The city is about to solicit public comment on a draft of the Streets and Open Space Improvement Program (SOSIP) for downtown Berkeley.
The draft includes many improvements that will make downtown more attractive to pedestrians, but it has rejected an improvement sorely needed by bicyclists: creating a safe bike route into downtown.
The pedestrian improvements deserve support. A principle of the plan is that immediate improvements will require zero net change in parking availability, and that more improvements will be made only after a parking management plan increases the availability of customer parking.
The most important pedestrian improvements are making the west branch of Shattuck Ave. between Center St. and University Ave. two ways, making the east branch of Shattuck a street for local traffic only, and widening the sidewalk of University Ave. between Shattuck and Oxford St.
This change will let us create an entire network of pedestrian friendly streets in downtown, with wide sidewalks, cafe seating, and plantings. This change will work for traffic without causing congestion. This change will attract more customers to downtown businesses. And this change will make the corner of Shattuck and University into a normal intersection, eliminating the dangerous conflict between through traffic and pedestrians.
Initially, the east branch of Shattuck will be used for added parking, needed to meet the plan’s net-zero-parking goal. Ultimately, it will be redesigned for pedestrians.
This change is just one of many pedestrian improvements in the SOSIP, which clearly will make downtown more attractive.
Initially, the plan had an equally important improvement for bicyclists. In the near term, it called for parking to be removed on one side of Milvia St. between University and Center, so a bicycle lane could be striped there. In the long term, it called for a plaza or shared space on the block of Milvia in front of City Hall.
The final draft of the SOSIP still has the drawings for the Milvia Bike lane, but it also has a cover letter that says: “Review also led to the following refinements within the draft document: Provide a bike improvement option for Milvia that does not eliminate parking on one side of the street.”
This vague talk about “a bike improvement option,” without any specific design, means that there will be no bike improvements in the foreseeable future.
Milvia downtown is currently very dangerous for bicyclists, because it is narrow and heavily trafficked. It is the only place in Berkeley where I have seen a bicyclist “doored” – thrown to the ground by an opening car door. There is currently no safe bike route to downtown, a major deterrent to bicycling.
Let me suggest specific near-term improvements for the Milvia Bike Boulevard that the SOSIP should include.
First, there should be required turns on this part of Milvia to reduce automobile traffic. For example, southbound traffic could be required to turn right onto Center St., and northbound traffic could be required to turn right onto University Ave (making the intersection with University safer as well as reducing traffic on Milvia).
San Francisco has implemented required turns on Market St., making it dramatically safer for bicyclists by reducing traffic. If they can do it on a major street in their downtown, Berkeley can certainly do it on a minor street in our downtown.
Second, the bike lane on Milvia should only be delayed temporarily. The SOSIP satisfies the net-zero-parking goal by adding parking on the east branch of Shattuck temporarily, but it will remove this parking to improve that street for pedestrians after parking availability increases. Likewise, it should remove the parking on Milvia to make the street safer for bicyclists after parking availability increases.
San Francisco is planning to stripe bike lanes in 22 locations in the coming year alone, many involving loss of parking. Will Berkeley not only delay but completely reject the idea of striping bike lanes on just two blocks to provide a safe bike route to downtown for the first time?
We could stripe bike lanes on Milvia by removing a grand total of eleven parking spaces, only a tiny fraction of the total amount of parking affected by the SOSIP.
The SOSIP does have other bicycle improvement that deserve our support, but it would be unfair to bicyclists if the SOSIP did not provide near-term improvements on Milvia, a designated bicycle boulevard that is the only potentially safe bicycle route into downtown.
It would also be a betrayal of the city’s environmental commitments. Berkeley voters overwhelmingly supported the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. Transportation causes about half of our GHG emissions. Bicycling is the simplest and cheapest thing we can do to reduce our emissions from transportation.
It would be outrageous if the city refused to encourage bicycling by providing a safe route to downtown.
Charles Siegel is an environmentalist and a bicyclist.