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Slow but steady change to design bike and walk friendly cities

on November 20, 2019

Ambitious questions about mobility, equity, housing, and safe streets in Oakland were heavily featured during a panel talk at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) on Monday evening.

Around 100 mostly young professionals and design enthusiasts attended the event, held at SPUR’s downtown Oakland meeting space, across the street from a recently-renovated plaza. Staff from the urban planning policy think tank, with offices serving San Jose, Oakland, and San Francisco, organized the event in partnership with Citylab, an online news publication that focuses on urban issues.

Tyler Wacker, a transit design consultant, had come from San Francisco for the talk. “I don’t have a car,” Wacker said with a proud grin, and noted that as someone who relies on a combination of public buses, cycling infrastructure, and commuter rail to get around, hearing from experts about the region’s mobility challenges would be informative. “I’m just here to learn,” he said.

Once the event began, the panel’s three members each articulated a vision for what Oakland would look like in the future, and what challenges lie ahead for the city and its residents. They included cycling activist Phoenix Mangrum; Warren Logan, the policy director of mobility for the mayor’s office; and Ben Grant, a policy director at SPUR. Laura Bliss, the West Coast bureau chief for Citylab, was the moderator.

Bliss kicked off the discussion by referring to last month’s unanimous decision by the board of directors of San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency to approve a $600 million restructuring of Market Street, which would open the prominent thoroughfare to pedestrians, buses, and historic Muni streetcars—but not automobiles. As part of the project, called Better Market Street, even ride-hailing giants like Lyft and Uber would be relegated to surrounding side streets.

Logan acknowledged the project’s benefits, but cautioned against applying an equally costly and bureaucratic policy to Oakland’s far less congested streets. “The design and the environmental process certainly take a long time. But if you’re getting serious about enacting transformative streets, there are low-impact ways to do that without taking eight years,” Logan said. For example, he said, the closure of several blocks of Telegraph Avenue on every First Friday, as well as smaller street closures for other neighborhood street fairs throughout the year, are some “low-impact” instances of a successful pedestrian-first policy. 

Bliss, framing initiatives for car-free streets as part of a wider global trend, said that most such initiatives have been undertaken in Europe, from mid-sized cities in the Netherlands, to, more recently, larger metropolises like Barcelona and Paris. It was this car-free trend in larger cities, Bliss said, that helped build momentum for the issue in San Francisco.

Throughout the discussion, the panelists spoke about how their personal lives are affected by transportation and other urban planning policies. They were particularly candid about the ramifications of policies on poorer and historically-underrepresented communities.

Grant said that his career in planning was shaped by his upbringing in the Bay Area, where he said traffic and air quality are perennial issues. “I learned to embrace urbanism as a set of technologies and systems that enable people to live in close proximity to each other in a way that is beneficial to everyone,” he said.

Phoenix Mangrum, a cyclist and activist with Cycles of Change, an Oakland bicycle co-op, framed his views on urban planning and transportation policy as an African-American who has lived in Oakland since the early 1980s. “I’m a protected bike lane person,” he said, referring to a push to create special lanes just for bike traffic. But, he said, he believes that top-down transportation policies, even seemingly innocuous ones that support things like bike lines, have historically brought little benefit to low-income communities of color in Oakland. And he pointed out that bigger state decisions, like the construction of freeways in the 1960s that cut off predominately African-American communities like West Oakland from downtown and the rest of the city, had demonstrably negative effects, like concentrating poverty in certain areas.

Bliss said that she appreciates the perspective of long-term residents like Mangrum. Tensions between newer residents—who are generally wealthier and more likely to be white than their long-term neighbors—and Oaklanders who have lived here for decades have led to questions, amongst city planners and residents alike, about who is being served by transportation policies designed for pedestrians and cyclists.

Grant elaborated on Bliss’s point, saying that with the costly implementation of urban planning projects coinciding with rapid demographic shifts in the Bay Area, “You run into a situation where improvements to public space can be read as pioneering or colonization, or imposition from up high.”

“To me, the most heartbreaking ramification of that is the argument that you sometimes hear that ‘we don’t want to improve conditions in our communities, because they would then by subject to gentrification,’” Grant added. Some of these residents, he said with a note of sadness in his voice, argue in favor of keeping poor places dangerous and polluted in order to avoid having their community uprooted.

Logan, touching on Grant’s point, candidly asked: “How do we accomplish our goals without driving everyone out?” Black residents of Oakland, he said, are leaving the city for more affordable East Bay locales like Antioch, and even leaving the region entirely.

“The design challenge I’ve been thinking about is: ‘Can we figure out a way to rediscover ordinary?’” Grant asked. “So that we don’t have this gold-plated, shiny object that is intended for someone else.”

Grant cited time that he had spent visiting Berlin, where he found that public spaces, from playgrounds to town squares, are designed with minimal flair in order to serve city residents as a whole. He wanted to dispel the notion that “ordinary” public spaces are something bad. Public spaces, he said, don’t have to be costly to maintain or have fancy design elements to bring people together. “It’s scruffy,” he said of the German capital’s public space. “It’s a thousand ordinary little playgrounds on a thousand ordinary little streets where you let your kids run.”

As the talk came to a close, the panelists spoke briefly about the connection between housing and transportation, which appeared to resonate with the young crowd, some of whom nodded their heads vigorously. They agreed that for a city to best serve pedestrians, cyclists and public transit riders, an ample supply of high-density housing is needed, particular near existing and future public transit options. Logan, who had the last word, said, “The best transportation policies and solutions are often housing.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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