On a sunny afternoon in the heart of Oakland’s Chinatown, shoppers meander up the South side of 8th Street, stopping to peruse boxes of produce lining the sidewalk.
At the corner of 8th and Franklin, against the backdrop of two delivery trucks double-parked near the curb, pedestrians cross a “scramble”—as the all-ways crosswalk is called by urban planners—in six directions, darting left, right and even diagonally across the intersection for the duration of the walk signal. When the traffic light turns green, vehicles lined up in four lanes across 8th are free to zoom down the one-way street to Broadway, or turn right onto Franklin.
This busy part of 8th Street is the site for one of the many proposed bikeways in Oakland. However, some Chinatown leaders said the city should think twice before adding bikes to the mix on 8th Street, as well as parallel 9th Street, which has a similar bustling vibe.
Jennie Ong, the executive director of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, which represents the interests of Chinatown businesses, said she is opposed to a proposal that would add bikeways and possibly eliminate one lane of traffic on 8th and 9th streets from Harrison to Broadway. Increased bicycle traffic would contribute to the confusion on these high-density streets, she said, where parking is a competitive sport and delivery trucks vie for curb space on a daily basis.
Ong said her reservations about adding bikeways to these streets stems from safety concerns, and the interests of Chinatown businesses, which could be negatively impacted if pedestrians feel unsafe or drivers cannot find a parking spot.
“It’s a hustle bustle of people, and it’s like this every day,” Ong said as she stood on the corner of 8th and Franklin, gesturing at the packed sidewalks and busy streets. “It is a high activity area that is not conducive for bike lanes. I have nothing against bikeways, but safety wise, in some places, it is not a good idea.”
A complete, connected network of bikeways throughout Oakland and neighboring communities is the goal of the city’s bike plan. The plan has a 20-year vision to have a complete, 218-mile network of designated bikeways, which means eliminating gaps like the one in Chinatown. “We are trying to make efficient use of our work based on where the gaps are—there are a lot of gaps when you ride in Oakland,” said Jason Patton, the Bicycle and Pedestrian program manager for the city’s public works agency.
There are five different types of bikeways used in Oakland, Patton said. As part of the city’s Bicycle Master Plan, adopted in 2007, and now under a new Lake Merritt redevelopment plan, the city is working to identify locations for separate striped bike lanes and arterial bike routes indicated by “sharrows”—a combination of the words “share” and “arrows”—which signals to drivers that cyclists will be sharing the same lane. City planners are also using signs to designate well-connected bike routes and calmer bicycle boulevards, and are working to improve pedestrian and bicycle-only paths such as the Bay Trail, a planned 500-mile network of bicycling and hiking trails that will pass through Oakland along the waterfront.
In addition to the contentious Chinatown bikeways, the city, in conjunction with the Lake Merritt plan, is proposing bike lanes east of Chinatown—between Harrison and Oak Street on 8th and 9th, and a connecting North-South route on Oak and Madison. Patton said this route will connect Lake Merritt to Jack London Square.
The proposed bikeways through Chinatown are part of the plan to redevelop the Lake Merritt BART station area, using a $1 million grant given to the city, BART and the Peralta Community College District by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments in 2009. After releasing initial proposals in September and taking public feedback, the planning committee is scheduled to develop a draft plan this month that will propose new bikeways in the Lake Merritt area, as well as changes to buildings, parks, the BART station and other public areas.
Local bicycle advocacy groups disagree with Ong’s assessment that bikeways would negatively impact the Chinatown area. Dave Campbell, program director for the East Bay Bicycle Coalition (EBBC), said bikeways are necessary for Chinatown to increase traffic safety, and could actually serve as a traffic-calming solution on 8th and 9th when drivers encounter the added visual cues signaling a bikeway.
“Having more bicyclists will make Chinatown a safer community,” Campbell said. “When streets get busy—and here they are very busy—that’s a good thing. We like to see this vibrancy in a community. Making it safe for bicycling will add to that vibrancy, and when you slow down traffic, you create a safe, shared space for bicyclists and pedestrians.”
There are a number of options being explored for bikeways through Chinatown, Campbell said. The ideas for 8th and 9th include proposals for either shared bike and traffic lanes or separate bike lanes (which would eliminate one of the four traffic lanes on each street). A new “shared street” concept is also being proposed by the EBBC, Campbell said, where the blocks between Harrison and Broadway would be altered to resemble a pedestrian plaza by treating the pavement with a painted motif or some other signal that tells visitors they are in Chinatown. Vehicles would still be permitted, but the added visual cues would signal drivers to be hyper-vigilant, he said.
“Those cyclists who are riding and doing business in Chinatown have every right to have a safe street to ride on,” Campbell said. “We want to encourage more people to bike to Chinatown, and also to the other destinations in the area—Jack London Square, Old Oakland—that these bikeways would serve.”
Ong said she has no objection to the bikeways proposed for other parts of downtown. For 8th and 9th between Harrison and Broadway, though, “it just doesn’t work,” she said. “It is not a good environment for bike routes.”
But the downtown cycling network will only be complete if bikeways pass through Chinatown, Campbell said, allowing bicyclists to safely access the existing bike route on Washington Street, which extends to the waterfront. The section between Harrison and Broadway is “an essential corridor for connectivity, to get in and out of downtown Oakland on a bike,” he said.
At the current pace of repaving and re-striping, however, it will take the city 50 years to complete the bikeways network, according to Gloria Bruce, the board chair of pedestrian and cyclist advocacy group Walk Oakland Bike Oakland (WOBO). To help the city push forward with the bike plan, WOBO and the EBBC launched a bikeways campaign in conjunction with Bike to Work Day last May. Bruce said the aim of the campaign is to have the bike network completed by 2020.
“We know there are tons of Oaklanders who ride,” Bruce said. “We have a pretty strong plan in a city that, in some ways, is very amenable to bikeways because a lot of it is flat and we have a great climate. But in some ways it is tricky: we have many industrial areas and these crazy winding streets. For that, the effort of the city is really commendable.”
In 2010, over 3,000 Oakland residents commuted by bike, according to a national survey by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB). In September of 2010, Oakland received a Bronze-Level ranking in the LAB Bicycle Friendly Community program, where cities can be rated as bronze, silver, gold or platinum. Portland, Davis and Bolder all have platinum rankings, and San Francisco received a gold rating.
The rating criteria developed by LAB consider a city’s infrastructure for bicycling—designated lanes, road markings and signage to alert drivers to the presence of cyclists—as well as the connectivity of bikeways, the availability of bike parking and access to bridges, underpasses and public transit.
Oakland is constantly improving its system of bikeways, Patton said, and there is a lot of work moving forward right now. He mentioned the striping of a bike lane on Webster and Franklin, between 25th and 14th, that will be completed this month. Every six months, the Bicycle and Pedestrian program publishes an updated list and map of projects underway.
The short term goals for the bike plan include installing 30 miles of new bikeways in 2011 (the city is a little behind schedule due to rain, Patton said) and completing five “key corridors” by 2015—routes which will provide the most connectivity to different areas of the city.
A few potential key corridors, which are still being identified, have “some level of controversy or practical difficulty,” said Bruce of WOBO. She said the area around 40th Street, near the MacArthur BART station, is an example of a contentious bikeway proposal—neighborhood residents were concerned about the necessity to narrow medians in the center of the road to make room for a bike lane, she said, but a positive compromise has been reached.
Campbell from the EBBC mentioned another controversial bikeway proposal: a bike lane on Telegraph Avenue that would connect North Oakland with downtown and Berkeley. He said this bikeway is being held up by an overarching proposal from AC Transit to completely revamp Telegraph—for the past eight or 10 years, he said, the county agency has been working on implementing a Bus Rapid Transit system, which would incorporate bikeways. But the BRT proposal is contentious because it will take out two lanes of traffic on Telegraph, and debate on the plan is also holding up the bike lane idea.
“We are moving forward, doing community outreach and trying to gain support for safe and inviting bike access all over the city,” Campbell said. “There is a lot more to be done.”
As for the proposed Chinatown bikeways, Bruce said WOBO and the EBBC will continue an open dialogue with Ong and the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, to try and understand their objections and work through them. Not installing some sort of traffic calming bikeway or other solution will not prevent cyclists from needing to ride through Chinatown, she said.
“We want to push for bike lanes on 8th and 9th in a way that is respectful to the merchants on that corridor,” Bruce said. “We want to make Chinatown safer for cyclists—it is a crazy place to bike right now. We are encouraging city planners to look at as many options as possible.”