Ben Gerhardstein was hit by a car biking in Atlanta. He broke some ribs and got pretty banged up, but it wasn’t the worst experience he’s had in his years of cycling. The worst happened in Berkeley.
In 2017, Gerhardstein was on his way to drop his kids off at school when, at the corner of Allston Way and San Pablo Avenue, a car ran into the bike trailer he was pulling with his two children inside it.
“It didn’t hurt them, thankfully,” said Gerhardstein, a Berkeley resident and former member of the Transportation Commission. “But I know way too many people who have had bad experiences around here.”
That’s why Gerhardstein’s work with the advocacy group Walk Bike Berkeley is so important to him. Many Berkeley cyclists have had life-changing close calls with cars on city streets and that fear keeps many Berkeley residents from biking more often, he said.
“This is a place that could be a world-class walking and biking city,” Gerhardstein said. “But we’re holding ourselves back right now.”
In recent months, the City Council has approached bike safety with vigor, spurred by the city’s new Vision Zero plan, which aims to “eliminate all traffic-related fatalities in Berkeley by 2028 through engineering, education and enforcement strategies.” Vision Zero campaigns are popping up in cities around the country as climate change, street congestion and urban density push local governments to develop safer alternatives to driving.
Berkeley has the highest rate in the nation of people who bike to work for cities with more than 100,000 residents. But city research uncovered that “90 percent of Berkeley residents already bicycle or would consider bicycling if the right bikeway facility or roadway conditions were available,” according to the 2017 Bicycle Plan.
On Oct. 29, the City Council voted to ask the Transportation Commission to look at banning trucks larger than three tons from the city’s bike boulevards. Trucks would be allowed to use bike boulevards only when absolutely necessary to reach their destination. Banning large trucks would make cyclists feel safer, according to City Councilwoman Kate Harrison, who put forth the measure along with Councilmen Ben Bartlett and Rigel Robinson. Harrison said the ban will also decrease wear on the pavement, as large vehicles cause exponentially more damage to city streets than cars do.
Council also asked the city manager to come back with a plan to overhaul Telegraph Avenue near UC Berkeley’s campus. The Shared Streets Initiative for Telegraph Avenue would redesign the street from Dwight Way to Bancroft Way to make it as welcoming to pedestrians and bicyclists as it is to cars. The redesign would encourage interaction with local businesses. It includes better lighting, wider sidewalks and infill trees between cars and pedestrians.
Tuesday night, the City Council voted to explore potential changes to local bicycle traffic laws, most notably moving the city toward an “Idaho Stop” policy, meaning cyclists approaching an empty intersection could treat stop signs as yields and only come to complete stops at red lights. State law bans the practice so, while Berkeley can’t change state law, the city can decide how much to enforce it, according to Robinson.
Initially, Robinson had suggested that the city should prohibit ticketing cyclists who run through stop signs. But council members agreed Tuesday night that limiting this sort of enforcement made more sense and offered more flexibility than any sort of outright ban. Robinson said Berkeley has the chance to be the first city in California to adopt a policy that would deprioritize tickets for those who make an “Idaho Stop.”
“This item does not stop us from enforcing reckless cyclist behavior,” Robinson said. “It only stops us from levying unreasonable fines to punish the common practice of rolling through a stop sign at an empty intersection.”
Robinson went on to describe the policy as “safe, widely used and energy-efficient.”
The council vote will send the “Idaho Stop” proposal to the Transportation Commission for review and refinement. Council also asked the commission to look at creating a ticket diversion program so cyclists could attend safety classes rather than pay a fine.
The issue of whether bicyclists stopped — or not — at local intersections gained visibility on Aug. 13, Aug. 21, and Sept. 6 “when Berkeley residents observed BPD officers issue a series of $200 citations to bicyclists for rolling through stop signs,” Robinson wrote in his agenda item. “According to traffic enforcement division data, 55 total stops of this nature have occurred since July 2019, with 36 resulting in fines.”
The tickets were part of a year-long grant from the state Office of Traffic Safety, and only one element of BPD’s enforcement efforts included bicycle safety, according to Officer Byron White, department spokesman.
Bicyclists are required by state law to obey the same traffic laws as cars. Police have to enforce the laws that are on the books and cannot give cyclists special treatment, he said.
“There are some bad decisions being made by some people,” said White. “Caused by distraction, caused by hurriedness, whatever the reason may be, I think it’s important for us if we’re ever going to have safe streets, that everyone follow the rules of the road.”
But some residents thought police were too aggressive in their ticketing.
“Berkeley police were behaving excessively and unnecessarily,” UC Berkeley Professor Bob Zucker, a longtime cyclist, said in a recent interview.
Zucker filed a complaint about the expanded ticketing with the city’s Police Review Commission.
The “Idaho Stop” came about in the early 80s, and a 2010 study from UC Berkeley found it actually increased cyclist safety significantly by limiting the time they spent in intersections. A statewide “Idaho Stop” law was proposed in California in 2017 but failed to pass. Idaho and Delaware are the only states that have stops as yields on the books statewide. Other states like Colorado have a patchwork of legislation, some of which include stops as yields. Another eight states, or more, have policies recognizing that cyclists should have unique rules under the law. States like Washington and Oregon have defined pedestrians and cyclists as vulnerable road users and offer them special protections.
On Tuesday night, council also asked the Transportation Commission to compare traffic safety data before and after the implementation of the “Idaho Stop.” In addition, officials asked the city manager to create a diversion program and to look into adding more traffic-calming measures on bike boulevards.
Cycling advocates, including representatives from Walk Bike Berkeley, Bike East Bay, and UC Berkeley’s student government, have flooded recent meetings to push for policy changes in the city. Gerhardstein credits that pressure for bringing about the increased focus on bike safety and infrastructure improvements.
“I’d like to think that is a little bit to do with the fact that the council is hearing from us and other members of the community who are saying enough is enough,” he said. “It’s time to get serious about these issues.”
He also credited Robinson with spearheading efforts to get the city to make some crucial changes.
“We need a low-stress bike network in Berkeley and we needed it 20 years ago,” said Gerhardstein.