Change is difficult – especially when it comes to altering the streetscape we move through daily. But when it is done and done right, it is hard to imagine what it was like before the change. For most New Yorkers, it is impossible to imagine ever reopening Times Square to vehicle traffic since its 2009 transition to a pedestrian plaza. In Seattle, a dramatic transformation turned Bell Street, a busy vehicle thoroughfare, into Bell Street Park, where wider sidewalks encourage foot traffic to local businesses. Closer to home, we are on the cusp of dramatic change in San Francisco with the Better Market Street project. This effort will close much of Market Street to private automobile traffic to improve MUNI service and better serve bicyclists and pedestrians.
The shift towards prioritizing multiple modes of travel – walking, biking, scootering, and transit – and not just the private automobile, is a movement that is happening in cities nationwide and right here in the Bay Area. The time is right for our Berkeley community to rethink how we can create safer and more inviting streets. Telegraph Avenue is the place to start.
Few neighborhoods can claim such a rich history and unique culture as Telegraph – the home of counterculture movements that have so defined Berkeley’s history, Telegraph Avenue is a tribute to the power of grassroots activism. Telegraph Avenue pioneered the nation’s first curb cuts to aid mobility for those with wheelchairs after years of advocacy. Telegraph Avenue was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, where thousands of UC Berkeley students fought for their right to engage in political activism on campus.
But Telegraph Avenue can be more. This lively, eccentric commercial district is also an opportunity to move Berkeley into the future.
Re-envisioning the future of Telegraph is about rethinking who our streets are for. And for too long, the answer, by and large, has been cars. But that doesn’t reflect the needs of our environment, nor the needs of our residents. Automobile traffic makes up only 45 percent of Berkeley’s transportation mode share, and that number has been on a steady decline since the year 2000. Berkeley also has the fourth-highest bicycle mode share in the nation, with 90 percent of residents saying they already bicycle or would bicycle if they felt safe on our streets. Only 5 percent of UC Berkeley students, some of the most frequent users of Telegraph Avenue, choose to drive a motorized vehicle to school — 77 percent walk and 17 percent bike or use public transportation.
Telegraph is a perfect candidate for a streetscape that puts people first. It’s a win across the board, increasing foot traffic to our treasured small businesses, promoting more sustainable mobility modes, and re-establishing Telegraph as a vibrant destination rather than just a street for cars to drive through. Even putting all that aside, Telegraph has not seen a comprehensive sidewalk overhaul since the 1970s. As Southside welcomes more new residents and businesses, the poor condition of its sidewalks and other public realm elements make it clear that infrastructure improvements have not kept pace with growth. Telegraph is past due for a major refurbishment – our residents and merchants deserve better.
In 2016, the Telegraph Public Realm Plan proposed a shared streets vision for Telegraph. It explored eliminating the curb in the street and converting the four blocks from Bancroft to Dwight into one beautiful, level plaza of pavers. The shared streets proposal is about creating a Telegraph Avenue that prioritizes public transit, pedestrians, and bicyclists. This plan was developed with intense and comprehensive input from AC Transit, merchants, property owners, neighbors, and the university.
And now, it is time to put that plan into action.
The Public Realm Plan’s many short- and medium-term projects have served as a roadmap for the efforts of the Telegraph Business Improvement District and the District 7 City Councilmember. Commissioned murals and planters now brighten up Telegraph, and the TBID just installed the Avenue’s first modular trash corral. Just this month, the Berkeley City Council allocated $100,000 in funding for improvements to the Dwight Triangle. However, the plan’s loftiest long-term project has remained largely untouched.
That’s why in October, Council voted to formally begin developing a plan to implement the Telegraph shared streets proposal, directing staff to explore what such an undertaking would look like and identify potential funding sources. This effort will require the support of regional entities and our biggest partners. It will require continual engagement with community stakeholders and multiple stages of design and planning, and it won’t happen quickly.
But what is most important is that we get started. So join us in this vision – we want to share it with you.