Neighbors demand safer streets in Berkeley’s District 4

District 4, City of Berkeley (Click to view larger). Image: City of Berkeley

District 4, City of Berkeley (Click to view larger). Image: City of Berkeley

More than 40 residents in one of Berkeley’s busiest districts came together last week to voice their frustration about traffic issues on their neighborhood streets.

Constant cut-throughs, shrugged-off stop signs, overgrown round-abouts and high speeds were among the concerns shared at a meeting Thursday night hosted by District 4 Councilman Jesse Arreguín. City Manager Christine Daniel and Berkeley Police Sgt. Robert Rittenhouse also were in attendance.

Arreguín said he scheduled the meeting, at Congregation Beth Israel, because of neighborhood complaints related to pedestrian safety and demands for traffic-calming measures. He noted a recently received petition, signed by several hundred people, calling for the installation of a four-way stop sign at one dangerous intersection. Arreguín also said he was working to bring resident concerns to city officials to have them addressed.

District 4 encompasses downtown Berkeley and is bound by Oxford St. to the east, Sacramento to the west, Dwight Way to the south and Vine St. to the north.

Concerns expressed at the gathering included high-priority intersections, such as the junction of McKinley Avenue and Channing Way, where attendees said they hoped to see traffic-calming tools or more stop signs. Others said they want the city to install barriers, such as those that exist around the Elmwood district near Ashby Avenue, to keep out through-traffic altogether.

“We would like some way to calm things down in a practical way,” said Judy Grether, “and have the neighborhood less accessible to through-traffic.”

Residents also cited problems with round-abouts that cut into crosswalks, and intersections that appear at a glance to be four-way stops, but don’t have what they believe to be much-needed signage, which leads to unsafe situations and driver confusion.

McGee Avenue and Allston Way, said several in attendance, is particularly problematic.

“My heart is in my mouth every time my kids cross the street,” said one mother. “I’m afraid when they go out to play.” She suggested that neighbors take matters into their own hands by posting signs on all the street corners reminding drivers to proceed with caution, as if their own children lived in the area.

One resident said four-way stops at all the intersections in the district was the solution he’d like to see put into place.

“There would be more noise and more pollution, but everyone would have to stop, and that would reduce the amount of cars that would go through,” he said. “Is there a mechanism to do that?”

City Manager Christine Daniel said a change that drastic probably wouldn’t win approval neighborhood-wide.

Some residents blamed vehicles for the bulk of the problems, and advocated for car-free living, while others said “bad human behavior” was the real culprit.

Retired deputy public works director Patrick Keilch, who lives in the neighborhood, said he’d like to see the city get “a little bit creative” in its thinking about how to solve the neighborhood’s traffic woes. He said Berkeley might take some inspiration from the early days of Disneyland, with its monorails and Peter Pan rides.

“It was about getting people place to place safely while they enjoyed themselves and had fun,” he said, urging officials and neighbors to get beyond “the things we’re sometimes stuck in.”

Many of Berkeley’s intersections that had the most annual collisions in a recent study are located in District 4. Pedestrian Master Plan, Appendix D (Space Syntax summary report), City of Berkeley (2010)

In response to a suggestion from neighbor Noah Friedman to hold a district-wide brainstorming session to identify problem intersections and develop a wish-list of solutions, another neighbor said, essentially, “been there, done that.”

Nancy Holland said, a number of years back, the city made efforts to engage the whole neighborhood, and enlisted a traffic engineer “to draw a very complex half-barrier system” that would be installed block by block as neighbors signed on. But due to opposition from some residents, needs expressed by police about street access, and staffing changes at City Hall, she said, the plans never came to fruition.

“If we had the support of all the neighbors, we might have convinced the city that we were talking turkey,” she said. Officials and other neighbors said they’d like to take another look at the plan, and Holland said she’d try to find her copy to share it with them.

Sgt. Rittenhouse, who supervises four Berkeley Police motor officers, urged residents to report problem intersections as well as issues with police who appear to be driving recklessly or taking unnecessary risks.

“Cops speeding when they don’t need to be speeding is a pet peeve of mine,” he told the crowd, adding that one of his duties involves working with the city’s Fatal Accident Investigation Team. “We see the end result of speed or distracted driving all day long.”

Rittenhouse said, in the past year, there were 149 collisions in the police beats that correspond closely to District 4. Eighty-five involved injuries, 18 involved cyclists and 15 involved pedestrians. Five involved intoxication, and one resulted in death.

The intersection of Shattuck Ave. and University: one of the most dangerous in the city for collisions. Photo: Google Maps

Several neighbors brought up the fatal alcohol-involved crash in May, at California Street and Allston Way, that led to the deaths of a recent UC Berkeley graduate and her 6-year-old son.

Some residents attempted to put officials on the spot about the city’s approach to the neighborhood.

“When you take a look at the rectangle bounded by University, Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Sacramento and Dwight, what is your policy toward it?” asked Jack Kurzweil of City Manager Daniel. “Do you see it as a residential neighborhood that should accommodate the local traffic of residents, or do you see it … as through-streets?”

Daniel said the city’s Transportation Commission is at work crafting and refining the city’s traffic-calming policy, which she said was adopted in 2009 and is what the city uses to assess traffic-calming requests. She said the city has tried a range of approaches to slow drivers down, but hasn’t “found the perfect solution yet.”

Kurzweil said Daniel’s response was “the direct opposite of a specific answer to my question” and roundly criticized city staff and officials for a lack of specificity: “You do not get a direct response to a direct question in this town.”

Another resident added that “This city gets an ‘F'” for teaching residents to bike and walk responsibly.

Resident Friedman asked Councilman Arreguín: “How can we hold you accountable for this? What are you gonna do? What is our next step? …. We want action and we want it now. We don’t want to wait 10 years for action.”

The council member responded that he would work with the city manager to go over the long list of concerns that came up at the meeting, and look at the possibility of installing diverters in the neighborhood. He said he could provide an update to neighbors within two weeks.

Arreguín said, after the meeting, that it would likely be several months before any changes can be put into place to address traffic issues in the neighborhood, adding that he appreciated the night’s discussion, and that the city manager and police had been party to the conversation.

“Our streets are not safe,” he said. “People are frustrated. I understand. There’s clearly a need for us to do something about it.”

Pedestrians, kids now safer around Malcolm X School [04.11.12]
Parents not officials pushed through safety improvements [04.10.12]
Crossing at Dwight and Telegraph prompts safety calls [09.26.11]
Making safer streets in memory of little boy [03.30.11]
Malcolm X parents raise concerns over pedestrian safety [03.03.11]
Berkeley dangerous city for cyclists and pedestrians [12.17.10]
Comment: Emerson students at risk from traffic [03.17.10]
Police focus on pedestrians [03.03.10]

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  • The Sharkey

    And what about the non-cyclists, Prinzrob? What about the elderly or the disabled who aren’t able to use bicycles? They just get screwed.

  • The Sharkey

    There’s already a huge subset of folks who say they want to bike but don’t for a number of reasons…

    There’s a huge number of people who say they’re going to keep their New Year’s resolutions, exercise more, buy locally, boycott Wal-Mart, buy American-Made products, etc., and yet they don’t.

    People lie on surveys.

  • Prinzrob

    Doesn’t the fact that bike mode share goes up considerably more in cities where efforts are made to address these concerns dispel the idea that folks aren’t being forthright on the surveys?
    (Also, people who bike more are by and large getting more exercise and spending more money locally. Three New Year’s resolutions in one!)

  • Prinzrob

    “What about the elderly or the disabled who aren’t able to use bicycles? They just get screwed.”
    I don’t know how you construed my statements as an argument that seniors should be forced to bike, but I would start by mentioning that in counties with a very high bike modeshare, the elderly don’t just stay home and rot. Making our streets and paths more accessible and safer to use will indeed allow more seniors to remain active in their later years, increasing their mobility and quality of life. There are certainly those who won’t be able to bike, as there are those who won’t be able to drive, which is why Measure B1 supports all modes.

    The bulk of Measure B1 is about mass transit, which seniors, the disabled, and other non-drivers will benefit from immensely. For those that do drive, encouraging those who can and want to bike or walk to do so will mean less congestion, more parking availability, and better longevity for our infrastructure, saving us all money in the long run.

    “If I’m going to get taxed a dollar to fix the roads, I want 100% of that dollar to go to roads here in Berkeley.”
    Sorry, but that’s not how taxes work. Everyone pays money into projects that they don’t always benefit from directly, but from which they hopefully get a great indirect benefit in the form of a healthier, smarter and more prosperous citizenry. There are certainly plenty of taxes with a dubious benefit, but I would argue that transportation and mobility is a basic need, like food or health care, and something that we do and should continue to support as a society.

  • 2nd generation Berkeleyan

    Solano was not much of a “destination” back then and traffic on Grove was not huge.  It was hardly a “main traffic artery.”  Also Shattuck/Henry /Sutter  through the tunnel (the old F train route) is a way to get to Solano on wide streets built for more traffic. Several blocks of Henry street between Berryman and Hopkins are wide, two lanes and a median strip, yet there is much less traffic there than on the parallel blocks of MLK,which were never built for such traffic. It’s not even wide enough, so a FedEx truck stopping for a delivery causes a traffic backup..

  • PragmaticProgressive

    How many of those are residents?

  • Frustrated progressive

    Thanks for the response, Charles.  I am not necessarily equating New Urbanist with “modern planning” — while I agree with the former in spirit, I tend to find it a bit too dogmatic (especially about my professional focus, retail). 

    I understand the concern about induced demand, but I always thought that was referenced in relation to new highways, and not necessarily a residential street grid  where the overall amount of auto traffic would likely remain constant — for these side streets, what extra demand would be induced (other than cars that would take them instead of the arterials)? 

    No, I am not a frustrated “conservative”, Charles — I moved to Berkeley precisely because it offered an alternative to big-city living (I lived in Manhattan for 15 years before moving here) that was still somewhat urban).  I just feel that sometimes Berkeley, with all of its good intentions, can be a bit myopic and hypocritical, and I have also come to find, with many planning and economic development issues, that the vocal ones are not necessarily the most representative.   

  • Howie Mencken

    I slept on my sister’s couch in the 1700 block for a summer in the early 70’s. Between the fire engines and regular traffic is was plenty noisy. 

    The point was, dead-ending the north/south streets at Hearst drove neighborhood traffic up on to Grove. it was an unintended consequence of the Bart project.  

  • Howie Mencken

    “Sacrifice streets”, wether is was coined here or not, is a term perfect for our sensibilities. The implied victimhood is irresistible. Can reparations be far behind?

  • 2nd generation Berkeleyan

    I just got back from a trip to the DC suburbs, and there they really do have quite large major arterial streets and a network of smaller streets.  But in Berkeley we have some “arterial” streets that are really just streets that have been pressed into service as arterials.  I live on MLK and there is no way it is a real arterial street built for major traffic with two lanes in each direction its whole length.  But you can’t turn left onto Yolo and cut through there, you can’t turn left from Josephine into Hopkins without making a turn around the library island, Milvia is cut-off, Napa is cut off…..and so forth.  I agree it would be better if some of the traffic would go on those streets as well instead of being funneled onto one pseudo-arterial street.

  • Charles_Siegel

     As I stated a couple of days ago, the barriers went in in the late sixties, and I’ve been told there was no planning.

    The barriers that are bollards went in during the seventies, and there was very extensive planning.

    There are a few landscaped barriers in west Berkeley that went in during the sixties.

  • Charles_Siegel

     There was a plan passed in 1961 to widen Grove St. to four lanes from Berkeley Way to the Alameda.  Fortunately, the plan was stopped, and this stretch of MLK remains two lanes.

    But the fact that the plan was passed shows that Grove St. was considered a major street at the time.

  • Charles_Siegel

     My point was that the New Urbanists wanted a grid with roughly the same capacity as the current arterials, but Frustrated wants to increase capacity. 

  • Charles_Siegel

     Induced demand is caused by increased capacity, whether by highways or streets.

    The New Urbanists were the ones who began the revival of the grid, which has since spread among modern planners generally.  The seminal essay on the advantages of the grid was by Walter Kulash, who describes himself as a “New Urbanist traffic engineer.” 

    I agree that Berkeley is often myopic and hypocritical – and filled with noisy NIMBYs.  We are way behind San Francisco when it comes to progressive city planning.  We just killed Bus Rapid Transit, so now it will just be implemented in Oakland and San Leandro.

  • Charles_Siegel

     Sharkey, I never realized that you bicycle as a major form of transportation.  I’m glad to hear that. 

    Let me squelch the urban legend that people on Dwight were not consulted before the barriers were put in.  There was a massive planning process, and everyone had the opportunity for input.

  • emraguso

    For those who are interested and may have missed the update, Councilman Arreguín’s office sent out a note last week with a brief update following this traffic meeting. Key points were this (quoted from his email) —

    1. The west of MLK neighborhood already bears with a great deal of through traffic. Even though its streets are residential streets, a large amount of traffic flows through them, due to numerous institutions (schools, churches), but also due to its proximity to the Downtown. Streets like Allston and Channing have also been through streets to get to Sacramento and University. The current situation is unsafe for many residents and we need to take steps to slow down traffic on residential streets and make intersections safer.

    2. More education regarding traffic laws and safety is needed by everyone, whether they may be drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians. By becoming more knowledgeable of laws and aware of surroundings, it can reduce accidents, and make intersections safer.

    3. While the City of Berkeley needs to move forward with addressing specific intersections, it would be beneficial for the community to come together to determine an overall traffic calming program. The issue is not limited to just one intersection but rather area wide.

    In addition, the city’s Transportation Commission, a nine member body of citizens who advise the city on transportation policy, has formed a Traffic Calming Subcommittee to look at changing enforcement of the existing traffic calming policy


    See meeting notes compiled by Arreguín’s office here: