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Five years ago, Oakland planners broke ground on a bold project on Telegraph Avenue: a protected bicycle lane. It might not seem like that big of a deal until you see it. Most bicycle lanes in Oakland and the rest of California are the buffered type, which place bike riders in a painted strip next to vehicle traffic, with parked cars on their right. Protected lanes entirely separate bicyclists from moving traffic by putting a barrier in between them.
To do this on Telegraph, Department of Transportation staff started by reducing its four-driving lane design to two, with one lane for each direction of vehicle traffic, and a center turn lane. Then they moved car parking about four feet away from the curb and painted stripes designating the space in between parked cars and the sidewalk as the protected bicycle lane.
Over time, the Department of Transportation, commonly referred to as OakDOT, added other physical barriers like bollards, plastic poles stuck into the ground to better separate the protected lanes from the parking spaces, and planters and small islands. This pilot project was intended to demonstrate the effectiveness of protected lanes, and eventually the city would build permanent concrete separators and wider bike lanes, making the changes permanent.
But on June 2, OakDOT Director Ryan Russo recommended abandoning the protected lanes and returning the street to a buffered layout. The announcement caught many by surprise and marked an about-face for one of the transportation department’s most high-profile projects.
In a blog post explaining his decision, Russo wrote that it came down to three things. First, the many staggered outlets and entry points for cars, bikes, and pedestrians created dangerous intersections between the protected bike lanes and traffic. Second, the protected design, at least in its pilot phase, failed to alleviate potentially harmful economic effects on local businesses. And third, OakDOT was unable to conduct sufficient and equitable community outreach about the redesign and its impacts. Russo said further improvements could not overcome these issues.
“We brought in well-received bus boarding islands, two kinds of plastic posts, and planters designed to both beautify and protect the installation,” he wrote about improvements. “But each of these interventions proved temporary and insufficient.” Cars ended up running over posts, people removed planters, and the islands caused accidents.
The board of the KONO Community Benefit District, which represents business owners in the area, viewed Russo’s announcement as a victory. Many shop owners and restaurants think the bike lanes are bad for their business. They’d gathered more than 1,800 signatures on a Change.org petition calling for the removal of the bike lanes.
Oakland’s and California’s wider biking advocacy communities were horrified by the plan to take out the protected bike lanes. They believe that the paths were much safer than the buffered lanes could ever be, and they accused OakDOT of caving to the demands of businesses that care more about parking than traffic safety.
Dave Snyder, the California Bicycle Coalition’s executive director, told The Oaklandside that OakDOT’s recommendation was unprecedented. The Telegraph Avenue changes were approved under the state’s Active Transportation Program, and out of nearly a thousand similar bike and pedestrian safety improvements also approved through ATP program since its inception in 2013, only one other project Snyder can think of, he said, reverted back to an old design.
Multiple city and regional transportation authorities rejected OakDOT’s proposal to take out the protected lanes, including the city’s Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, the City Council’s Public Works Committee, and AC Transit.
Yesterday, the City Council considered Russo’s recommendation alongside input from community groups and Oakland residents. After hearing from both sides, the council voted 8-0 to reject Russo and OakDOT’s suggestions. The city will keep the protected lanes and eventually expand them.
But the council’s decision by no means puts the controversy to rest. The struggle over Telegraph Avenue symbolizes broader challenges facing Oakland about designing our streets and making them safer. With residents loudly questioning what projects get completed and why, and who gets to benefit from them, this week’s decision is a bellwether for other traffic safety projects, raising all kinds of questions.
We examined the origins of the Telegraph Avenue controversy to see if there are lessons to be learned, not just about Telegraph Avenue, but deeper problems affecting our city’s ability to make big transportation changes work for everyone. Sources told us Oakland’s transportation department has staffing problems that cause trouble when the city tries to roll out big projects. In a city with strongly differing views on how to design the streets, these problems can doom pilot projects like the Telegraph bike lanes, even if the lanes are making streets safer. But an even bigger issue is that Oakland still isn’t doing a good job taking into account the views and needs of communities of color, and that failures to properly survey and plan for everyone’s needs causes conflict.
The protected bike lanes made Telegraph Avenue safer, but not everyone felt safe
If the sole purpose of OakDOT redesigning Telegraph Avenue was to make it safer for bikers and pedestrians, then data suggest they should keep the protected bicycle lanes.
OakDOT found that the protected lanes caused cars to slow down, addressing the most critical factor in surviving collisions. The speed of the fastest cars went down to about 24 mph, while the pace of most other vehicles went down to 17 mph. Collisions between bicyclists and cars also fell by 40% in the first year the protected lanes were in place. The number of pedestrians on Telegraph Avenue also went up 103%, and the number of bicyclists using the street nearly doubled. Finally, most residents, pedestrians, and bike riders who took surveys supported the project.
In the latest OakDOT report, presented at the Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission meeting on June 17, Russo noted that people driving on the stretch of Telegraph with the protected bike lanes are three times more likely to yield to pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the street.
Margaret McCrary recently moved to Oakland from San Francisco and rides her bike to get around town. She said she likes the KONO Telegraph section, especially compared to areas without bike infrastructure.
“The protected bike lane is the safest kind of lane, and I would like there to be more of those. And the idea they would take that away and replace it with paint is astonishing,” she said in an interview.
But other people we spoke with who travel through KONO frequently say the project worried them from the beginning.
Diana Lieu, a bike commuter and communications director of Praxis Project, a public health and racial equity firm, said the protected lane has “never” felt safe. That’s because cars parked next to it obscure riders from vehicles traveling in the street, and the lane is so close to parked cars that it’s easy to get hit by opening passenger-side doors. She also feels that the city isn’t enforcing traffic safety laws well, creating a situation in which unsafe driving practices continue to create hazards for bicyclists.
“I was excited about Telegraph, but because of lack of enforcement, it’s been worse than it was before. I just ride on the road because the line of sight drivers have for cyclists is essential. They need to see you so that they don’t accidentally run into you,” she said. “When bicyclists want to go straight, but a driver wants to take a right and don’t pay attention if the cyclist is on their right, they can cut them off. I feel like that’s a really dangerous situation.”
Lieu also said something we heard a lot: cars park on the bicycle lanes, defeating the point of having a protected lane.
“There’s not a single time I haven’t gone down that bike lane in the morning where there hasn’t been a car on that path,” Lieu said.
Zach Kaplan, a bike commuter, said in the recent Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission meeting he didn’t have a problem riding alongside cars in the old buffered lanes. But as soon as protected lanes went in, he began to have “numerous near misses” with vehicles turning on and off of Telegraph, crossing the protected lane in the process. “The sightlines are just horrible. It’s much less safe.”
Some people inside biking advocacy organizations also dislike biking there, before and after protected lanes were added. They asked us not to use their name for fear they’d lose friends who remain staunch supporters of the OakDOT project.
“It’s just too crowded, and pedestrians sometimes walk in the bike lanes. I’d much rather just ride on quieter streets or streets fully designated as greenways,” one of them told us over email.
Mariana Parreiras, a BART Project Manager who is a transportation engineer and former Oakland BPAC Commissioner, also mentioned the view blockage in a letter to the city council. She wrote that the fact the street has no traffic signals or stop signs at several of its intersections and driveways makes the vision problem worse.
OakDOT ran several surveys in the last few years to try to gauge how residents, bicyclists, business owners, and others were feeling about the protected bike lanes. Business owners were the only group against protected lanes, with about 70% saying it had negative impacts on them. However, most of the people who took the surveys did so online and weren’t necessarily residents or business owners in the neighborhood, and OakDOT believes that many of them were responding to calls from bicycle advocacy groups and were thus more likely to express support for the protected lane.
Ali Tahsini, who runs the Double Standard bar near 25th Street, said he’s seen many close calls and injuries. A car collided with a biker when turning right onto 25th, he said. Another person he knows was hit by a car crossing the sidewalk and is still rehabilitating six months later. Another time, he witnessed a scooter rider flip over the bus ramp bridge in the bike lane on 24th Street, landing on his back and immobilizing him.
“Somebody wanted to roll them over. I remember telling that person ‘don’t touch him.’ From what I could tell, he might’ve injured his spine. It was a really bad accident,” Tahsini said.
Kingston 11 restaurant owner Nigel Jones told us that as a driver, he feels on edge.
“The way the parking spaces are set up, it is very difficult to see cars coming from my left [if I’m crossing into Telegraph.] And there are a lot of buses and delivery trucks and cars coming, and some are coming down pretty fast. So I have to commit myself in a blind spot to kind of peek out to see if I can cross or not. It’s a dangerous situation, and I’m super cautious,” he said.
Yet, not all KONO business leaders are against the protected bike lanes. Telegraph Beer Garden manager Shelby Hamilton told us over the phone that she doesn’t have any trouble finding parking and that many of her employees use the lane to get to work and feel better having it separate from traffic.
Feeling safe and actually being safe are two different things
Although the data shows that the protected bike lanes made Telegraph safer and increased bike and pedestrian activity, Russo wrote in his blog post that it was the excessive number of close calls—near collisions between bike riders or pedestrians and cars—that led his team to conclude the design, in this particular part of the city, is unsafe. Russo claimed that there are even some crashes that aren’t reported.
But according to Chester University’s Peter Cox, an expert on the sociology of biking and sustainable mobility, perceptions of danger are rarely related to the actual risks people are facing. They vary depending on the person experiencing it, how they ride, walk, or “feel other factors,” he told us over email. This may explain why some people in KONO felt that the protected lane made the street more dangerous. If people aren’t used to the increased amount of cycling being done on their street, they are more likely to see the close calls as indicative of lack of safety when it’s actually just a sign of increasing bicycle use.
A protected lane separating bikes from cars is the safest option, according to Cox, if the infrastructure of the whole street is designed to fully accommodate both types of transportation, which is not the case in Oakland or most other American cities. In European cities which use protected bike lanes, cyclists have right of way and rarely have to stop. It’s cars that have to stop before they turn and cross a bike lane. And parked cars aren’t allowed as close to the protected lanes and especially not in areas near where cars turn across the bicycle path where they could block sightlines.
The type of narrow protected bike lane OakDOT installed on Telegraph for the pilot project is inconvenient and less safe because bike traffic slows down to “its slowest rider,” creating bottlenecks and queues. The fully protected design Oakland originally planned, the one that Russo wanted to move away from, would expand the lane’s size to avoid these bottlenecks.
The high number of “unsignalized intersections” on Telegraph like driveways also feeds the perception of unsafeness. Russo cited an unusually high number of intersections that appear every 185 feet for most of the protected bike lane’s duration, where in the rest of the corridor they appear every 270 to 275 feet.
However, some transit studies say that perceiving a street as dangerous is a good safety outcome. The more alert people are when driving in an area, the thinking goes, the slower they drive, and slower driving leads to less collisions and less serious injuries.
Dave Campbell, the advocacy director of Bike East Bay, a group that promotes bicycling and bike infrastructure, said that while close calls are unfortunate, OakDOT’s focus on them over the past few years likely hides the fact they were probably also occurring before the protected lanes were established.
“We challenge the idea it was magically not happening before we changed the street,” said Campbell. “All of a sudden, low-income people don’t report collisions. They’ve always not done that. You can assume there were a lot of non-reported collisions [and close calls].”
Campbell said the improved Telegraph yield numbers, where vehicles are three times more likely to yield to pedestrians or bikes at an intersection, are a “good surrogate” to close calls that show it’s safe.
Others note that the consensus of hundreds of people surveyed multiple times over several years was that they do feel safer with a protected lane, and that this should matter more than claims about close calls.
The city, business groups, and bike advocates did a poor job surveying Oaklanders about the protected bike lanes
An OakDOT survey of KONO businesses conducted in May 2019 talked to 191 merchants, residents, and shoppers, showing 48% positive bike lanes, 16% as neutral, and 36% as unfavorable. In a district with thousands of people shopping and working any weekday, OakDOT officials like Russo believe these survey results may not have accurately gauged feelings about the protected bike lanes because too few people responded. In a similar survey in 2019, only twenty-eight business owners responded out of the 203 that operated along the stretch of Telegraph Avenue with the protected lanes were installed.
City officials and bicycle advocates on opposing sides of the debate agree on another problem with the surveys: white residents were overrepresented and other important groups weren’t included. Racial disparities in how Oakland gathers resident feedback is nothing new. We reported on inadequate city outreach efforts during the rollout of the Slow Streets program in 2020, leading to Black and brown people feeling disenfranchised.
In the Spring of 2020, the Department of Race and Equity, conducted its own survey about Telegraph Avenue’s bicycle lanes, focused on talking to black and brown business owners. It found a majority did not support the protected lane option. This proved to many that the multiple surveys conducted by OakDOT, the KONO district, and bike advocates from 2016-2018 were faulty.
In Summer 2020, then-councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhanney wrote a resolution asking the council to re-evaluate the safety of the street, this time with equity and inclusion in mind. At the time, she said her “constituents repeatedly report that they are not heard or valued” regarding OakDOT installations. The council unanimously passed the resolution on July 28th, 2020.
In Fall 2020, OaKDOT acted upon the resolution and began the work to reassess the design. They came up with five options: return to the old configuration, keep the pilot protected bike lane as is, further improve the protected lanes with more space and protection from vehicles, create an “enhanced” buffered bike lane, or create a buffered lane with “curb management.” The latter option called for the city to issue more tickets for parking and loading infractions while also adding new meters with higher hourly rates at extended hours, moves that would, in theory, force drivers to park less in the area, move their cars more often, and avoid double parking in bike lanes.
To make this decision, OakDOT staff committed themselves to conducting a much more inclusive survey that would include low-income KONO businesses, people of color, and seniors. Campbell said his group was “very supportive” of the focus on equity through a more accurate survey.
Unfortunately, when the survey was supposed to go out, COVID hit its third wave, from September through the end of the year. Campbell said the city struggled to get people to take the survey without putting their health at risk. They ended up doing some in-person outreach through a pop-up table and targeted groups online, and waited for the results.
Out of 650 people who took the survey, 79.8% said they were in favor of the protected bike lanes. A majority of Black, Latinx, and Asian respondents preferred it. But a closer look at the data disappointed everyone.
City staff and stakeholders realized that 74% of respondents were white, about three times higher than the percentage of city residents of the same race and almost twice the number who live in the KONO zip code. Only 11% of respondents identified as Asian, 5% as Black, and 4% as Latinx or Hispanic.
Instead of waiting until they could re-do the survey, Campbell believes that OakDOT made a big mistake. It decided, as stated on Russo’s final report, to let individual leaders from each of the groups representing major stakeholders in the project “fill in the gaps” by allowing them to make their design scoring decisions for their whole communities. The KONO business improvement district and Northgate Neighborhood Council leaders, as well as Bike East Bay were allowed to score each option and submit their preferences to the city.
Campbell of Bike East Bay feels that this option gave opponents of the protected bike lanes an unfair edge. He and some city staff who disagreed with Russo’s recommendations say that the protected bike lane should have scored much higher on safety than the buffered lane, but both were ranked 4 out of 5.
Russo defended the process as fair and noted that the buffered lane and protected lane options ranked highest, with the buffered design just barely coming out on top. Most importantly, he said the urgency he’s heard from local businesses about going back to the buffered lane informed OakDOT’s final decision. Considering design and construction bids, he said, meant the earliest the department would have been able to make any changes would be in 2022. Some OakDOT insiders we spoke to, however, said that fully building out the protected lane would be faster, since the money and design is already in place and the construction bid just needs to be accepted by the council.
The Telegraph Avenue debate surfaced deeper problems within OakDOT
The Oaklandside spoke to multiple OakDOT staffers for this story who told us that the Telegraph Avenue project’s engineering, management, and planning problems have mostly been self-inflicted.
Although OakDOT has successfully transformed some city streets and made them safer, these city workers said the department’s severe understaffing has caused delays that can make or break a project. They also said staff morale is low because of poor communication, lousy design outcomes, and low pay compared to other cities. Over the past few years, multiple high-level OakDOT staffers have quit because of frustrations they have working for Oakland, including staff who worked on the Telegraph Avenue project.
Nearly all of the current transportation department employees spoke with us on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. But Iris Starr had no such worries. Starr worked for Oakland as a transportation planner for over ten years and helped develop the Telegraph Avenue project starting in 2014. She no longer works for the city.
According to Starr and other OakDOT employees we talked with, Russo and Mayor Libby Schaaf have pushed a pro-transportation agenda that has forced the department since its inception in 2016 to keep innovating and moving forward on projects like Telegraph to push the envelope of environmental reform. More innovative projects lead to more national attention, which leads to more grant funding for projects, they explained. This can be a good thing if the focus is there, but Starr says it wasn’t.
“[Telegraph] was neglected. The new director [Russo] came in, he had these great ideas about things he wanted to do. He was busy putting in purple crosswalks, bizarre things, got really excited about scooters and bike rentals, and stuff like that. A lot of his attention was on new facilities and projects that were existing that might’ve needed attention didn’t get it,” Starr said.
According to the staffers, most people inside OakDOT did not agree with Russo’s recommendation to convert Telegraph Avenue back to a buffered bike lane. They believe that protected lanes are safer and that the five-point scoring system used to determine a winner should have reflected that, but they feel that Russo made a decision and used a system that would justify it.
“I’m not surprised. An outcome that suddenly changes, that slices away, isn’t a new phenomenon at OakDOT. He’s enamored by data but it needs it to tell him what he wants” said Starr. Another insider at OakDOT disputes Russo has picked through data to find an optimal score but that his decision-making style of never making a concrete, final decision in front of colleagues makes it feel like decisions come out of nowhere.
Russo defended the way OakDOT handled the Telegraph Avenue pilot project and said his eventual reassessment was the best option from a data and community perspective.
“No process is perfect, but we certainly want to be a data-driven department,” he said. “We need to weigh lots of different information. There’s our professional judgment, engineering expertise, community input from voices that struggled to participate in certain processes. Ultimately, we thought that the evaluation matrix that we laid out developed in partnership with the stakeholders was the right way to weigh these things.”
According to OakDOT staff, the Telegraph Avenue redesign also suffered from delays because of personnel transfers and departures. Assigned initially to one engineer, the building of the protected lane was put on hold to design plans for “band-aid” repairs such as the bus boarding islands. When that engineer left the city, the project was assigned to another engineer who already had multiple prioritized projects in front of them. On average, OakDOT grant-funded projects are delayed a year and a half over the expected timeframe, say department staffers.
This past January, the transportation department admitted to the Measure KK Public Oversight Committee, a volunteer city board that makes sure infrastructure money is being responsibly used, that “their constraint continues to be staffing and access to consultants to complete project designs,” noting a constant job vacancy rate of “about 20%.”
Russo said in an interview that his department is no different from others. “The city of Oakland as a government entity is not staffed and resourced as much as I think Oaklanders deserve it to be.”
IFPTE Local 21, the union representing most of OakDOT’s workers, told The Oaklandside that the people responsible for Telegraph’s bike lanes, for both OakDOT and the Public Works division, take home on average $10,000 less than workers in other, smaller cities like Newark and Fremont, and that pay is among the most critical factors in people leaving the city.
“We work for Oakland because we love our city, but for us to provide the best possible services to the residents of Oakland, we need to grow our team by paying competitive wages so we can recruit and retain experienced workers to do the work,” said Local 21 Chapter President Laura Takeshita.
Can bike lanes, healthy businesses, and street fairs benefit one another?
Businesses along Telegraph Avenue haven’t done well during the pandemic, but their economic problems go back further. Since the first quarter of 2019, sales tax revenue collected by the city from businesses in the KONO district has declined. According to Shari Godinez, executive director of the KONO district, this is caused by retail customers who are fed up with the street design changes leaving the area to shop somewhere else.
According to documents provided by Godinez, in the fourth quarter of 2018, the district contributed sales tax revenues of $146,981 from 196 businesses, but by the fourth quarter of 2019, the last full quarter before the pandemic, KONO contributed $96,955 in tax revenues. This drop came after eight straight quarters of rising or steady sales tax revenue.
“We went door to door talking to merchants. They said sales went down after the bike lane was installed,” said Godinez.
Bike East Bay’s Campbell disagrees with Godinez’s argument that the bike lanes harmed retail businesses. The revenue decline, he said, was likely caused by the closing of KONO’s three biggest money-makers in 2019: The THC cannabis store on 3003 Telegraph, and two gas stations bought by developers that were closed down to turn into new real estate projects. Campbell says neither KONO nor the city allowed his group to see detailed sales tax data of individual businesses. The Oaklandside asked for this information as well, but the KONO district cited competitive privacy laws prevented them from providing it.
Another worry is what happens with First Fridays, the massive street festival that happens in KONO on the first Friday of every month. Greg Harris, the event coordinator, says it helps businesses make monthly rent in a day. Before it was paused because of the pandemic, vendors would squeeze six-foot tables and food trucks inside the parking spaces and bike lanes, leaving the middle of the street for people to walk in. The festival is tentatively scheduled to restart in August.
Harris said the bollards and other bike lane features could make it hard for vendors to set up. “They won’t even be able to squeeze their table in there or set up behind them for the space they need,” he said. With fire and COVID-19 regulations forcing event organizers to keep vendors separated, it might lead to higher fees and fewer vendors, even though some are requesting to pay less because of the smaller space.
Campbell says his experience with First Fridays is that the vendors usually find ways to fit their stalls where they need to be. “Even in the short period where we had the [70 three-foot high] planter boxes out there, vendors just set up around them organically, and the event was successful.”
The bollards might prove more difficult, however. They’re too tall to set up most tables over them and they cover large portions of the street area. Godinez said KONO initially was told by OakDOT the bollards could be easily removed for the event and put back, but she was recently told by the department they couldn’t be moved without great effort
Former OakDOT staffer Starr says that she thinks the Telegraph avenue issue probably does come down to legitimate minority community fears about their financial future, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“The street configuration issue is a scapegoat. It doesn’t surprise me [they don’t want it]. Aesthetically, the pilot looks like trash. Businesses are not being respected. It’s like being a landlord, and Oakland is a bad landlord.”
If the KONO district is worried about money, Starr suggests there are viable fixes, some of which have been discussed. They include expanding First Fridays two blocks to accommodate vendors, adding single meter poles next to parking spots, and allowing trucks to legally park in the middle of the street. A safety fix in the protected lane could be to raise the biking lane, lowering sightline issues.
The socio-cultural and economic issues Starr brings up are reflected in conversations Department of Race and Equity leadership had with KONO businesses. Director Darlene Flynn, whose staff interviewed 18 businesses in 2020, 13 of which are run by people of color, said housing instability and displacement, on top of collision safety worries, are at the core of people’s concerns with the protected bike lane.
In a report to the City Council, Flynn wrote that businesses like Sankofa African Arts and Abyssinia Market have “already been impacted by gentrification and displacement of their customer base, who have been priced out of living in Oakland.” A lot of those customers still want to visit KONO but depend on cars to do so. Maybe more importantly, most don’t own the land, which to them, the report says, endangers their future. Based on their profile as immigrants, with little formal education, they may not be able to find a new job or create a new business if they are gentrified out of the neighborhood.
“Structural disadvantages based on race,” Flynn, and ultimately OakDOT, seem to be saying, will mean that a protected bike lane used by more affluent riders who are relative newcomers to the area, could eventually supplant Telegraph Avenue’s older BIPOC and immigrant communities. Historically, according to residents and businesses, KONO clientele, and black and brown people in Oakland in general, do not use bikes to travel to and from businesses.
The manager of Louisiana Fish and Chips may have been speaking for many minority-owned businesses when we recently asked what she thought about the protected lanes over the phone.
“We hate them!” she yelled and hung up.