding bike infrastructure, it's a missed opportunity. What's more, repaving a street with a bike lane is not only a safety upgrade, it's also a cost-saving measure, because a decrease in car traffic and increase in bike traffic means less damage to the road over time, Kidd noted.

The city strives to sync its street maintenance and bike planning projects, said Patton, who listed for me a number of upcoming paving projects that will include new bike infrastructure. But sometimes the timing just doesn't work, because new bike lanes on major corridors require one or two years of planning and outreach, said Iris Starr, manager of transportation planning and funding for public works. "When the paving program is going full speed, we need to pick what we can do that is not the most complicated," she said. "And Grand Avenue is certainly one of the more complicated."

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