Opinion: Berkeley talks big on climate — San Pablo Avenue is where we can take real action

Rather than functioning as an alternative route for Interstate 80, San Pablo needs to serve the people who live, work, shop and go to school in our community.

Climate change is real, it is ongoing, and our activities are responsible for it. In order to stabilize our climate and reduce the major risks climate change poses to our infrastructure, our economy and our health, net greenhouse gas emissions need to go to zero.

Thankfully, we live in a community where our local political leaders accept the overwhelming scientific basis for these statements and seek to implement them through policy. The Berkeley City Council has passed a Declaration of a Climate Emergency as well as the Fossil Free Berkeley initiative which calls for solutions to reduce carbon emissions including the adoption of low-emission public transportation infrastructure. Berkeley’s energy commission was tasked with reporting to Council on a path for decarbonization and its recent report highlights how essential it is that investments be made that encourage walkability and non-motorized transport.

This perspective aligns with that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent special report which describes how a transition to a low-carbon emission future will require “changes in urban design that encourage walkable cities, non-motorized transport and shorter commuter distance.”

The Alameda County Transportation Commission (CTC) has begun a process to develop a long-term vision for San Pablo Avenue with a focus on improving how it functions and to make it safer for all modes of transport. This process is where we can put our climate values into action.

To meet our greenhouse gas emissions targets, we have to enact plans that prioritize transit. We have so far failed to meaningfully do so in California. According to the Air Resources Board’s 2018 report evaluating progress toward state-wide climate goals “With emissions from the transportation sector continuing to rise despite increases in fuel efficiency and decreases in the carbon content of fuel, California will not achieve the necessary greenhouse gas emissions reductions to meet mandates for 2030 and beyond without significant changes to how communities and transportation systems are planned, funded, and built.”

In Berkeley, 60% of our carbon emissions result from transportation and transportation emissions have significantly increased over the past decade — we are moving in the wrong direction. Electric vehicles are not a panacea for reducing emissions. When full lifecycle emissions are taken into account, carbon emissions associated with personal electric vehicles are still quite significant. We need electrified mass transit in combination with more trips made by foot, wheelchair, and bike to attain the low-carbon emission future envisioned in the Fossil Free Berkeley initiative.

Alameda CTC has found that 32% of motorist trips on the San Pablo corridor are passing through such that they are not traveling from homes nor frequenting businesses on the corridor. Rather than functioning as an alternative route for Interstate 80, San Pablo needs to serve the people who live, work, shop and go to school in our community.

These realities necessitate a thoughtful San Pablo redesign that increases the attractiveness of travel by transit, by foot and by bike. There are three essential components:

  • Dedicated bus-lanes: Congestion limits the performance of transit along the corridor decreasing its attractiveness as a travel mode. The projected growth along the corridor will exacerbate these issues and dedicated high-efficiency bus lanes need to be implemented. Prioritizing transit is also an issue of equity as demographic data show low car ownership among households along the corridor.

  • Safe pedestrian crossings: Over two thirds of the people killed or severely injured on San Pablo Avenue are sidewalk users and people biking. My family and I live two blocks off San Pablo and the scariest part of my day each day is trying to cross the street with my first-grader. We should not feel scared of being struck by speeding cars on a daily basis. Shorter crossing distance and crosswalk improvements need to be implemented to keep pedestrians from being struck and killed.

  • Continuous protected bike lanes: Research clearly shows that protected and separated bike lanes result in fewer fatalities and better road safety outcomes for all road users, including people in cars and on foot. Protected bike lanes are therefore essential for progress on the Vision Zero initiative adopted in Berkeley. Making biking safe and attractive through protected lanes has been shown to increase the number of people making trips by bike rather than higher carbon emission modes of travel.

Taken together, these components represent the kind of forward-thinking changes that can significantly reduce carbon emissions while increasing the safety, liveability and vibrancy of our community.

These necessary changes will result in decreased automobile travel lanes and parking which will make them contentious. This reality was evident at the Alameda CTC public workshop held in Berkeley in late May where some attendees defended the status quo on San Pablo Avenue. However, if we do not move forward with a plan that prioritizes transit and non-motorized transport along the San Pablo corridor, we are showing that City Council climate declarations are empty platitudes that we are unable to stomach putting into action.

We have to change. The status quo is warming our climate and if Berkeley cannot take bold action, who can? We as a city should embrace the opportunity of working with Alameda CTC to redesign San Pablo in a way that is aligned with our values and climate action goals.

Nick Swanson-Hysell is an Assistant Professor in the Earth and Planetary Science department at UC Berkeley where he researches Earth’s ancient climate history. He is a resident of West Berkeley and is the Safe Routes to School Champion for Jefferson Elementary School.