Op-ed: An urgent call for better bikeways in Berkeley

We are long time (20+ years) residents and business owners in Berkeley and are currently raising and educating our children here. Almost every day, my wife or I lead our two kids on bikes from our house near the Marin Circle to their elementary school, Berkeley Arts Magnet at Virginia and Milvia. We ride on streets and sidewalks (because it’s not safe enough for the kids to ride on most streets), we cross dangerous intersections, we encounter pedestrians annoyed with us and drivers distracted by their phones, coffee, or the morning rush. Every inch of our trip could be a lot safer and easier.

A short-lived bike lane on Henry Street disappears as cars speed up and pass us before Berryman. Even our ride along the Milvia Street Bicycle Boulevard is harrowing as drivers and delivery trucks skirt past us, seemingly unaware that they are driving on a bicycle priority street. When we get to school, we compete for a paltry selection of racks in an insecure, uncovered location.

We ride our bikes despite all of this because cycling is good for the air and the planet, good for the community, and good for our kids. We love to ride.

In light of the near-fatal accident at Fulton Street and Bancroft Way four weeks ago, and so many other collisions and close calls, we speak for many in Berkeley when we express our deep concern about the City’s commitment to addressing the needs of bicyclists. We have been a decent city for bicycling for a long time, but our infrastructure is falling behind the soaring demand and we are being left in the dust of other cities across California, the US, and globally.

Our bike boulevards and traffic calming measures were once innovations — in decades past, along with inventing curbside recycling and a host of other eco-firsts, Berkeley was a national leader in creating safe bicycle infrastructure. In the 1970s, Berkeley in one fell swoop removed parking from five streets to add the City’s first bike lanes. The 90s saw the Milvia ‘slow street,’ followed by bike boulevards about 15 years ago.

Today, with more residents of all ages turning to the bicycle as a preferred mode of travel, the City needs to do more — a lot more — to prioritize bicycle safety and convenience. The City of Berkeley has one of the highest bicycle mode shares in the country at 9.7% of all commute trips. Mayor Bates proudly declared, back in 2013, that Berkeley’s new Bike Plan is to be the best in the country. While we applaud the City effort underway to design and adopt a new Bike Plan, there is growing concern —further fueled by the City’s weak response to the recent near-fatal crash — that business-as-usual tentative politics will value-engineer the bike plan into something just barely better than what we have today. There is simply too much at stake for this to be the case — for our staff and elected officials to cower to the vocal minority that will protest the removal of any parking on any street or any change to the auto-dominant status quo. Cities all around us and all around the country are doing better.

In response to growing demand for bicycling infrastructure across the U.S. and globally, cities of all sizes are embracing the bicycle as a safe, clean, and community-oriented form of transportation for all ages and incomes. They are building separated bike lanes and protected intersections, and aggressively implementing policies that prioritize safety.

Fort Collins and Portland have established protected, separated bikeways as the standard for all new bike infrastructure — one has to argue why a bike facility should not be protected as opposed to the other way around. Oakland, Alameda, Richmond, Emeryville, and Fremont are planning protected bike lane projects. The cities of Seattle, Boston, Denver and many others have adopted ‘Vision Zero’ policies that strive for no traffic fatalities — where one injury or death is too many.

Berkeley must look to these other cities for examples of how to do it right. And we need to dedicate more staff resources to bicycling — there is just one-half of a staff position dedicated to bike planning…even if we adopt a great plan it will be nearly impossible to implement it with 20 hours a week of staff time. Berkeley devotes far more staff time to parking than bike facility implementation. We were a leader 20+ years ago — now other cities are returning the favor. Even auto-loving Caltrans has adopted new policies making it easier to build protected bike lanes and prioritize safe bicycle travel.

We write here representing the Berkeley families, residents, students, and workers who can’t usually show up at a late night meeting to speak our mind — we demand that the City meet the Mayor’s call to make our city a great biking City.

Let’s get off our 70s laurels and start innovating again. Let’s rise to meet our reputation as a stalwart of environmentalism and community by building the best, safest, most comprehensive protected bike network in the country.

Adding to the urgency, Bay Area Bike Share is expanding to Berkeley and the East Bay within the next year — that will put even more bike riders on the streets and heighten the need for safe, protected lanes.

Let’s take the horrific accident of four weeks ago and funnel our energy into making sure we do everything we can to make our streets safe for cyclists so that it never happens again anywhere in our City.

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Joe DiStefano is a longtime Berkeley resident and business owner and regularly bikes the streets and trails of Berkeley and the Bay Area with his wife and two young children.