Berkeley unveils a ‘street for everybody’

“This is the moment when we become a true biking city,” said City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn on Friday at the grand opening of the Hearst Avenue “Complete Streets” project. This was one of two celebrations marking finished street improvement projects that border the Cal campus. The second took place at the corner of Bancroft Way and Dana on the same morning.

Several speakers, including the mayor, addressed the crowd of nearly 60 people. Many wore plastic bicycle-shaped lapel pins. René Rivera, executive director of Bike East Bay, spoke and rang a cowbell.

Using over-sized scissors, with city councilmembers reaching in to touch the blue handles, Mayor Jesse Arreguín cut a thick red ribbon on Hearst Avenue next to the new bus-loading island across from Arch Street.

The two islands on Hearst allow buses to stop for riders without blocking bikes, as the bike lanes follow the curb behind the islands.

“This is a model Complete Streets project, and what we need to be doing throughout Berkeley,” Arreguín said.

Buses come by every six minutes along Hearst, carrying as many as 1,600 riders a day.

The Complete Streets concept embraces not just bicyclists and drivers, but transit-users and pedestrians as well.

“Finally the elements are talking to one another,” said Greg Harper, director of AC Transit Ward Two. “There was a time when the city would do something,” Harper said, “and AC Transit would say, ‘What have you done to our bus stop?!’”

Buses come by every six minutes along Hearst, carrying as many as 1,600 riders a day, Harper said.

David Sorrell, transportation demand manager for UC Berkeley, said this project “allows our staff, faculty and students to enter campus as efficiently as possible.”

The rate of people driving alone to campus is about 39%, Sorrell said, and “that’s low for the Bay Area.” Sorrell expects additional projects to get that number even lower.

The Hearst Avenue work “started as a sidewalk completion project and developed into a Complete Streets project,” said Farid Javandel, transportation division manager for the city of Berkeley.

The initial problem to solve was an almost 900-foot stretch on the campus-side of Hearst without a sidewalk, where wheelchair-users and pedestrians had to travel on the street, next to moving cars.

Over about seven years, the plan for changes and improvements on Hearst grew, to stretch from Gayley Road to Shattuck Avenue, and underwent several revisions, as the city gathered input from users of the street, neighborhood residents and experts. On Friday, the stakeholders and those responsible for the work celebrated its completion.

“This is a testament to broad participation from all the stakeholders,” Javandel said.

Bike East Bay has been involved with the Hearst project since 2012, said Ginger Jui, communications director for the advocacy group, and played a significant role in developing the Complete Streets plan.

“In 2015 we built the first popup protected bike lane [along Hearst between Walnut and Shattuck], Jui said, “with duct tape, orange cones, cardboard and green spray paint.” Protected bike lanes are placed along the curbs and are separated from moving traffic by a line of parked cars.

“We want you to ride through this and really feel … what is the experience of riding through a protected bike lane,” said Rivera. “Ah! you get to relax a little bit on your bike.”

After seeing the one-day popup lane in action and talking with the neighbors, the city agreed to extend the plans for protected bike lanes all the way to Shattuck, Jui said. That is now also completed.

Javandel thanked the city council for “allowing us to staff up” for the project with a few hires in temporary staff positions.

The last change to look for on Hearst will be the addition of two bus shelters, which have been ordered by UC Berkeley and will be placed on the bus islands, Javandel said.

The work on Hearst is “functionally complete,” Javandel said. Fine-tuning of the traffic signals remains to be done, and that would be necessary on an ongoing basis anyway, he said. “That’s no big deal,” he said, “you just go into a control cabinet and change some numbers.”

Terrence Salonga, an engineer with the city, served as the construction manager for the Hearst project. He worked directly with the contractor, Ray’s Electric, on the day-to-day details.

One factor that held up the project was “the demand for workers,” Salonga said. “When they tried to do a call for workforce, for example, in union halls, they did not get much response. It was hard because there’s a lot of construction around the Bay Area.”

In addition, unforeseen issues always arise with paving and excavating, Salonga said. On Hearst they found an old cobbled road about 18 inches below the existing pavement, and on Euclid there were old brick pavers beneath the surface. The problem with those discoveries is that most dump sites don’t accept that kind of material, Salonga said, and deciding how to handle it caused some delay.

With this type of street project, “there’s also the expectation that they’ll damage utilities,” Salonga said, and that also happened.

“All in all, they did great work and were easy to work with,” Salonga said. The city of Berkeley currently has a smaller project on Ashby Avenue with the same contractor, he said.

“It’s been a long time, but now it looks good,” said Zhong Tan, a passer-by from Alameda who comes to Berkeley for the restaurants and bookstores. “I think it’s a great idea, a street for everybody, all the users. I think people should use transit and ride their bikes more, rather than driving.”

“In some ways the time that was taken to get the design right was important,” said Rivera of Bike East Bay. “In the last year or two, the standards have been raised considerably.”

“If it had happened faster, it wouldn’t have been as good,” Rivera said.

Bancroft Way — repainted, reconfigured

Bancroft Way reconfiguration. Source: City of Berkeley, Oct. 2017

About 30 minutes after the Hearst ribbon-cutting, a slightly smaller crowd of 40 to 45 people reconvened at the corner of Bancroft Way and Dana Street for the grand opening of the repainted and reconfigured Bancroft Way. This time, Javandel, Harper and a few city councilmembers or their reps cut the ribbon.

The new features on Bancroft are a two-way bike lane along the south side of the street and a bus-only lane, painted red, along the campus side of the street. Bancroft remains one-way downhill for motorized transportation.

Like the one on Hearst, this project evolved from its initial limited scope. It started out as a paving project, said Javandel.

While looking for bids to repave Bancroft, Public Works personnel realized that the city’s draft bike plan called for bike lanes, Javandel said. “Changing the striping [with paint] was something we could do relatively easily,” he said. When the city shared the concept plans for bike lanes with AC Transit, the agency “indicated an interest in also considering a dedicated transit lane to improve reliability of transit service through the area south of campus,” Javandel said later in an email.  

Now bicyclists and bus passengers can experience the difference.

Jui, communications director for Bike East Bay, said, “We can go uphill, and that’s HUGE! I used to have to go two blocks out of the way.” Jui said she’s also “noticed that traffic is calmer [on Bancroft].”

Before the repaving and repainting, buses traveling west along Bancroft “were averaging five miles an hour from College Avenue,” said Harper of A.C. Transit. The delays were depressing for riders, he said.

Now, “this is just paint, but look what it’s done!” Harper said.

Buses now travel from one bus stop to the next without having to pause or stop for the cars, motorcycles, and scooters that turn onto Bancroft at nearly every block.

Mayor Arreguín called the bus lane “the first and, hopefully, soon-to-be one of many red transit priority lanes in the East Bay.” This is part of “an initiative to make transit prioritization a reality,” he added.

“It’s amazing how far we’ve come since the one [protected bike lane] on Oxford,” Rivera of Bike East Bay told the crowd at the corner of Bancroft and Dana.

The goal is “a network of connected, protected bike lanes,” Rivera said. “We want to get everyone out there — students, families going to Cal women’s basketball games,” using their bikes to come to campus, Rivera added. “This is going to make that possible.”

And the city wants something back from the users of these newly transformed streets: “We view it as a pilot,” said Javandel. “Tell us what you like; tell us what you don’t like.”

All photos by Pete Rosos.