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 6 of 8

Measure BB, the new transportation sales tax going into effect in April, is expected to generate nearly $8 billion over thirty years for Alameda County. Between this year and fiscal year 2015–16, Oakland is projected to receive a total of $14.8 million from BB — which is in addition to existing county and state funding streams. That means, advocates said, that Oakland is at a critical juncture for transportation development and must position itself to put this money to good use.

"It's an amazing problem to have," said Schwartz, Transport Oakland co-founder. "How often do you get to say in Oakland we have enough money to do this?"

Five years ago, before she was elected to the city council, Libby Schaaf traveled to Portland, Oregon as part of an Oakland delegation studying transportation — and was blown away by the city's bike lanes. "It was a transformative experience for me to really see how the simple and inexpensive things, like road colors and striping ... make biking so much safer," she recalled. In Portland, she said, "They aren't just biking for recreation and exercise ... they are using it as a primary mode of transportation to get to their work and to get around in their daily lives."

Schaaf said that improving Oakland's transportation system is critical to ensuring that residents are safe, happy, and healthy. She's not the first mayor in Oakland to prioritize alternative modes of transit. Her predecessor Jean Quan — who biked down Telegraph Avenue on Bike to Work Day last year — advocated for the expansion of Bay Area Bike Share to the East Bay (which is slated for a 2016 rollout) and helped secure funding for a new bike and pedestrian bridge by Lake Merritt.

Schaaf is, however, the first mayor to appoint a policy director for transportation and infrastructure — a position within her administration that she hopes can coordinate big-picture planning, leverage existing and new transportation funding, and fix some of the bureaucratic obstacles holding Oakland back. "The political will is there," she said. "It's up to us in government to get our internal act together so that we can actually implement what everybody wants us to do."

Schaaf hired Matt Nichols, formerly a principal transportation planner for the City of Berkeley, as her transportation policy director two weeks ago. Nichols is an avid cyclist who doesn't own a car and who helped implement a number of progressive projects and policies in Berkeley, where he worked for thirteen years. He told me the day before he started in Oakland that he was drawn to the position because it was a policy-oriented role and one that could help the city strategically spend Measure BB money. "By having a coherent policy direction, you can do work more efficiently," he said, "and get more for all Oakland residents."

When it comes to bike infrastructure, Nichols said there are significant opportunities to reclaim space for cyclists and that the next phase of bike planning in Oakland — and in cities across the country — must be focused on building streets that accommodate more timid and inexperienced cyclists. That means not just planning bike routes on a map, but thinking critically about the level of stress cyclists feel on specific streets and how to eliminate those anxieties. "Most of us are like ... 'I would ride if I didn't feel scared,'" he said. "That's where I think the sky is the limit."

I interviewed a range of transportation researchers and urban planners from throughout the country about how Oakland could catch up to some of the top cities for biking and eventually be a leader. Experts told me that the cities currently ahead in bike infrastructure owe a great deal of their success to a strong policy vision from the top — mayors, city councils, and transportation directors unafraid to push controversial projects and take space away from cars, even in the face of loud opposition.

"It comes down to political leadership and the willingness to take risks," said Rebecca Sanders, an expert on bike and pedestrian planning and former researcher at UC Berkeley's Safe Transportation Research and Education Center. "When people are willing to take risks, there's been a lot of evidence that those risks have been rewarded with results."

In the future, experts agreed, the leading cities in bike infrastructure will have fully connected networks of bike lanes that are strategically separated from car traffic — such as the parking-protected lanes that Oakland is installing on Telegraph Avenue. A successful bike network also requires creative solutions to some basic challenges, like conflicts at intersections when cyclists make left turns or when cars want to make right turns across bike lanes.

Roger Geller, bicycle coordinator with the bureau of transportation in Portland, told me that Portland has built a cohesive network of 344 bikeway miles — and in the coming years will work to upgrade the lanes, converting many more of them into protected ones. Since 2007, Portland has also implemented nearly thirty "bike boxes," which are green-painted boxes on the pavement at intersections that give cyclists a designated spot — in front of cars — to wait during a red light, he said. The box is designed to prevent motorists from hitting bikes when making a right turn by providing a highly visible space for cyclists in typical danger zones.

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