Berkeley council says traffic circles will keep their trees

A man rides a bike past a traffic circle in Berkeley at Ward and Fulton streets (file photo). Photo: Daniel M. Kim

The Berkeley City Council put many minds at ease Tuesday night by voting to allow existing trees and some vegetation to remain in place in traffic circles around town.

In fact, there had been no recent plans to cut down those trees. But that hadn’t stopped rumors from sweeping through some parts of the city that the traffic circle trees were potentially on the chopping block and at risk of what has been described at times as clearcutting.

Tuesday’s vote ratified, in large part, a new policy created by a community task force and city staff related to plantings in traffic circles going forward. What remains to be seen is how the city will handle requests to put new trees in traffic circles, which currently is forbidden, and exactly what the approach to community stewardship and maintenance efforts will be.

Dozens of community members, some of whom were part of the task force, urged council Tuesday night to adopt the new policy and add more traffic-calming measures around traffic circles where there are particular concerns about sight lines and visibility.


But several local residents, including Todd Jackson, the husband of a woman who was seriously injured when a driver struck her in a Berkeley crosswalk, pleaded with the city to put safety first and remove the trees from circles altogether. (That crash resulted in a $2.15 million settlement between the city and the injured woman.) Council members thanked Jackson for sharing his perspective and his family’s story and said they would take his concerns to heart as they continue to consider the issue.

Numerous community members repeatedly told city officials during public comment that the trees themselves should not be the focus of the policy debate.

“The real problem here is the drivers. They are not stopping,” one woman, who said she walks for an hour in Berkeley every day, told council. Another woman said traffic enforcement in the city is the main problem, because the city hasn’t done anything to address driving violations.

Others said a number of the city’s traffic circles are just too big for the intersections where they’re located, which the city will need to address in the future with better design guidelines.

Some council members said they weren’t comfortable making a decision about the policy without having more data in front of them. But ultimately they voted to adopt the new policy and have several city commissions look more deeply into how to address both ongoing maintenance needs and a program for volunteering.

Berkeley has 62 traffic circles, according to task force research. Half of them have trees in them.

About one-third of the city’s traffic circles are maintained by volunteers, task force leader Diane Ross-Leach told council Tuesday night.

The task force would like the city to launch a program like Oakland’s Adopt-a-Spot to get more volunteers involved with maintenance, she added, particularly because the city’s bike plan recommends the creation of 42 new circles in the city at some point in the future.