Op-Ed: Wider sidewalks would revitalize Southside

By Charles Siegel

Charles Siegel is a Berkeley resident, environmental activist, and author of "Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices."

Bancroft Avenue near Telegraph Avenue. Photo: Charles Siegel

Bancroft Way near Telegraph Avenue. Photo: Charles Siegel

Berkeley Design Advocates has suggested many good ideas for revitalizing the Telegraph Ave. shopping district, and I think the most important is their proposal to make Bancroft and Durant two-way, which would allow us to widen sidewalks in key locations.

In the picture, you can see that the campus side of Bancroft has a fairly attractive sidewalk with trees, while the south side of the street has a narrow, bland sidewalk. Imagine how different this picture could be if we made Bancroft two-way and widened this narrow sidewalk by 10 feet. We would have room to plant trees and add cafe seating on this side of the street, making it an attractive shopping street facing campus.

Business improved dramatically when the city widened the sidewalk on Center St. just west of campus, and we could do the same by widening sidewalks on the blocks of Bancroft adjacent to Telegraph and on the block of Durant east of Telegraph.

We could begin by widening the sidewalk on Bancroft east of Telegraph, where there is a row of restaurants that could use outdoor seating, and where we could widen the sidewalk without any change in current traffic patterns, so the cost would be low. We could adopt a plan to make the streets two-way, so we could widen the other sidewalks when funding is available.

Because these streets are close to campus, they are the southside blocks where it is easiest to attract new business from the university. We should build on their strength. As they become more successful, the success will spill over to other parts of the Telegraph shopping district.

Years ago, the Southside plan studied making Bancroft, Durant, and Telegraph two-way, and it found that traffic would work with one traffic lane in each direction and left-turn pockets at intersections. Going from three to two traffic lanes would give us an extra 10 feet on Bancroft and Durant, which we could use to widen sidewalks in some places and possibly also to increase parking by adding diagonal parking in other places.

But making Telegraph two-way is not politically feasible or beneficial.

Merchants and street vendors are very strongly opposed to two-way Telegraph, because they need to stop in the traffic lane for loading and unloading, which would block traffic if there were only one lane in each direction. I am generally in favor of making streets two-way, but this is one place where I think it would not work for traffic flow, because too many people stop in the traffic lane.

In addition, two-way Telegraph would require left-turn pockets on two-way Bancroft and Durant east of Telegraph, preventing us from widening the sidewalks at these locations. We should not sacrifice these widened sidewalks, which would be a significant benefit, for the sake of two-way Telegraph, which would have little or no benefit.

It could be politically feasible to make Bancroft and Durant two-way, if we emphasize the benefits to business: drawing more customers with wider, more attractive sidewalks at key locations, and possibly increasing the supply of parking by adding diagonal parking on the blocks where we do not widen the sidewalk.

Center Street. Photo: Charles Siegel

Center Street. Photo: Charles Siegel

Center St. west of campus has thousands of people from the University walking on it each day. Twenty years ago, this block was very shaky economically, because it did not attract many of these people to stop at its stores. Then the city widened the sidewalks and added new trees and planters on this block, making it attractive enough that business improved dramatically. Compare this picture of Center St. with the picture of Bancroft above.

Bancroft and Durant south of campus have as many people from the university walking by them each day as Center St. does. In fact, Bancroft has a better location than Center, because it is right across the street from the busiest part of campus. It is visible to a huge number of people on campus – but right now it is not appealing enough to attract many of those people.

If you want to imagine a better future for Southside businesses, go to Center St. and look at how much the businesses there were helped by the sidewalk widening, new plantings, new trees, and cafe seating.

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  • Guest

    Privatize Berkeley sidewalks!
    Webcor, mcguire & Hester, hunt construction can build
    Them and Lease them back to the city of Berkeley or the highest bidder

  • Not a comment on this op-ed, but on how I got here: It took me four clicks to see this full article:

    From the homepage I clicked on the op-ed headline link, which brought me to a short article about the existence of the op-ed, where I then clicked on the “has the suggested many good ideas” link that I thought would then bring me to the op-ed, but instead brought me to a list of articles tagged “berkeley design advocates”, which included the op-ed as the top article. Then I clicked on the op-ed headline again from that page, which finally brought me to the op-ed.

    How about making the headline link about the op-ed on the homepage a link to the actual op-ed?

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

    Just click on the continue reading tab at the end of the short piece on the home page to get to the full op-ed. Or you can click on Opinionator under the Berkeleyside logo. I am not really sure what you are describing.

  • Thanks, that works. My route was a bit roundabout I admit, but normally doesn’t one think to click on a headline to get to an article from a homepage? Clicking on the op-ed headline from the Berkeleyside homepage doesn’t take you to the op-ed, it takes you to the blurb about the op-ed. So I think it would be better if the op-ed headline link went directly to the op-ed, since the blurb is already fully visible on the homepage.

  • The Sharkey

    Good idea, Charles!
    I was walking in both those areas recently and remarked on how nice the plantings and outdoor seating on Center Street are, and how gross that part of Bancroft is.

  • David D.

    Most of the streets on the Southside should be converted to two ways and have sidewalks widened where possible. Not only should Bancroft and Durant be two ways, so should Fulton, Ellsworth, Haste and Dwight. All of the traffic barriers along Dwight should be removed too, creating a cohesive community with dispersed traffic, which reduces congestion and makes bicycling and walking more attractive. But is there the political will to do this? Will residents just whine about keeping the status quo and miss an opportunity to improve their neighborhood?

  • R. Jay Wallace

    This all strikes me as extremely sensible. As on Center St., there is a huge population of pedestrians on the streets immediately to the south of campus, at least when classes are in session. But right now there isn’t much that would encourage them to do more than scuttle back and forth between the campus and their immediate destination. I also like the piecemeal and empirical character of the proposal: start with some modest changes to Bancroft and its sidewalks, and see what happens, expanding the program to Durant if it is successful. (While we are at it, we could also re-pave Bancroft itself, which is in shockingly poor repair, even by Berkeley’s famously low standards.) Why not give it a try?

  • emraguso

    I had the same experience. We’ll make a few adjustments.

  • Chris J

    Seems like an eminently reasonable notion, and very European. I’ve always been most comfortable on the wide, grand boulevards in many of those Euro cities–though as I recall, the dining experience was always cheaper OFF those main streets as folks would pay a premium to be on the grand blvd to see and be seen.

    Good idea! And not to be even partially facetious, but reducing auto traffic overall would be marvelous, too.

  • Nice plan. I would take it even a step further and make a couple of parts of Berkeley pedestrian only, namely the two blocks of the 4th street shopping area, and the north end of Telegraph (they could remain open to loading and unloading for trucks in the early/late hours). Many cities, even college towns, have downtown blocks that are pedestrian only (see Boulder, CO), and they really make the shopping/dining/strolling experience so much better.

  • David D.

    Having Telegraph open to pedestrians only (with deliveries permitted during non-peak times) between Bancroft and Dwight is a great idea, but area merchants think most of their business comes from drivers who need vehicle access directly from Telegraph Avenue. This is not true, of course, but the recent BRT fiasco suggests that there is insufficient political will to be truly progressive (instead of just Berkeley faux-progressive).

  • I don’t get why there’s any connection between widening the sidewalks and making Bancroft & Durant two-way. Wouldn’t it work even better with two one-way lanes and wide sidewalks?

  • Charles_Siegel

    Two-way conversion has been thoroughly studied in the southside plan, which found that it would work to make Bancroft and Durant two-way if there were left-turn pockets included. Reducing the street width to two lanes in one direction has not been studied that I know of; it might require added turning lanes at the intersections, like the two-way conversion, but we would have to commission a new study to figure out what design would work.

    Another advantage of two-way conversion is that it calms the traffic a bit. Two lanes in each direction allow more aggressive driving, but one lane in each direction eliminates the fast lane, so everyone drives at the same speed as the most prudent drivers.

    Two-way streets are also better for bicyclists and for local automobile traffic, since they don’t have to circle around the block to get where they are going. One-way streets are designed for through traffic at the expense of local traffic.

    For these reasons, I would prefer two-way traffic on Bancroft and Durant. But I think the sidewalk widenings without the two-way conversion, as you suggest, would also be an improvement over the status quo.

  • The Sharkey

    So sadly true.
    If they really wanted to turn around Telly they’d make that section pedestrian only and turn People’s Park into a People’s Parking Lot.

  • Berkeley Resident

    How timely. Was just walking down Shattuck today and glanced up Center toward Oxford and was momentarily calmed by the stellar view; tall trees, tables, plants in containers, pedestrians. Psychologically, keeping to scale is important for our well-being. And in the future, as we condense more near shopping, and forms of commuting, this will be more important. The tallness and cold mass of buildings in areas not to scale can somehow be endured by walks/dining/shopping on those warm oases of small, friendly streets like Center. And I can envision Bancroft/Durant/Telegraph moving in this direction.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I was a very active supporter of BRT, and when I wrote this op-ed, I was bearing in mind what I learned from that issue about what is politically possible.

  • Fran Haselsteiner

    Charles, wouldn’t there have to be an EIR on the two-way conversion? There could be impacts. Just wondering.

  • PJ

    Improved mobility would help. Yes, wider sidewalks and two-way traffic streets and maybe bicycle infrastructure too. There’s a not a single bike parking spot available in that photo that I could see. Wider sidewalks would allow for that too…

  • I’m all for it. This would be an obvious improvement to the streetscape
    in an area that doesn’t really need the high speed through traffic
    provided by the existing multi-lane one-way arterials.

    that’s not nearly enough to “revitalize” south campus or bring back
    local shopping. What used to be local retail has mostly gone to internet
    and big box shopping, leaving the downtown and south campus as a food
    court with maybe a few souvenir and shoe stores, things that don’t sell
    well online.

    What south campus needs more than anything else is a
    LOT more student housing. It’s the only way to make more retail space
    viable, and the best way to support those imagined sidewalk cafes on
    those new wide sidewalks. We can’t kick out the street people, even if
    we wanted to. But we can outnumber them, and that, I think, is the only
    reasonable way to change the character of Telegraph.

    And it can
    be done without increased traffic congestion if we allow the price of
    parking to float up to market rate, end parking subsidies and end
    mandated parking in new development.

  • My preference would be for Telly north of Haste to be ped-only. Especially if the two vacant lots on opposite sides of the avenue at Haste were both developed into some seriously high-density housing.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Fran, I know two-way conversion has been studied in the southside plan. I can only guess what staff would say about the need for an EIR. The southside study did show that it would not increase congestion, so maybe staff would neg-dec it on those grounds.

    There is also a state law that allows cities to adopt other transportation criteria for EIRs as a substitute for the congestion criterion. San Francisco is working on this sort of substitute criterion, they are expected to be done this spring, and I hope Berkeley imitates their new law. With the current criterion, projects tend to mitigate congestion by widening roads, which obviously is not good for the environment. The new criterion would be based on trips generated and would let projects contribute funds to trip reduction to mitigate the impact. If we adopted this new criterion, an EIR would clearly not be needed, because this conversion would not generate any additional trips – just move around existing trips.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I did think about bike parking, though I didn’t mention it in the article. There is definitely not enough bike parking for Sproul Plaza, and if we added lots of bike parking on the widened sidewalk right across the street from Sproul, that would attract people to cross the street.

  • Fran Haselsteiner

    It’s the moving around of existing trips that concerns me. I get concerned because the impacts could hit Dwight Way (and Haste), all the way from the freeway. I recall from those studies that the city would not convert Dwight to two way because apparently it isn’t wide enough. In any case, I don’t know that making Dwight two way would be a good thing in terms of traffic load. (Sometimes I get the feeling that the solution to traffic in Berkeley is just to dump it on Dwight Way.) I do think the city would have to perform simulation studies to see how all of this would work.

  • Charles_Siegel

    As I remember the southside plan, it said that we could not make Dwight two-way because you need the current two lanes on Fulton and on Dwight to carry north-bound traffic up to Telegraph, so it can continue north on Telegraph.

    These one-way streets are meant to carry north-south traffic, not east-west traffic from the freeway.

    Telegraph and College are major north-south streets that terminate when they hit campus. The traffic has to shift back and forth between Telegraph and College and the north-south streets to the west and north of campus, such as Oxford, Shattuck, and MLK. These one-way streets were designed to allow that transition, but it would also work if we made Bancroft and Durant two-way and kept Haste, Dwight, and Fulton one-way.

  • Off Center

    As a former Center St merchant I take exception to the statement that business improved dramatically when the sidewalks were widened. It was basically a sweetheart deal for the owner/developers of the upper 2/3 of the block who were able to raise rents through the roof, displace the wide variety of stores that had been tenants there, and replace them with “high-end” restaurants… just what Berkeley did not need – another food court. Incidentally, there has been a constant stream of revolving tenants in these units. Not even Noah Alper the founder of Noah’s Bagels was able to make a go of it due to the exorbitant rents.

  • A timely article in ACCESS describes how one-way streets fail even at their only goal of maximizing auto throughput: http://www.uctc.net/access/41/access41_twoway.shtml.

    Here’s to two-way streets in Berkeley!

  • Charles_Siegel

    Thanks for this very useful article. I am going to post a link in Planetizen, where I have had discussions of this issue in the past. This is more evidence for my point of view, which I was arguing on Planetizen with a conservative planner.

    I hope I will also be able to use this article as Berkeley makes decisions about what to do with the southside. Jacob, it would be very helpful if you could participate in this process.

  • aldeka

    Another benefit: wider sidewalks –> more room to walk around people lying on them.

  • aldeka

    Aw, my [/troll] tag got stripped out.

  • Russell Andavall

    I have been a street vendor in Berkeley for 40 years. Every few years someone suggests to turn Telegraph into a pedestrian mall. This would mean the death of street vending. PERIOD. The stores would also not be able to have deliveries with a pedestrian mall plan. Cities that have tried the pedestrian mall approach have rear access to the stores. Unless the city knocked down all the buildings and put in allies as in China Town SF, the stores would not be able to receive deliveries. Cleveland, Portland, Riverside, to name three tried pedestrian malls and it failed miserably. Empty store fronts are not what we need. The Southside Plan studied this for a decade and found the same findings that had been found 40 years earlier. Two way Telegraph has even more congestion issues. Perhaps what we need to revitalize a shopping area is more parking… not less. We have lost the lot behind Rasputins, the church lot on Haste below Telegraph, part of the Underhill lot to name three of eight in the area. Perhaps instead of gouging potential customers and visitors, free and low cost parking for customers should be sought. Frankly, there has been a lot of bait and switch tacticks that make me distrust anything that is proposed. I must say, in my own case, after 40 years and advancing in age, I am more concerned that there will be a Telegraph Avenue with artists on it for future generations of artist.

  • Brent Chadwick

    Why wouldn’t allowing delivery trucks at early/late hours work for merchants?
    And why would street vending be doomed?

  • Len Conly

    Thank you for the link to the ACCESS magazine article. The article also mentions the negative impacts of one-way streets for bus riders, a definite problem for people trying to travel southbound on Telegraph from the campus by bus.

    “Likewise, two-way streets make locating the transit stop for a return trip from downtown easier—in almost all cases, the bus stop is simply located across the street. On one-way networks, however, the stop for the return trip is usually on another street, which may confuse visitors and cause them to get lost.”

    At present students and others have to walk an extra block to reach the 1 and 1R buses to Oakland at the corner of Durant and Dana. This is a a real inconvenience and unfair to bus riders. Jane Jacobs also discusses the problems with one way streets in the chapter titled “Erosion of Cities or Attrition of Automobiles” in her book “The Death and Life of American Cities.”

  • Simon Lang

    Standard practice on the European pedestrain streets at least in the Uk, is to have off street pay parking, done, and bus and taxi trafic, Not sure about Uber, or lyft, and delivery trucks, are allowed into the zone. some are set up so there is a ring road type trafic, but there is far more foot trafic, far more destination catch, and people move far slower, there fore are more likely to buy, think out door mal where I can set up you cannot set up in a mall. all with out the smell of gas and disiel ( well if you can get the bus service to be Hydrogen.) the pavement is uniform across the whole street, this ensures that traffic move much more cautiously and slowly.