Opinion: Tunnel Road is dangerous for bicyclists and needs to be reworked

The street turns into three on-ramps for two different highways in a span of fewer than 100 yards. Bicyclists are funneled into a separate lane with no protection.

I would like to bring attention to one of Berkeley’s worst intersections for cyclists: Tunnel Road above the Claremont Hotel. The street winds around a blind uphill curve and turns into three on-ramps for two different highways in a span of fewer than 100 yards.

Snaking through the middle of this blind uphill crawl is a bike lane. This bike lane is unprotected — striped paint being the only barrier keeping cars from driving through it as they ramp up to highway merging speed. Cyclists are left in no man’s land, crawling uphill just hoping to be seen. Cars cruise past riders either switching lanes ahead of them, behind them or right through them,  as was my case on Tuesday, Aug. 20.

I bike through this intersection frequently enough to have been almost hit twice. The first time, a pickup truck slammed its brakes behind me, swerving just in time to miss me while I was in my dedicated bike lane tucked between on-ramp lanes. The lines of paint did nothing to protect me; I was saved from being hit solely because the driver of the pick-up was deft enough to slam their brakes and swerve around me. They came to a complete stop across two lanes, looked to see if they hit me, and continued on their commute as if nothing serious had happened. A driver in another car even yelled at me that it was my fault because my clothing wasn’t bright enough. I had a red LED taillight flashing, and it was late morning on a sunny day.

Tunnel Road where it meets Highway 13. Source: Bing maps
Tunnel Road east of Claremont Hotel. Photo: Google Street View

A year and a half went by during which I always feared that a car would sneak up and rear-end me at the same intersection. I spent $120 on a bright yellow cycling shirt to wear in low light during winter. I wasn’t going to let clothing be an excuse for drivers to say they couldn’t see me. For summer I bought another expensive neon yellow sleeved shirt because I was always worried about my visibility to cars.

The second incident happened recently.

On Aug. 20 I found myself climbing Tunnel Road. I passed the Claremont, snaking up the hill, entered my designated bike lane and climbed the last stretch before my green light to Old Tunnel Road. I was 100 feet from getting through this haunting intersection when I found myself seeing a flash of bright white light. A car going about 30 mph plowed into me. Suddenly, I was off my bike, suspended upon the hood of a car, my body quickly sliding into the windshield and shattering it. They slammed their brakes, my body flew from the hood to the pavement where I rolled and skidded until I came to a complete stop. It was so sudden. I never heard the car coming. I never saw it or felt it until the car had hit me.

My shattered bike lay somewhere, the LED taillight presumably still flashing its warning beacon. My neon yellow-sleeved cycling jersey shredded and got covered in blood. An ambulance arrived and the emergency workers checked out my spine as I lay on the ground. They took me to Highland Hospital. I was fully conscious, fully able to move my extremities. CAT scans, x-rays, painkillers, wounds cleaned and bandaged, 14 hours of lying on a gurney in the hallway and I was finally discharged at 2 a.m.

I am one week into my healing process and I still cannot walk properly. My arms and legs are covered in dark bruises and massive scrapes. I’m missing work. Only after I got home did I closely inspect my helmet. It had major cracks near the base and huge dents on the top. I held it in my arms and broke down in tears. The worst part of the whole ordeal was knowing that I was one of the lucky ones. Lucky I was young and in shape and that my body would heal and recover more quickly than some. Lucky that my back wheel acted like a shock absorber. Lucky that the driver stopped to give insurance information to the paramedics and police. Lucky to have worn a helmet that protected my head properly. Lucky to be alive. Just lucky, even though I don’t physically feel that, I know I dodged brain damage or worse. A car hit me, and I still consider myself lucky, thank you Tunnel Road intersection.

I’m one of many cyclists who have either had a close call at this intersection or been hit. This intersection is a death trap and needs to be reworked. More plastic pylons would be a good start, and a protected bike signal would be ideal. Anything would be an improvement over what is in place currently.

Greg Friedman is a Berkeley native, bartender at Pacific Standard Taproom, a Chico State alum, makes great smoked ribs, and is passionate about having fun.