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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Since 2003, Portland has also installed seventeen bike-specific traffic signals, which give cyclists an opportunity to make difficult turns or cross intersections while car traffic is halted. Portland has also done a good job analyzing the benefits of its infrastructure. The city estimates that the cost of building its entire bikeway network is equivalent to the cost of constructing just one mile of urban freeway, Geller noted. And by many measures, the return on that investment has been eye-opening.

For example, from 1994 to 2011, per capita driving trips in Portland declined by 8.5 percent as more people chose to ride bikes — a shift that translates to 72 million fewer driving trips by Portland residents each year. The significantly below-average driving rate in the city also translates to $1.2 billion in savings on gas and car costs — money that circulates back into the economy, according to an analysis Geller completed.

"If our bicycle use hadn't increased, we would just see so many more automobile trips on the road today," Geller said, noting that as Portland's population has grown and as more people travel through the city on a daily basis, traffic congestion on key routes has not gotten worse. "Bikes are perhaps the most cost-effective way to move people."

A 2011 Journal of Physical Activity and Health analysis on the health benefits of biking also predicted that by 2040, Portland's investments in bike infrastructure could translate to savings in healthcare costs as high as $590 million.

Progressive bike cities have also demonstrated the correlation between cycling and economic development — another important lesson for Oakland in how walkable and bikeable retail corridors can translate to better business. East Bay advocates pointed me to the efforts of the City of Long Beach, which has a population similar to that of Oakland and comparable traffic concerns — and has demonstrated the economic benefits of a number of progressive bike planning initiatives.

After Long Beach installed a protected bike lane in its downtown in 2011, the results were staggering, said Allan Crawford, former bike coordinator for the city who is now the executive director of advocacy group Bikeable Communities.

In downtown, the city saw a roughly 50 percent increase in cyclists and a roughly 50 percent reduction in vehicle collisions (as car speeds dropped 13 to 25 percent). And the local economy thrived, Crawford said. "New businesses are coming in because that's the culture they want," he said. "They are attracted by the bike- and pedestrian-friendly [streets]."

Studies of innovative transportation infrastructure in cities across the country have repeatedly demonstrated that bike infrastructure generates significant economic gains for cities. For example, in 2013, case studies from New York City's Department of Transportation found that new bike lanes and pedestrian plazas correlated with huge increases in adjacent retail sales — jumps that substantially outpaced gains in comparable areas and on nearby streets.

After the city installed bike lanes and a tree-lined median on one avenue in Brooklyn, shops on the street experienced a doubling of retail sales — an increase that was twice the rate of sales hikes in similar neighborhoods that did not have transportation upgrades during that time.

Those are the kinds of benefits East Bay advocates expect to see with the Telegraph Avenue project, which they hope would then encourage similar redesigns of business corridors throughout the city. And if those kinds of forward-thinking projects become commonplace here, they could be transformative for Oakland.


In February, I joined East Bay Bike Party for the group's monthly night ride in which hundreds of cyclists take to the streets in Oakland, spilling out into many neighborhoods across the city. Like many local events centered on cycling, it offers a clear indication that cyclists are a large and energetic constituency passionate about reclaiming public space. While a few motorists honked angrily at the seemingly endless mob of cyclists, many more drivers honked rhythmically, cheering on the colorful parade of bikes. Personally, I don't generally enjoy massive group rides, but it's hard not to have fun at East Bay Bike Party, which seems to draw a crowd that is actually as diverse as Oakland.

I was similarly impressed by the turnout out at a Bike East Bay two-day strategic planning summit in January, which drew more than 120 bike advocates for discussions on the future of bike advocacy in the region. On the first day, I shared a table with UC Berkeley students, a Walnut Creek couple with a young child, an amateur racer, and a cyclist who has worked to fix potholes in Oakland.

"There are more groups organized around biking than we even know about," said Renee Rivera, Bike East Bay's executive director. "There is just so much happening."

At the summit, groups debated the best ways to increase the number and diversity of people biking in the region and also discussed whether it was time for the East Bay to consider a so-called Vision Zero policy — that is the stated goal of zero pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities, a message that cities across the country have begun to adopt. "We have designed our streets with being okay with the fact that they kill people," Rivera told me. "Are we ready to start rethinking what we find acceptable?"

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