Opinion: 6 steps Berkeley should take to make our streets safe for all people

In the past week, five pedestrians have been struck by cars and seriously injured. Berkeley must step up the pace of its efforts to make its street safer.

We know what works. Is there the political will to make progress?

During the last week, five pedestrians have been seriously injured by motorists on Berkeley’s roads, according to Berkeleyside. Among the victims are prominent local leaders Judy Appel and her wife Alison Bernstein. Thankfully, they are improving. Not everyone is so lucky. Every year about 230 people walking or biking on Berkeley streets are killed or injured in motor vehicle collisions. The recent “cluster” of pedestrian injuries is a sign of this large, but preventable, problem. The city must treat road safety with new urgency.

Walk Bike Berkeley calls on the city to take six steps in 2019 to make our streets safe.

  • Create a Vision Zero road safety task force and action plan. In 2018, the City Council passed a Vision Zero road safety policy that set a goal of zero road fatalities and serious injuries by 2028. Council also ranked implementation of that policy as its top priority to staff for 2019. But we’ve seen little progress. And as recent collisions show, we have a long way to go.

A Vision Zero task force needs to be formed immediately to analyze traffic collision data, engage community members, and outline short and long term actions to prevent collisions. The task force should include the city manager and the public works, public health, police, and fire departments. To make the progress Berkeley so desperately needs, the task force must start taking actions within the next six months.

Vision Zero is a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.

  • Step up efforts to design and build safe, complete streets. Berkeley would be a happier, healthier, and more climate-friendly place if more people walked, biked, and used public transit for everyday transportation. But people won’t walk or bike if they don’t feel safe. The city’s bicycle and pedestrian plans outline much-needed improvements, including protected bike lanes, shorter pedestrian crossing distances, new bike boulevards, and better intersection controls. (The city is updating its pedestrian plan now.)

It’s time to fast-track these plans by setting deadlines for project completion. Moreover, the city needs to refocus existing road maintenance programs – including street lighting, repaving, sidewalk repair, and traffic calming – to further it’s Vision Zero goal.    

  • Fully staff the public works, public health, and police departments so they can fulfill their road safety responsibilities. Each of these departments has a key role to play, but all are short-staffed. Four key public works department staff who work on walking and biking issues have left in recent months. Even before these staff members left, the transportation division needed at least four additional staff to deliver current grant-funded pedestrian and bicycle projects. Public Health no longer has any staff dedicated to traffic injury prevention. The police department’s entire traffic bureau has shrunk to just one officer.
  • Prevent speeding. A person hit by a car traveling 30 mph is nearly twice as likely to die as a person hit at 25 mph. The city should identify high injury corridors (likely including busy roads like Ashby, San Pablo, Shattuck, and University) and prevent speeding along them. Speed reduction strategies should include enforcing speed limits, installing physical traffic calming features, reducing vehicle lane widths, and adding speed feedback signs. The city should also join San Francisco and San Jose to push for changes in state law to allow the use of cameras to enforce speed limits fairly.

  • Encourage residents to walk, bike, and take public transit – not cars – for short trips. Whether we drive electric, hybrid, or gas cars, hire a Lyft, or rent a Gig, car trips are bad for our health and safety. For those who are physically able, it’s time for Berkeley to unequivocally prioritize walking, biking, and public transit over car travel, as other cities are doing. This can start with a fun city-sponsored “go car-free” campaign during Bike to Work Month in May 2019. Let’s break our addiction to cars!
  • Stop blaming victims. Too often after someone is hurt walking or biking, we focus on their behavior to explain the event. We blame the victim for not wearing high visibility clothing, using headphones, or behaving carelessly. People who drive, walk, and bike all make mistakes, so the city should design the road system to ensure those mistakes do not result in severe injuries or death.

Sadly, the recent “cluster” of pedestrian injuries is not atypical for a week in Berkeley. The city should take these six steps to make our city even more safe, healthy, and vibrant.

Walk Bike Berkeley, a group founded by Berkeley residents, advocates to make walking and biking in Berkeley safe, low-stress, and fun for people of all ages and abilities. We want a healthy, just, and sustainable transportation system in Berkeley.

Ben Gerhardstein is a former transportation commissioner who was injured by a motorist while riding a bike in Atlanta, Georgia; Liza Lutzker leads the Safe Routes to School program at Sylvia Mendez Elementary; Jacqueline Erbe is an environmental health professional and bikes, walks, or uses transit daily; Barnali Ghosh is a landscape architect, climate justice advocate, walking tour guide, and transportation commissioner. Nick Swanson-Hysell is an assistant professor of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Berkeley. While sitting at a bus stop in Minneapolis in 2013, he was struck and severely injured by a distracted driver of an SUV; Michael Hyatt is a water engineer ; Jonathan Walden has been a dedicated transit rider, walker, and biker for 40 years; Tom Lent is an energy and environmental policy analyst; Bentham Paulos is an energy policy consultant; and Karen Parolek is a current transportation commissioner.