.Life on the Fast Lane: Outside drivers shop and speed in once placid Alameda

Tracy Roberts is sure the hyper-speeding drivers she sees around town aren’t local. The 61-year-old denizen of Alameda, a bayside city with a uniform 25 mph speed limit, has watched drivers come in from Oakland and followed them back out twice to confirm that’s where their trips began. Some cars have paper license plates or none, she said.

“They’re not just running yellow lights—they’re running reds,” said Roberts, a property manager who moved to Alameda from Sunnyvale in 2013 and misses the wide sidewalks of her former South Bay hometown.

Roberts’ views coincide with many who post angry remarks to the likes of Nextdoor.com about speeders, drivers who do donuts in intersections and unprecedented traffic gridlock.

Still, it’s hardly an us-versus-them dichotomy. The influx of non-Alameda drivers is fueling business for the city’s chief cinema, bowling alley, the anchor South Shore shopping mall and its two chief Main Street shopping districts. 

“I also noticed that on Central Avenue around 5:30pm it’s almost impossible to get anywhere, every single day, so I do think a lot of people are coming from Oakland and San Leandro to eat on Park Street. Which is good, but I don’t think there’s enough parking,” said Pigeon Fisher, 41, a receiver at Books Inc. Park at Central is the hub of a major Main Street-style business corridor just a half mile from Oakland’s Fruitvale district. “A lot of customers are telling me they’re visiting from Oakland,” she says.

Commuters, parents picking up school children and food grab-and-goers congest Park Street on a typical late afternoon. Each car waits two turns and maybe more at a single red light, especially near the drawbridge to Oakland. Traffic backs up a quarter mile some weekend days, through the Posey and Webster Street tubes from Alameda to Oakland Chinatown, all the worse if it’s congested already on the Oakland side or someone crashes in a tube.

Among the aggravations: Parking in Fisher’s business district or near Webster Street in West Alameda can be as competitive as parking in downtown Berkeley. Telltale fresh, circular tire tracks left over from donut cruising appear on Shoreline Drive alongside Alameda Beach, which is always a rage with East Bay weekenders. Households along the axial Otis Drive have posted signs urging drivers to heed the 25 mph speed limit.

The Building and Transportation Department for the city of 79,000 says 40,200 cars leave Alameda every day over the main island’s three bridges into Oakland and that about the same number return. The Webster Street Tube connecting Alameda to Oakland received average daily traffic of 32,200 trips in pre-Covid year 2019 vs. 31,500 in 2015, according to California Department of Transportation figures.

During the past 30 years, the bayside city where people once depended on Oakland for entertainment has nurtured a stable force of bars, cafes and locally owned shops. Today the cinema and bowling alley near Park Street, plus some of the signature shops, draw visitors from Oakland, which is about five times Alameda’s population size.

Businesspeople hardly mind.

Books Inc. has about 20% more customers now compared to 2019, Fisher says. “On one hand, it’s more congested, but on the other hand our businesses are benefiting from more visitors,” she says.

The Toy Safari, on Park Street as well, benefits from shoppers who live in Oakland and beyond, owner Helen Dean says. “It’s a great thing for business, quite honestly,” Dean says. She opened the store 30 years ago, back when so few outsiders knew about Alameda that she likened it to “some kind of exotic island in some crazy place.”

But the street’s 15-minute parking limits, lack of spaces and congestion that can cause gridlock all the way back into Oakland toward the afternoon rush hour daunt customers. Park Street forms one of Alameda’s bridges to Oakland.

Before Alameda developed its Park Street and Webster Street commercial districts, Alameda inhabitants frequented the more-bustling downtown Oakland businesses, such as H.C. Capwell or Kahn’s department store, or traveled to San Francisco, according to Alameda transportation historian Woodruff Minor.

Now, nearby parts of Oakland, such as downtown and Chinatown, lack Main Street business districts with “cute little restaurants” and locally owned merchants, to use Fisher’s words.

The more shoppers the better, Dean says, “but we need better traffic control and better parking. People are feeding meters that people aren’t even supposed to be parking at anymore.” Five years ago, she adds, Park Street drivers found more parking, drove slower and followed the rules on left turns. She believes police enforced rules more stringently before Covid, which created “aggression” in the streets.

The issue generates heavy traffic, too, on the post-your-own-news website NextDoor.com. In early December, for example, one East Alameda dweller wrote, “I used to live in Oakland and am not a hater at all, but things are out of control there. Alameda’s improved bike lanes and greater bikeability is a good thing.”

That comment answered another that said, “I’ll be more impressed when Alameda starts getting serious about speeding [and] light-running, etc.”

Andy Murdock, a 43-year-old communications director and veteran commuter who lives in Alameda, says the Posey and Webster tubes are “utterly unpredictable,” while the pedestrian-friendly improvements on the Oakland side of the Park Street Bridge “seem to make it slower for cars.”

Alameda police data shows that 64.7% of total arrests were made against city residents in 2015, whereas just half were made against residents in 2019. The total declined from 1,812 to 1,084 over that period, the most recent one provided by police. The city’s official media liaison did not answer a request to explain the numbers, and a traffic official declined to comment on the shifts in traffic observed by city dwellers.

City documents show that transportation planners are eyeing lane redesigns on Central Avenue, a major cross-island thoroughfare, that would add turn lanes, bike lanes, roundabouts, curb extensions, new crosswalks and pedestrian-refuge islands. The city is still building out its Cross Alameda Trail, a four-mile cycling and walking corridor that connects West Alameda to the Eastside’s Miller-Sweeney [Fruitvale] Bridge toward Oakland. The city spokesperson says Alameda is contemplating a bicycle-pedestrian bridge into Oakland, with any construction some eight-to-10 years off.

City leaders hope to reduce single-driver commutes by following up a 2009 study on comfortable ways to walk, bike and take public transit.

But the cars keep coming. A deficiency plan to mitigate traffic near the 215-acre Catellus Mixed Use Development that includes the ever-popular Alameda Landing mall near the two tubes indicates that as many as 1,000 more cars would come and go from Oakland. It suggests that “improvements” on the Oakland side could accommodate that traffic.

Ernest Dickinson, a 56-year-old Alameda native now living in Oakland, advocates building another motor-vehicle bridge. New housing slated for West Alameda will create more drivers, he said, and the existing tubes get so snarled during morning commutes that he’s had to leave early for work at Best Buy in Emeryville to avoid a 30-minute wait during his ideal time slot. “Pre-pandemic, the tube would be clogged with cars, and I think we need another bridge both to relieve traffic and as an alternative to getting off the island during a natural disaster or another crisis,” he says. “I think we really need to think about the infrastructure before we build all these houses.”

Roberts, a regular cyclist who was drawn to Alameda for its roadside bike lanes, gets ever-more-peeved as speeders challenge her two-wheeled rides. “I’m terrible,” she concedes. “I’ll throw a rock, so it bounces under the cage of their car.”

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