Between 2005 and 2010, five pedestrians and a bicyclist were hit by cars as they crossed the intersection of Hopkins Street and The Alameda, considered one of the most dangerous crossings in Berkeley.
The extra-wide streets — remnants of the train system that used to run there through the 1950s — allowed drivers to turn without slowing down significantly, creating hazards for pedestrians in the crosswalks.
Last fall, the city of Berkeley made changes at the intersection to slow down cars as they made right turns and to shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians. Four concrete islands now narrow the formerly wide intersection, so that cars turning right have a sharper turning radius, said city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. That means the cars have to slow down as they traverse the intersection.
But Berkeley officials, working in concert with the community, have devised some further tweaks that they hope will make the protected intersection even safer. Those changes will be implemented this summer.
“The main group of people these changes are intended to help is pedestrians,” Chakko said.
Because the intersection is close to Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, a park and the North Branch Library, the city got a grant from Safe Routes to Schools to cover the work, which was finished in December, said Chakko. (See the Safe Routes report on proposed improvements to the intersection.)
Additional concrete islands roughly parallel to the street lead up to and away from the corner islands. They guide bicycles in the repainted bike lanes toward the curb as they approach the intersection and back toward the traffic lane afterward.
The overall design is what’s called a “protected intersection,” and the corner islands are envisioned as extensions of the curb, where pedestrians can wait for the walk signal, said Farid Javandel, transportation manager for the city of Berkeley.
The city tried placing bright yellow warning strips between the original curb and the island, as guides to where pedestrians can go, Javandel said, but “the warning strips couldn’t stay put in the crumbling asphalt.” Some came out, and others were taken out.
The curbs on the concrete islands are currently painted a bright, reflective white to increase their visibility. However, tire marks have obscured that paint on the outside of some of the islands, as drivers have come into the intersection and taken the turns too sharply.
On at least one corner, where cars turn right onto Hopkins from The Alameda northbound, tire marks appear on the inside of the island, in the space that is reserved for pedestrians and bikes.
“Now drivers don’t want to wait in a queue to turn right, and they go into the bike lane instead,” between the original corner and the island, Javandel said.
Berkeley is now trying to make the islands more visible by adding more signage, reflective elements and plastic posts.
Then a second phase of work is scheduled for July and August while The Alameda is being repaved. That work will make it clear where each mode of transportation is supposed to go.
The various paths through the intersection will be painted according to their intended users: Bike lanes will be painted hunter green; pedestrian crosswalks will be painted “in yellow, in perpendicular strips, with the traditional parallel lines along the length of each crosswalk,” said City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, who represents the area.
The islands will be painted with the same pinkish-brown color used on the sidewalk near the North Berkeley Branch Library, Hahn said. The paint will extend to cover part of the asphalt, too, to create longer, visible islands.
They will also be improving the white lines, which motorized vehicles are supposed to follow.
Further, the city will place concrete slabs under the asphalt between the curb and each island, to anchor the yellow warning strips the way they are intended to be, said Javandel.
“Visually, it will be easier for the pedestrians,” said Hahn.
The second phase of work is the direct result of citizens’ involvement and feedback, according to Hahn, who started hearing about the changes at the intersection almost immediately after joining the City Council on December 1st.
“I received a lot of correspondence and a lot of calls when I first took office,” Hahn said, “with descriptions of fender-benders and other things that didn’t work.”
Hahn talked with people in the Transportation Division, including Javandel and his staff.
“They’ve been very helpful. They’ve been open to hearing citizens and they’ve explained what the goals are,” Hahn said.
Hahn called a community meeting at the North Berkeley Branch Library in March to which more than 100 people came, she said. Hahn hosted another meeting in May.
While there were some people who spoke favorably of the concept and others who were categorically against it and wanted it removed, “the vastly overwhelming majority of people who contacted me or came to the meeting had concerns and wanted it to be improved or redesigned,” said Hahn.
The timing has been lucky. The Alameda was already slated for repaving this summer, so there was an opportunity to make further improvements to the intersection that will come out of the pavement management budget, city spokesperson Chakko said.
Money from the $100 million T1 bond measure will pay for improving the bike lanes along Hopkins when it is repaved in about two years, Hahn said.
These are very inexpensive, quick things we can do to incorporate people’s feedback,” Hahn said. “It’s my understanding that color-coding was not part of the original plan.”
The interim redesign is also intended to improve the aesthetics of the intersection, in part by planting some vegetation is low urns or pots, Hahn said.
The idea is to echo the triangle of vegetation planted and maintained by the neighborhood, further up on Hopkins Street,” Hahn said.
Further work on the intersection may happen if there is not significant improvement, said Hahn.
Pedestrians interviewed at the intersection one sunny Tuesday afternoon were not aware that the changes were made for them.
Joan Bell has been crossing these streets for 17 years. She said that “squeezing the traffic” into a narrower space makes this “a stressful intersection” and irritates drivers.
Bell does not feel safer with the modifications, she said, because “when drivers are irritated, they’re less safe.”
Eighth-grader Miles Miller said he thought the changes helped. Because the intersection used to be “really big, two cars were sometimes trying to turn at once,” Miller said. “This [concrete island] blocks them from doing that.”
Saleh Elmohamed lives north of the intersection and crosses it often.
“It would be nice for traffic not to turn right or left” while pedestrians are crossing, Saleh said. He suggested installing turn arrows and “a clear sign saying, ‘once the white pedestrian walk signal is on, don’t attempt a turn.’”
Bicyclists, too, have had mixed reactions. Dave Campbell, advocacy director for Bike East Bay, said his group backed the changes.
“This is the East Bay’s first ‘protected intersection,’ ” Campbell said. “[It] extends protection of bike lanes into the intersection. This is a pedestrian-safety project that helps bicycling.”
Campbell is not discouraged by the fact that the concrete islands and, thus far, all-white bike lane and crosswalk markings have not been totally effective.
“It’s okay to try something and then improve upon it,” said Campbell. “That’s exactly what Berkeley is doing, and I applaud that.”
Michael Katz, who lives in Berkeley and gets around “90 percent by bicycle,” called the changes “a Band-Aid for cancer” and said the design is “actively dangerous for bicyclists.”
“It’s not that logical a commuting route for school,” Katz said. “Rose [Street] would be a better alternative. That’s where the school entrances are.”
“Cars in the left-turn pockets could get hit by other cars turning wide,” Katz said. “I’ve been avoiding this intersection by all modes.” Katz suggested that a better solution would be re-phasing the traffic lights at the intersection and adding left-turn arrows.
Drivers have complained about the increased difficulty turning right onto The Alameda southbound from eastbound Hopkins Street; however, “the AC Transit bus successfully makes this turn,” Javandel said. “Every driver should be able to make the turn with ease.”
Southbound — and downhill — on The Alameda, cars had been clocked at 37 miles per hour where the speed limit is 25 mph. In 2013 the city imposed a “road diet” on that stretch, Chakko said, reducing The Alameda to one lane and installing a left-turn lane at the intersection. Still, speeds were averaging 32 mph.
Chakko and Javandel recognize that it takes time to change drivers’ habits, but that’s the point. “It [the work] should have an impact” on how people drive, Javandel said.