Op-ed: Berkeley City Council should approve the new Bicycle Plan

For the vast majority of people in Berkeley, especially families, the new Bicycle Plan would make it safer and easier to get around the city by bike.

The Lutzker family riding on the new protected bike lane on Fulton Street. Photo: Lutzker family

Later this month, the Berkeley City Council will consider an update to the city’s bicycle plan, which hasn’t been updated since 2005. The new plan was developed through a two-year process involving city staff, outside technical experts, and significant public input. It’s focused on improving conditions for people who bike or want to bike (collectively, 90% of Berkeley residents, according to a recent survey), but it also supports the city’s broader health and environmental goals, and reflects the common sense idea that streets are for everyone – bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers alike.

It is a good plan and should be approved.

We are Berkeley residents and parents of two young kids. Like many others in Berkeley, we rely on biking as our primary form of transportation. We choose biking over car trips whenever possible because we like the freedom and physical exercise, because it saves us money, and because it’s our small way of reducing congestion, pollution and greenhouse gases. When we’re with our kids, we pull them on a long-tail bike or trailer or, increasingly, they ride independently.

Getting around the city by bike, especially with kids, is possible only because the city took innovative steps in the 1970s to develop a bicycle plan and build bicycle-specific infrastructure. Berkeley’s network of bicycle boulevards, with its various treatments to slow and discourage car traffic, is the product of this early investment. Most of our trips, and essentially all of our trips where our kids ride independently, are on the bicycle boulevard network.

LeConte Elementary School bike train riding on Russell Street. Photo: Bobby Lutzker

But the existing infrastructure is now outdated and does not meet the needs of Berkeley’s bicycling community, especially families. There is no safe way for young kids to ride through downtown or to the UC campus area. (Riding in that area last year, our friend Meg Schwarzman was nearly killed.

Outside of downtown, the bicycle boulevard network is not dense enough to reach key destinations. Only half of Berkeley’s public schools are within a block of a bicycle boulevard, forcing kids onto high-stress streets to reach school by bike. In addition, at intersections like Russell and Shattuck or Virginia and San Pablo, bicycle boulevards meet busy streets with no crossing assistance. At these intersections, bicyclists have to either wait indefinitely for a break in traffic or enter dangerously and hope that cars will stop. We know a lot of families that would like to start riding, or to ride more, but just don’t feel safe enough on the city’s streets.

The new bicycle plan would address these issues by expanding the bicycle boulevard network to include 8 new bicycle boulevards, adding crossing assistance where bicycle boulevards meet busy streets, and, most importantly, establishing a network of protected bike lanes through downtown and the UC campus area.

Protected bike lanes, which physically separate car traffic from bicycles by a lane of parked cars, pylons, or other barriers, are by far the best way to create a safe route for all riders through a congested area. (The new protected bike lane on Fulton Street, which was created in response to our friend Meg’s collision there, likely would have prevented that near-fatal collision.) The new bicycle plan calls for a two-way protected bike lane on Milvia Street, from Blake Street to Hearst Avenue. This would allow our kids, and riders of many other ages and abilities, to safely reach downtown destinations or ride through downtown to other parts of the city.

The new plan’s proposed low-stress bikeway network, with flags showing location of BUSD schools.

To be sure, the new bicycle plan is not perfect. We would have wanted it to include an even denser low-stress network, greater protections at busy street crossings, and other things like specified paving-quality standards for all bikeways. Nor do we have any illusions that protected bike lanes will eliminate every possible hazard. But none of that changes the fact that the new plan will make it safer and easier to get around the city by bike, shifting our mix of transportation choices in a healthier direction. The City Council should approve it.

Liza and Bobby Lutzker live on Milvia Street, near downtown Berkeley, with their two kids. They volunteer as Safe Routes to School champions at LeConte Elementary School.