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You Tell Us: Rebuild Oakland’s streets to make them safer

on June 16, 2010

With a bicycle fatality, a little girl hit by a car and multiple car accidents along Market Street in the past couple of months, just in the stretch of Market Street between the intersection of 57th/Market/Adeline and 40th/Market, I think it’s high time that this community begin a dialogue about the relationship between pedestrians, bicycles, automobiles, safety and the design of roadways and our public spaces. There is a direct relationship between the design of the street and the safety of pedestrian and bicycle users of that street (or lack thereof).

Before the construction of Highway 24 and the rest of the freeway system, the major streets in north Oakland — Market, Adeline, West, Martin Luther King, Jr., Telegraph, etc. — were built up around streetcar lines that connected the residential neighborhoods to the major job center of downtown Oakland, or on into San Francisco via ferries and then the streetcar lines across the lower deck of the Bay Bridge. In the 1950s, sidewalks were narrowed and streets were re-designed to move autos efficiently and quickly to the same destinations, following the removal of the streetcar system.

When the freeways came, the added auto capacity remained on these surface streets, but went largely under-used. Today, the legacy of this is wide streets where cars are un-impeded by traffic and can easily move more quickly than is safe in a residential context.

It is clear that we must undertake to once again rebuild our main streets, this time to make them safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as for the reduced volumes of auto traffic that they now carry, before any more lives are endangered or lost. Examples of successful strategies abound, both domestically and internationally, that could be implemented here. Curb bulb-outs not only narrow the crossing distance for pedestrians, they also allow them to “lead off” where they are more able to see and be seen before leaving the curb to cross the street. Textured pavement before intersections gives cars an audible warning that they are entering a zone where low speeds are expected. Traffic circles and roundabouts physically slow traffic down, eliminating any form of higher-speed accident and ensuring that any accident that does occur is at lower speeds and at angles that are less likely to injure. Painted bicycle lanes through intersections alert all users of the road where bicycles are to be expected, providing predictability and order. Planted green bioswales can be used to narrow wide streets to slow down traffic, add greenery to a neighborhood and capture storm runoff for natural treatment rather than force it to flow into the sewer system. Flashing in-pavement lights (such as those at 43rd and San Pablo in front of Arizmendi) can be activated by pedestrians to immediately signal to cross traffic that people are using the crosswalk now and should be given the right-of-way.

These are strategies that are widely used in places where the community and the government partner together to make the public spaces safe for people on foot, on bikes and in cars; they can be used here in Oakland, too.

A systems approach to choosing which strategies to implement might examine multiple public goals for street space, such as traffic calming, business frontage sidewalk improvements, bus stop improvements, pedestrian experience enhancements, bicycle facility improvements, tree planting, greening and streetscape improvements. With a limited amount of space in the right-of-way, too many demands on the limited available space could create conflicts, unless the community first chooses to prioritize goals, then seeks to achieve those goals by choosing the appropriate set of strategies.

I believe that a holistic corridor-level plan, driven by the neighborhood, should be able to produce a consensus vision of how to make corridor streets safer and more enjoyable for all users. Market Street seems like the logical first corridor to start with, but strategies tested and implemented there could also be used on the other corridors in the neighborhood, such as Adeline, West and MLK Jr. (Telegraph Ave is already slated to get a set of improvements as a part of the Bus Rapid Transit project).

In future op-ed pieces, if folks are interested, I’d be happy to go into a lot of these topics in more detail, especially the different strategies and infrastructure improvements. I would like this community to become better informed, not just about the problems, but about the potential solutions, so that we can come together and offer our own improvement plan for how we would like to see our neighborhood look in the future.

Garlynn Woodsong is employed by Calthorpe Associates, a firm of urban designers, planners & architects located in north Berkeley, to which he commutes 4.5 miles each way every day on his bicycle. He was previously with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (a regional government for the 9-county Bay Area located in downtown Oakland), and as such is intimately familiar with many land use and transportation planning issues and funding sources. Garlynn has been active in the Longfellow community of North Oakland since buying a house and moving to 42nd street in November of 2008, including involvement with the 40th street median green project and the Longfellow Community Association.


You Tell Us is Oakland North’s new community Op-Ed page, featuring opinion pieces submitted by readers on Oakland-related topics. Have something to say? Send essays of 500-1,000 words to We’d love to hear from you!

All essays reflect the opinions of their authors, and not of the Oakland North staff or the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Oakland North reserves the right to edit submissions for length, clarity and spelling/grammar. You Tell Us submissions must be written in civil and non-offensive language. We do not publish hate speech, libelous material, unsubstantiated allegations or rumors, or personal attacks on individuals or groups.

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  1. Bike Man Dan on June 16, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Never even thought about it from the historical perspective (streets prior to highways); very interesting

    I completely agree our arterials need attention. I live on San Pablo so have a lot of first hand knowledge about their problems.

    Its encouraging that seemingly for the first time the federal government is mandating that transportation planning be all inclusive rather than favoring the auto, but we now need to embrace this on a local level and ACT

    Thanks for the editorial 🙂

  2. nfalls on June 16, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I don’t need 500 words for the solution. I only need two: EMINENT DOMAIN.

  3. A.M on June 17, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Great article Garlynn. Very interesting to read about the historical side of transportation flow in our area. Thanks for the great suggestions on how to calm traffic and yes yesssssssssssssssssss to more green beautification. Excellent article.

  4. Todd Rowan on June 17, 2010 at 11:20 am

    I’d be happy even just to see this on Market or West alone. Steer most of the cars and buses onto Adeline and MLK, and give North-South bicycle and pedestrian traffic a safe artery of its own, like the Bicycle boulevards in Berkeley.

  5. Sarah Boehm on June 17, 2010 at 11:51 am

    This is a really useful and on point Op-Ed. I live at 45th & West and we experience similar problems to Market and I would fully support and participate in a neighborhood improvement effort to make it safer and greener neighborhood for all.

  6. […] my last piece for Oakland North, I wrote a problem statement describing the current unsafe situation on the major streets of North Oakland, and broadly proposing some potential solutions. In this piece, I will delve into more specific […]

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