Opinion: Berkeley’s bike boulevards are fictions

Berkeley’s bicycle infrastructure is a particularly glaring problem because the city talks a big game but delivers so little.

A few weeks ago, I was hit by a Prius while biking to campus. The Prius belonged to the City of Berkeley and I was biking on California Street – a “bike boulevard.” The intersection at California and Allston has a roundabout, but the roundabout is narrower than the intersection and so drivers approaching on Allston don’t really need to slow down. I stopped for a driver coming from the West – there’s a stop sign on California but not on Allston – and rode into the intersection. The Prius didn’t see me and didn’t stop. I managed to slow enough that no real damage was done. I just got a bit scraped and had to realign my front wheel. This time.

The driver – a woman who works for the Berkeley Department of Health and Human Services – stopped her car in the intersection, rushed out to check on me and to apologize. Very decent of her. The form of the apology will be familiar to anyone who bikes in these United States: “I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you! My heart is palpitating! I’m so nervous!” Something like that. I was visibly livid. Lord save us from the egotism of drivers! You hit us, you yell at us, you kill some of us, and then you want to talk about your feelings.

I don’t mean to call out this one woman, who I assume is a loving friend, a steadfast city employee and a sometimes-careful driver. But ask anyone who bikes regularly in Berkeley: bike boulevards are fiction. They are badly paved (especially Milvia, Channing and Russell) and poorly lit (all of them). They are indirect routes (especially Hillegass) and do not connect well with Oakland to the south or Albany to the north. There are stop signs on the bike boulevard, but often not on intersecting streets like Allston. There are no stop lights where bike boulevards intersect with major thoroughfares like Ashby and Dwight and drivers usually do not stop for cyclists in car culture. Slim roundabout gardens are beautiful, but block your view and don’t really slow traffic.

After the launch of our semi-functional bikeshare, there are more cyclists than ever in the East Bay. Even before I started my PhD, I’d heard tell of the famed bike boulevards of Berkeley. Turns out their core purpose is to shunt us cyclists off better-lit, better-paved streets like Adeline, University, Sacramento and San Pablo. We get few meaningful amenities in return. The message is clear: major thoroughfares are for cars and the side streets are for single-family homes with parking. Cyclists should weave around the real constituents, preferably during the day only, and hopefully avoid accidents because those are a real hassle with insurance, you know?

Despite Berkeley’s reputation has as a haven of accessibility – it’s Ed Roberts’ town – Berkeley has an obvious problem maintaining accessible urban infrastructure. East Bay paving is abysmal. A curb cut in a crumbling sidewalk is a broken promise. The Aquatic Park is in an impressive state of disrepair. It can feel unsafe to walk on major streets like Ashby after dark because there is lighting only on one side of the street at best. Bicycle infrastructure is a particular problem because the city talks a big game but delivers so little.

As I see it, there are two ways of delivering on the promise of bike boulevards. One option would be to take the idea seriously and dedicate ourselves to funding and supporting the maintenance, enhancement and expansion of existing routes. This approach must include substantially better lighting and paving, as well as additional traffic measures like stop lights and stop signs at intersections. Basic infrastructure of this kind would also improve the pedestrian experience dramatically and help calm the anxieties of conscientious drivers hoping to co-exist safely with bicyclists on Berkeley streets. A second option is to build protected bike lanes on the major car thoroughfares like Sacramento, Telegraph, San Pablo, University, etc. These roads are usually better-lit and better-paved already, which is why I sometimes ride them despite the antagonism of drivers. Oakland has tested this approach on their downtown segment of Telegraph Avenue to mixed, but, I’d argue, mostly positive results. I’m sure we could do at least as well in Berkeley. To quote the wise words of Taco Bell: ¿porque no los dos?

Avi Flamholz lives in South Berkeley and recently graduated from the Molecular and Cell Biology PhD program at UC Berkeley.