Opinion: Unsafe traffic control at California and Dwight

City Council voted to install a rectangular rapid flashing beacon, thinking it would make the intersection safer for bicyclists. But a four-way stop would be more effective.

A Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFB or flasher)

The Berkeley City Council has voted – with no public input – to install a Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon (RRFB or flasher) where the California Street bike boulevard crosses Dwight. If there had been an opportunity for input, bicycle advocates would have told the City Council that we need a four-way stop to make this intersection safe.

Berkeley’s two major bike advocacy groups, Bike East Bay and the Berkeley Climate Action Coalition Transportation Working Group, both agree that flashers are not safe at bike boulevard crossings. Because many middle-schoolers bicycle through this intersection, flashers may actually make the crossing less safe.

The story of how we reached this point is an interesting case study in how hard it is to deal with the Berkeley city bureaucracy.

Berkeley designated bike boulevards in the 1990s, but it did little to make it easier to cross major streets. I often wondered why the city did not just install four-way stops where they are appropriate. Many years ago, before we even had bike boulevards, bicycling around Berkeley became easier for me when the city installed a four-way stop at Ninth and Dwight. Previously, there was always a long wait to cross Dwight, but afterward, cars on Dwight slowed, stopped and alternated with bikes on Ninth, making it safe and easy to cross. Why not go ahead and do the same at intersections like California and Dwight?

A four-way stop sign at Milvia and Cedar. Photo: Charles Siegel

When the first draft of the latest bike plan was released, I was surprised to see that it did not mention stop signs at bike boulevard crossings at all. Instead, it called for HAWK Beacons (which are similar to stop lights) at crossings of the busiest major streets, such as San Pablo, and Rectangular Rapidly Flashing Beacons (RRFBs or Flashers) at intersections of less busy major streets, such as Dwight.

When the plan came to the bicycle subcommittee of the transportation commission, many bicyclists spoke against the use of flashers at bike boulevard crossings and called for four-way stops instead. Not a single member of the public spoke in support of flashers. We gave two major reasons why flashers work for pedestrians but are unsafe for bikes:

  • First, bicyclists tend to enter the intersection at higher speeds. Pedestrians tend to walk into the intersection slowly, looking to see whether cars notice them before proceeding. Bicyclists travel more quickly, so they are more likely to enter the intersection before drivers notice them. This problem is even worse at intersections like Dwight and California, where many middle schoolers cross because middle schoolers tend to be more impulsive than adults and are less likely to be as cautious as they should be at this sort of intersection.
  • Second, flashers have no legal force for bicyclists. Flashers warn drivers to look for pedestrians in the crosswalks, and state law requires drivers to yield the right of way to pedestrians. But there is no law requiring drivers to give the right of way to bicyclists on cross streets: On the contrary, state law says bicycles are vehicles, which means that bicyclists on cross streets with stop signs must yield to traffic on major streets, whether or not there is a flasher. There will be dangerous conflicts because road users will have different understandings of what the flashers mean: some bicyclists may start to cross as soon as the flasher starts blinking, thinking they have the right of way, while drivers on the major street might know that they really have the right of way. Drivers who see flashers are also likely to look only for pedestrians in crosswalks, not for bicyclists.

Because of vociferous objections from bicyclists, city staff suggested amending the draft plan to say that, at all bike boulevard crossings where the plan calls for flashers, the city will consider four-way stop signs as an alternative. This seemed like a good compromise: It saved time in revising the draft plan, and when the city made the decisions about specific intersections, there would be public input that would let bicyclists advocate for stop signs.

When the City Council adopted the bike plan in May 2017, it emphasized the importance of public input. Councilwoman Sophie Hahn offered an amendment saying the city should get input from all stakeholders before implementing projects in the plan. Staff said that the city already gets input on all controversial projects. The council unanimously adopted a version of Hahn’s amendment, agreeing that it simply restates the current practice of getting public input on controversial issues.

So, I was surprised in the summer of 2017 when I heard that the city had installed a flasher where the Virginia St. bike boulevard crosses Martin Luther King Way without getting any public input. A member of the Safe Routes to School committee of Berkeley Arts Magnet School told us that one member of that committee requested flashers at the intersection and staff announced to the committee that it would install them. The issue was never on the transportation commission agenda, there was no chance for public input, and bicycle advocates did not even hear about it until after it was installed.

What happened to the City Council’s call for public input on controversial bicycling issues? Judging from public comment on the draft plan, flashers at bike boulevard crossings are very controversial. I assume that this was simply an oversight: flashers are not controversial in most locations, and staff installs them routinely, so I assume that staff simply overlooked how controversial they are at this intersection.

At about this time, I got a newsletter from Councilwoman Kate Harrison saying she was working for a flasher at California and Dwight. Bicycle advocates emailed her, saying that we thought flashers were unsafe at bike boulevard crossings. We asked to meet with her so we could discuss how to work together to get a four-way stop here. But this was about the time when City Council’s summer recess began. Harrison did not respond, and it seemed sensible to wait until after the recess before contacting her again.

Meanwhile, we asked to put this issue on the agenda of the bike subcommittee so we could discuss it with transportation commissioners and staff. The chair wanted to have this discussion but told us it would have to wait until after the city’s bicycle planner got back from summer vacation. It seemed sensible to meet with Councilwoman Harrison after this meeting, so we would have more information to share with her. Though we did not know it at the time, it later turned out that, for some obscure bureaucratic reason, the bike subcommittee has to be reconstituted before it can meet again, so this meeting has not yet happened.

On Sept. 26, Berkeleyside reported that a 13-year-old bicyclist was hit at this intersection, so we emailed Councilwoman Harrison again asking for a meeting to discuss how we can work together for a four-way stop here. Councilwoman Harrison answered immediately, and I have to thank her for how helpful she has been and continues to be.

But we also saw a tweet from Mayor Arreguín saying the City Council had already approved a flasher at this intersection. At California and Dwight, as at Virginia and Martin Luther King, the decision to install a flasher was made with no public input. It was not on the transportation commission agenda for discussion. Bicycle advocates did not learn about it until we saw the mayor’s tweet.

I hope the City Council will pass a resolution saying that, in the future, flashers at bike boulevard crossings should be on the transportation commission agenda for discussion before the decision is made to install them, so the public has some chance for input.

I also hope that the City Council changes its decision about California and Dwight to make it safer. In this year alone, two middle school bicyclists were hospitalized after collisions at this intersection – one on April 21, 2017, and one on Sept. 26, 2017.

I hope I am wrong about this, but it seems to me that Flashers will cause more accidents at this intersection. Middle school students tend to be more impulsive than adults, and I expect that some will see the Flashers blinking, think they have the right of way, and ride right across Dwight without realizing that they should proceed very slowly and cautiously when they cross a busy street with high-speed traffic.

If the city installs flashers here, it would set us up to have more collisions, injuries and possibly deaths at this intersection.

NOTE: We will have to fight for safer bike boulevard crossings. If you can help by emailing council members or coming to meetings, please email me at siegel[at]preservenet[dot]com, and I will keep you informed.

Charles Siegel has been a Berkeley bicycle advocate since the 1980s when he worked on the Milvia Slow Street.