Opinion: Safety is needed now, not later, at California and Dwight

Even though the City Council passed a resolution calling for the installation of traffic lights or a stop sign, city staff is recommending ‘a halfway measure” which is less safe.

For years, neighborhood residents, safe-streets advocates and the City Council have been calling for stop signs or a traffic signal at the intersection of California and Dwight to make the intersection safe. Now, the staff has proposed a halfway measure that will make the intersection a bit safer – but still not safe – which will be discussed at the next Transportation Commission meeting on Thursday.

Staff says this proposal is a “first step.” But rather than deferring the second step indefinitely, it would be easy to make the intersection safe now.

This issue became prominent in 2017 when two middle-school students riding to school on the California Street Bike Boulevard were hit and injured while crossing Dwight. Many students going to Longfellow Middle School use this intersection. It is particularly important to make it safe because middle-school students can be more likely to take risks than adults.

In 2017, responding to these two crashes and to public demands for a safer crossing, the City Council passed a resolution calling on staff to give a high priority to installing stop signs, a HAWK beacon, or a traffic light at California and Dwight.

In 2018, the City Council allocated up to $400,000 to safety improvements at this intersection, with a preference for a HAWK beacon but with the option of choosing stop signs. (The HAWK beacon at Hillegas/Ashby cost $400,000, but there was extra cost because Ashby is a wider street than Dwight and because Ashby is a state highway so the city had to work with Caltrans.)

Now, city staff has come up with a proposal that adds a median to Dwight and makes other changes to calm traffic but does not include stop signs or a HAWK beacon, saying this is a “first step” toward making the intersection safe.  This illustration shows a preliminary version of the proposal; the latest version will be available at the Transportation Commission meeting.

Berkeley city staff has drawn up this proposal for California and Dwight.

The idea of adding a median could be valuable, but if we also want to add stop signs or a HAWK beacon, we must move the crosswalk, and the proposed median design makes this impossible.  The current location of the crosswalk is where pedestrians cross but not where bikes traveling on California St. cross. To make the stop signs or HAWK beacon work for both pedestrians and bikes, we need to move the crosswalk, as shown in this picture, which I created a couple of years ago, so pedestrians and bicyclists cross in the same place.

Charles Siegel’s proposal to add stoplights and stop signs at California and Dwight.

This proposed median design makes it impossible to move the crosswalk here because the median is raised where the new location of the crosswalk should be, and this part of the median would have to be torn up to make the relocated crosswalk ADA compliant.

Why not do both? With minor adjustments in staff’s proposed design, it would be easy to add the median and other traffic calming measures, move the crosswalk, and add either stop signs or a HAWK beacon.

A median alone obviously is not enough. San Pablo Ave. has a median, but if you try crossing it at any intersection without a light, you will see that it is hard to cross, despite the median. Likewise, if we just put a median on Dwight, there would still be a long wait to cross, as there is today. Eventually, some middle-school students and others would get tired of waiting and take risks to cross, and we would have more crashes and injuries, as we had in 2017.

Why should we do only the “first step” now and wait until there are more injuries before doing all that is needed to make the intersection safe?

I am particularly skeptical of this sort of “first step,” because I was one of the activists who got the city to designate the Bike Boulevard system in the 1990s. At the time, the city told us that signage and markings would be the first step in creating the Bike Boulevards, and safe crossings would be the second step. Two decades later, we still do not have safe crossings.

Two decades is long enough to wait. We don’t need even more delay before we get a safe crossing at California and Dwight. We need to add either stop signs or a HAWK beacon at this intersection now.

 Charles Siegel has long been an advocate for making Berkeley safer for bicycles and pedestrians.