When Michael Schwartz turned around to see what was making the loud screeching noise, it was already too late. It was 9:20 p.m. on September 22, 2014, and Schwartz and his friend Sarah Fine were riding their bikes home on Lakeshore Avenue. The two cyclists were stopped in a designated bike lane near Foothill Boulevard waiting for the light to change when Schwartz saw a speeding black Acura crash into a motorcycle to his left.
“They were still accelerating and heading right to me,” he recalled. “And there was this moment of, ‘I am going to get hit.'”
Fine added: “I turned around and saw this mass hurtling toward us.”
A split-second later, the Acura narrowly missed Fine but crashed straight into Schwartz, throwing him off his bike and onto the hood of the vehicle, which carried him 75 feet through the intersection. He then went flying off of the car, landing hard on the pavement before the Acura sped off into the night. The hit-and-run driver, it turned out, had fled a police traffic stop minutes earlier and had sideswiped another car, according to an Oakland Police Department report. Schwartz, who was rushed to Highland Hospital, suffered a fractured shoulder, a torn ACL, and serious tissue and nerve damage in his left leg and foot. Photos taken after the collision showed his face covered in cuts and bruises. His bike was bent out of shape.
Schwartz, a 36-year-old Cleveland Heights resident, was unable to walk on his own for a month and had to take medical leave from his job as a senior transportation planner for the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. There, one of his responsibilities is planning street projects aimed at protecting cyclists and pedestrians and preventing the kind of collision that he suffered. In the months leading up to the crash, he had brought his passion for transportation planning to the East Bay where he co-founded Transport Oakland, a policy group that advocates for safer and more bike-friendly streets.
Transport Oakland’s members include a number of transportation professionals like Schwartz who work in San Francisco government and live in the East Bay. The night of the crash, the group — including Fine, who is also a transportation planner for San Francisco — had just completed an endorsement process for the Oakland mayoral and city council races. After conducting interviews with the top mayoral candidates, the group decided to endorse Libby Schaaf, who in late September was a councilmember behind in the polls and struggling to stand out in a crowded field. Schaaf, who went on to win the election, had impressed the activists with her plan to hire Oakland’s first-ever transportation policy director.
Transport Oakland had also decided that night to make Schwartz the spokesperson for the group as it ramped up its campaign to elect progressive pro-transportation candidates. The crash, however, prevented him from filling that role — an ironic development given that he was now especially well-positioned to advocate for safer streets having nearly lost his life in a collision.
Having lived near Lake Merritt for years, Schwartz has long argued that Lakeshore Avenue, where the car hit him, should have a protected bike lane — meaning a dedicated bikeway separated from car traffic by a physical barrier. It’s a good road for this type of innovative project, because the avenue runs parallel to the lake and thus lacks complicated turns or driveways that can make protected bike lanes tougher to design.
“That would’ve saved me — that kind of physical protection is the only thing that can save you from something this crazy,” Schwartz said, noting that the city had years earlier completed a major redesign of the streets around Lake Merritt, but had failed to adopt forward-thinking infrastructure. “It feels like such a missed opportunity.”
Oakland’s Public Works Agency, which manages transportation and street maintenance, employs a handful of progressive planners who are working to transform the city’s roads to encourage biking and walking. But progress has been slow, advocates say, and Oakland has long lacked the vision and governmental organization to build a truly bike-friendly city. Further, while grants and tax revenues have provided Oakland with money for street projects, the city has failed over the years to spend millions of dollars in transportation funds and has missed opportunities to put in new bike infrastructure when repaving its roads.
At the same time, the number of people biking in Oakland has climbed dramatically, forming a diverse constituency and advocacy network led by groups like Bike East Bay and Walk Oakland Bike Oakland that are now pressuring the city to support greener modes of transit. According to the US Census, the percentage of bike commuters in Oakland increased at least 143 percent from 2000 to 2013. And the number of bike commuters has doubled in the past six years alone. Today, more than 5,600 Oaklanders — 3 percent of the population — commute by bike. And that number is a significant undercount, because it does not include the thousands of cyclists who ride to public transit or those who ride recreationally or less frequently.
In addition, research has increasingly demonstrated that building better bike infrastructure does more than just attract new riders and increase safety. It can revitalize business districts, benefit the environment, and improve the health of city residents. As Oakland continues to develop, advocates argue that it’s critical for the city to grow in a way that allows and encourages residents to live without cars.
With significant new funding for street projects on the way, a bike-share program coming to the East Bay, and new transportation leaders in Oakland City Hall — including Schaaf’s recent hire, Transportation Policy Director Matt Nichols — advocates say momentum is building. But can Oakland build a world-class bicycling city?
In 1997, Oakland created its first bike lane on a roughly one-mile section of West Street from Grand Avenue to MacArthur Boulevard in West Oakland. It was an experiment that was long overdue. For decades, transportation officials had focused on building Oakland’s freeways and streets to support the flow of cars through the region. In the 1950s, the construction of the elevated Cypress Freeway section of Interstate 880 cut West Oakland in half. Then in the 1960s, the state and federal governments cut another large swath through the city — from East Oakland to North Oakland — with the construction of Interstate 580.
Like cities across the nation, Oakland further embraced car culture by designing streets and highways with the expectation that vehicle traffic would continue to increase for decades to come. But those projections turned out to be wrong. “The roads were built to accommodate more cars than needed,” Mayor Schaaf pointed out in a recent interview.
Indeed, traffic data shows that the city streets were over-built for cars. Transport Oakland, for example, compared city-commissioned traffic counts at 32 intersections around downtown and found that, on average, there has been a roughly 25 percent decrease in car traffic from 1999 to 2013. During that time, Oakland’s population increased by more than 40,000.
Similarly, on Telegraph Avenue, a key north-south thoroughfare that the city recently studied, officials found that the volume of cars on the road has declined over time — dropping substantially after Highway 24 opened in North Oakland in 1968 and then decreasing by 26 percent between 1969 and 2013.
All of this data points to what’s obvious to many people who regularly walk and bike around Oakland. “We’re not going to make Oakland a better city by giving more space to cars,” said Dave Campbell, advocacy director of Bike East Bay. “The beauty of it is we don’t need to. Driving is not increasing in Oakland.”
In some places, he added, “these streets are largely empty of cars.”
Unlike in San Francisco, where the streets are congested and every parking space is contested, there’s room to reimagine the streets in the East Bay. “We forever thought the number of people driving was going to continue to climb and we all know that it hasn’t,” said Fine, the Transport Oakland member. “So now we’re stuck with these streets that could function as secondary freeways.”
In some ways, that’s a blessing in disguise. “It’s a giant resource that we have, which are these streets that aren’t being used,” said Liz Brisson, another co-founder of Transport Oakland who is also a senior transportation planner for San Francisco.
Over the years, Oakland officials have increasingly recognized the importance of reclaiming street space for non-car uses — both in city policies and transportation projects. In 1999, Oakland created its first Bicycle Master Plan, which the city then updated in 2007. That plan offers an analysis of existing conditions, a blueprint for the city’s future bikeways, and an outline of the benefits of building better bike infrastructure in the East Bay.
According to the 2007 master plan, 85 percent of Oaklanders live within two miles of a major transit station — meaning an easy twelve-minute bike ride away. At the same time, while motor vehicles are responsible for 47 percent of Oakland’s greenhouse gas emissions, biking, of course, is the most environmentally efficient mode of transportation (along with walking) and is a year-round option in the climate-friendly Bay Area.
Biking also brings critical health benefits. Half of Oakland public school students are obese or overweight, and more than 40 percent of the leading causes of death in Oakland — including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes — are related to physical inactivity, the city’s bike plan notes. Thirty minutes of biking a day can go a long way toward preventing those illnesses.
The city has reiterated the importance of supporting bicycling in a number of new policies over the years. Oakland’s 2012 Energy and Climate Action Plan — aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emission levels by 2020 to 36 percent below those in 2005 — called for a 20-percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled by supporting walking, bicycling, and transit. And Oakland’s so-called “complete streets policy,” which the city council adopted in 2013, includes the goal of designing, building, and maintaining safe and convenient streets for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, people with disabilities, seniors, and children.
Underlying many of these policy objectives is the recognition that the city has an immediate public safety obligation to make the streets safer for residents. That’s because data shows that people are increasingly choosing to ride bikes on streets that aren’t yet designed to accommodate them.
Since January, when I started reporting this story, there have been at least two violent collisions in Oakland involving vehicles crashing into cyclists. The first victim, 25-year-old Greg Lowrie, was hit by a pickup truck in West Oakland on his way to an appointment at a health clinic on January 13.
His mother Maggie Lowrie, whom I met at Highland Hospital a week after the crash, told me that he was knocked unconscious into a coma and suffered brain damage, a crushed pelvis, a broken neck, and other serious injuries. Bicycling, she said, is the primary mode of transportation for both her and Greg, who suffers from a chronic heart condition. Currently unemployed, they have been living out of an RV in West Oakland and can’t afford a car. Two months after the collision, he is still unable to talk, eat, or move his body on his own, she told me recently.
On February 24, sixty-year-old Barbara Burns was riding her bike on San Leandro Street in the Elmhurst district of East Oakland when a pickup turning onto that road crashed right into her, police said. The driver, a 52-year-old Oakland resident, was not injured.
Burns was pronounced dead on the scene.
On a Monday afternoon in February, Jason Patton and Jamie Parks took me on a bike ride around downtown and Lake Merritt. They are the two Oakland Public Works Agency officials at the forefront of bike and pedestrian planning for the city. Patton is the city’s bicycle and pedestrian program manager, which means he decides where and how to implement bike lanes, and Parks is the city’s complete streets program manager, meaning he coordinates transportation planning in development projects.
Like me, both are avid cyclists who rarely drive cars. I crashed and totaled my car in a non-injury accident a year ago and have been biking full-time ever since. While some assignments have been challenging — such as reporting on a story at Grizzly Peak in Berkeley — I’ve been much happier on a bike. (I grew up in New York City and have always hated driving).
Patton owns a car but said he only uses it for out-of-town hiking trips or to get groceries when it rains. Parks doesn’t own a car, but uses a car-sharing service when he needs to drive. Even some of the most ardent transportation activists I interviewed — cycling enthusiasts who believe Oakland’s street projects have regularly failed to incorporate progressive bike infrastructure — praised the efforts and vision of Patton and Parks, who are both data-driven planners working to push innovative designs.
“The way I approach projects is really by recognizing that streets are a huge public asset for Oakland and we need to make those streets as safe and accessible as we can for all Oaklanders,” Parks said.
On our recent bike tour, we rode down some of the city’s most effective bike lanes as well as on busy streets that lack bikeways and desperately need them. We started at City Hall and headed to Lake Merritt along 14th Street — a stretch of road that currently has no bike lane, but still attracts many cyclists. “If we can close this gap, there’s this really, really nice access to the center of downtown,” Patton said as we biked east on 14th, whose bike lane runs through West Oakland but disappears in downtown.
This year, the city will be studying the feasibility of adding bikeways to the downtown section of 14th Street by taking out a car lane in each direction, Patton explained, noting that the city gets frequent complaints from cyclists who have to ride there and end up in conflicts with drivers. The policy question, he said, is: “What if 14th Street were just to become a slower street and that was okay?”
Just south of where we were standing at 14th Street near the lake, bikeways are also in the works on 8th and 9th streets, which will create more east-west connections for cyclists, and on Oak and Madison streets, which will establish much-needed north-south bike routes from the lake to Jack London Square.
This is at the core of public works’ cycling infrastructure strategy: expanding the network of bike lanes out from existing ones and strategically building bike-friendly routes that connect neighborhoods and destinations. Since creating the first bike lane on West Street in 1997, the city has installed 52 miles of lanes for cyclists. The city has also created a wide range of other street designs for bikes and now has a total of 146 miles of designated bikeways — a 25-percent increase in bikeway mileage since 2010.
On parts of Mandela Parkway, Market Street, MacArthur Boulevard, and Grand Avenue, for example, the city has painted conventional, striped lanes that create a pathway exclusively for cyclists. The other main design, which is significantly less effective and less safe for cycling, is called a “sharrow,” meaning a marking on the ground indicating that cars should share the road with bikes (located on parts of 40th Street, San Pablo Avenue, Fruitvale Avenue, and Foothill Boulevard, for example). Since 1995, Oakland has completed forty “road diets,” meaning projects in which the city has sacrificed or minimized car lanes to make room for other uses, including bike lanes.
Oakland’s 2007 bike master plan calls for a total of 245 miles of bikeways, which means the city has a long way to go — especially in East Oakland. East of 38th Avenue, most key corridors identified in the master plan as needing bikeways — including MacArthur Boulevard, International Boulevard, and San Leandro Street (where the fatal bike crash happened a few weeks ago) — still lack lanes or sharrows of any kind.
In addition to building new lanes, the city has worked in recent years to upgrade existing designs by targeting streets and intersections that have high collision rates or are “conflict zones,” meaning areas in which motorists have to merge across bike lanes. The city’s brightly painted green lanes, for example, now help guide cyclists through complicated intersections. On our bike tour, we rode through two of them — one on Grand at Harrison Street, and another on Lake Merritt Boulevard at East 12th (just south of where Schwartz, the Transport Oakland co-founder, was struck in September).
The city has also improved existing bike lanes by widening them and painting in additional stripes known as buffers — a simple, but sometimes transformative change that can make it easier for cyclists to avoid car doors to the right or uncomfortably close drivers to the left.
Parks and Patton said the city often looks at crash data when deciding where to invest resources for bike planning. In recent years, the number of bicycle crashes has increased, but the rate of collisions has not — because the number of cyclists in the city has grown significantly. Research across the country has demonstrated that when more people bike, the overall rate of collisions declines in part because drivers grow accustomed to cyclists as they become more visible.
In Oakland, the total number of collisions involving cyclists has steadily climbed from 118 in 2004 to 221 in 2012, according to state data. Based on the number of bike commuters recorded in the Census, that means roughly one out of every 23 cyclists got in a crash in 2012. In 2004, it was about one in twenty. From 2004 to 2013, fourteen cyclists were killed in Oakland, including four fatalities in 2012, and two in 2013.
A bike crash analysis Parks provided to me, based on collisions from 2007 to 2011, identified a number of problematic corridors in which cyclists and pedestrians are frequently hit, including International just east of Lake Merritt; Grand north of the lake and in Uptown; and Telegraph Avenue.
On Telegraph, from downtown Oakland to the Berkeley border, the crash data is alarming: From 2007 to 2011, there were reports of 66 motorist-bicyclist crashes and 68 motorist-pedestrian collisions — primarily related to drivers speeding or failing to yield to bikes and pedestrians. All of those crashes resulted in injuries. The data is not surprising given that Telegraph — the last stop on our recent tour and probably the most stressful to ride — currently has no bike lanes.
Despite the fact that bikes have to compete with buses and speeding cars for space on the road, Telegraph Avenue, data shows, attracts roughly 1,200 cyclists a day — a clear sign that people will ride where it’s convenient, even when it’s unsafe.
The Public Works Agency hopes to dramatically improve conditions on one of Oakland’s most dangerous roads through the so-called Telegraph Avenue Complete Streets Plan, a major redesign spearheaded by Parks. The most high-profile part of the plan, which the city council approved in December for implementation this summer, is the city’s first-ever “cycle track” or “parking-protected bike lane,” meaning a bike lane adjacent to the curb and separated from motor vehicle traffic by a lane of parking to the left.
The city will install that protected lane design — an increasingly common feature in the leading bicycling cities in the United States — from 20th to 29th streets on Telegraph. From 29th to 41st streets, the city plans to create buffered bike lanes, meaning more traditional bikeways separated from cars by a painted strip.
The Telegraph Avenue project, which also includes pedestrian safety improvements, requires the removal of one car lane in each direction and the elimination of roughly forty parking spaces total. Cycling advocates hope the plan will demonstrate the significant value of those sacrifices, showing residents and business how innovative street designs in Oakland can improve the experience of cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers while also breathing new life into a retail corridor.
And while the Telegraph plan seems to be a model for smart urban planning — in large part due to the extensive research, planning, and community outreach that Parks spearheaded for more than a year — this type of project has been rare in Oakland.
With such limited public works staffing, the city has long struggled to design and complete progressive transportation projects. And advocates argue that as a result of staffing shortfalls and other bureaucratic obstacles, the city regularly misses opportunities to redesign streets for cyclists and pedestrians and has also failed to take advantage of existing funding. That’s an especially serious problem now, critics say, given that Oakland is set to receive an influx of transportation cash from Measure BB, an Alameda County sales tax that voters approved in November.
Public works has one other full-time bike and pedestrian planner in addition to Patton, plus three part-time student interns, according to agency spokesperson Kristine Shaff, who emphasized that the complete streets policy guides all staff in all divisions of the department. The bike staffing levels, however, haven’t changed since the late 1990s, she said.
Last fiscal year, the city received nearly $3 million in state and county funds for bike and pedestrian projects. Since July 2013, the city has also received roughly $12.6 million total in one-time grants for a wide range of ongoing projects — including $51,000 for a bike lane on Adeline Street, $150,000 for bike parking, and $580,000 for pedestrian upgrades on Grand Avenue.
But Transport Oakland, as part of its campaign during last year’s election, argued that the city has failed to spend nearly $15 million in funding for transportation and street repaving. That figure comes from Alameda County Transportation Commission audits, which show that at the end of fiscal year 2013–14, Oakland had roughly $11.4 million in unspent funds from Measure B, a county transportation sales tax voters approved in 2000. That includes roughly $9.3 million for streets and roads and $2.2 million specifically for bike and pedestrian projects.
Additionally, county audits show that in 2013–14, Oakland had more than $3 million in unspent funds from a county vehicle registration fee that voters approved in 2010 to raise revenues for transportation. “There’s money being left on the table,” said Brisson, Transport Oakland co-founder.
The problem, advocates said, is that Oakland doesn’t have enough staff to develop and push forward projects with the money it has available for transportation. While the cost of painting new bike lanes is relatively low, the planning process requires significant investment of staff time (as was the case with Telegraph Avenue).
In a more strategic process, Oakland would have a pipeline of thoughtful transportation projects ready for implementation so that public works could immediately move forward on them when funds are available and thus avoid significant delays in spending, Transport Oakland officials argued.
When asked about the unspent funds, Shaff, the public works spokesperson, sent me a lengthy email contending that Transport Oakland’s claims were “extremely misleading.” She stated that some of the unspent funding identified in the audits is allocated for ongoing or future projects, which take years to complete. She also noted that Oakland is in compliance with county standards for spending these revenues and has proportionally similar amounts of unspent money as other East Bay cities.
Mayor Schaaf, however, told me she agreed with the concerns of Transport Oakland. “We have millions of dollars that have not yet gotten into the ground,” she said. “Anyone who walks, bikes, or even drives in the city can tell you we have tremendous need. … I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job in realizing the past resources that this city has received around transportation.”
And Patton, the bike and pedestrian program manager, also said that Oakland hasn’t always been well equipped to take advantage of the funds. Limited staffing, he said, can “create a kind of bottleneck where we need a lot of staff time to be able to spend relatively modest amounts of capital money.”
Another consequence of inadequate staff resources is that public works, which is also in charge of overall street maintenance, doesn’t always coordinate its street repaving processes with its bike planning. In other words, the city spends time and money fixing up roads, but sometimes fails to add a bike lane during the process — even when the street has the space and need for one.
For example, when Oakland recently repaved Claremont Avenue in the Rockridge district, it failed to add any bikeways. And the city is currently in the process of repaving the northern section of Grand Avenue in the Grand Lake district, but has no plans to add a bike lane — only sharrows — which means cyclists riding north on Grand will continue to have to merge with car traffic. That’s despite the fact that in recent rush hour traffic counts, the city recorded hundreds of cyclists riding on the parts of Grand that do have bike lanes — as many as 460 cyclists in some areas.
“If we’re going to repave a road … the starting point should be, ‘How do we make this street better?'” said Christopher Kidd, chair of Oakland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, which reviews development projects and makes recommendations to the city council. “That really is the missing link,” he said of Grand Avenue, noting that the City of Piedmont plans to add bike lanes on its portion of Grand just north of Oakland. In addition, Oakland’s 2007 bike master plan identified both Claremont and Grand avenues as needing bikeways.
As anyone who has complained about potholes knows, Oakland struggles tremendously to keep up with basic street maintenance. Public works says the city currently has a $440 million backlog of needed street upgrades. Oakland is so strapped for cash that it currently has an 85-year repaving cycle — meaning once a street gets repaved, it’s expected to endure for nearly a century.
“Oakland is always continually falling further and further behind on their maintenance obligations for these streets,” said Kidd, who also works as a senior planner for Alta Planning and Design, a transportation consulting firm. “You’re not going to catch up by just doing the same stuff over and over.” That means when the city lets a repaving project such as Grand Avenue pass by without adding bike infrastructure, it’s a missed opportunity. What’s more, repaving a street with a bike lane is not only a safety upgrade, it’s also a cost-saving measure, because a decrease in car traffic and increase in bike traffic means less damage to the road over time, Kidd noted.
The city strives to sync its street maintenance and bike planning projects, said Patton, who listed for me a number of upcoming paving projects that will include new bike infrastructure. But sometimes the timing just doesn’t work, because new bike lanes on major corridors require one or two years of planning and outreach, said Iris Starr, manager of transportation planning and funding for public works. “When the paving program is going full speed, we need to pick what we can do that is not the most complicated,” she said. “And Grand Avenue is certainly one of the more complicated.”
Measure BB, the new transportation sales tax going into effect in April, is expected to generate nearly $8 billion over thirty years for Alameda County. Between this year and fiscal year 2015–16, Oakland is projected to receive a total of $14.8 million from BB — which is in addition to existing county and state funding streams. That means, advocates said, that Oakland is at a critical juncture for transportation development and must position itself to put this money to good use.
“It’s an amazing problem to have,” said Schwartz, Transport Oakland co-founder. “How often do you get to say in Oakland we have enough money to do this?”
Five years ago, before she was elected to the city council, Libby Schaaf traveled to Portland, Oregon as part of an Oakland delegation studying transportation — and was blown away by the city’s bike lanes. “It was a transformative experience for me to really see how the simple and inexpensive things, like road colors and striping … make biking so much safer,” she recalled. In Portland, she said, “They aren’t just biking for recreation and exercise … they are using it as a primary mode of transportation to get to their work and to get around in their daily lives.”
Schaaf said that improving Oakland’s transportation system is critical to ensuring that residents are safe, happy, and healthy. She’s not the first mayor in Oakland to prioritize alternative modes of transit. Her predecessor Jean Quan — who biked down Telegraph Avenue on Bike to Work Day last year — advocated for the expansion of Bay Area Bike Share to the East Bay (which is slated for a 2016 rollout) and helped secure funding for a new bike and pedestrian bridge by Lake Merritt.
Schaaf is, however, the first mayor to appoint a policy director for transportation and infrastructure — a position within her administration that she hopes can coordinate big-picture planning, leverage existing and new transportation funding, and fix some of the bureaucratic obstacles holding Oakland back. “The political will is there,” she said. “It’s up to us in government to get our internal act together so that we can actually implement what everybody wants us to do.”
Schaaf hired Matt Nichols, formerly a principal transportation planner for the City of Berkeley, as her transportation policy director two weeks ago. Nichols is an avid cyclist who doesn’t own a car and who helped implement a number of progressive projects and policies in Berkeley, where he worked for thirteen years. He told me the day before he started in Oakland that he was drawn to the position because it was a policy-oriented role and one that could help the city strategically spend Measure BB money. “By having a coherent policy direction, you can do work more efficiently,” he said, “and get more for all Oakland residents.”
When it comes to bike infrastructure, Nichols said there are significant opportunities to reclaim space for cyclists and that the next phase of bike planning in Oakland — and in cities across the country — must be focused on building streets that accommodate more timid and inexperienced cyclists. That means not just planning bike routes on a map, but thinking critically about the level of stress cyclists feel on specific streets and how to eliminate those anxieties. “Most of us are like … ‘I would ride if I didn’t feel scared,'” he said. “That’s where I think the sky is the limit.”
I interviewed a range of transportation researchers and urban planners from throughout the country about how Oakland could catch up to some of the top cities for biking and eventually be a leader. Experts told me that the cities currently ahead in bike infrastructure owe a great deal of their success to a strong policy vision from the top — mayors, city councils, and transportation directors unafraid to push controversial projects and take space away from cars, even in the face of loud opposition.
“It comes down to political leadership and the willingness to take risks,” said Rebecca Sanders, an expert on bike and pedestrian planning and former researcher at UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center. “When people are willing to take risks, there’s been a lot of evidence that those risks have been rewarded with results.”
In the future, experts agreed, the leading cities in bike infrastructure will have fully connected networks of bike lanes that are strategically separated from car traffic — such as the parking-protected lanes that Oakland is installing on Telegraph Avenue. A successful bike network also requires creative solutions to some basic challenges, like conflicts at intersections when cyclists make left turns or when cars want to make right turns across bike lanes.
Roger Geller, bicycle coordinator with the bureau of transportation in Portland, told me that Portland has built a cohesive network of 344 bikeway miles — and in the coming years will work to upgrade the lanes, converting many more of them into protected ones. Since 2007, Portland has also implemented nearly thirty “bike boxes,” which are green-painted boxes on the pavement at intersections that give cyclists a designated spot — in front of cars — to wait during a red light, he said. The box is designed to prevent motorists from hitting bikes when making a right turn by providing a highly visible space for cyclists in typical danger zones.
Since 2003, Portland has also installed seventeen bike-specific traffic signals, which give cyclists an opportunity to make difficult turns or cross intersections while car traffic is halted. Portland has also done a good job analyzing the benefits of its infrastructure. The city estimates that the cost of building its entire bikeway network is equivalent to the cost of constructing just one mile of urban freeway, Geller noted. And by many measures, the return on that investment has been eye-opening.
For example, from 1994 to 2011, per capita driving trips in Portland declined by 8.5 percent as more people chose to ride bikes — a shift that translates to 72 million fewer driving trips by Portland residents each year. The significantly below-average driving rate in the city also translates to $1.2 billion in savings on gas and car costs — money that circulates back into the economy, according to an analysis Geller completed.
“If our bicycle use hadn’t increased, we would just see so many more automobile trips on the road today,” Geller said, noting that as Portland’s population has grown and as more people travel through the city on a daily basis, traffic congestion on key routes has not gotten worse. “Bikes are perhaps the most cost-effective way to move people.”
A 2011 Journal of Physical Activity and Health analysis on the health benefits of biking also predicted that by 2040, Portland’s investments in bike infrastructure could translate to savings in healthcare costs as high as $590 million.
Progressive bike cities have also demonstrated the correlation between cycling and economic development — another important lesson for Oakland in how walkable and bikeable retail corridors can translate to better business. East Bay advocates pointed me to the efforts of the City of Long Beach, which has a population similar to that of Oakland and comparable traffic concerns — and has demonstrated the economic benefits of a number of progressive bike planning initiatives.
After Long Beach installed a protected bike lane in its downtown in 2011, the results were staggering, said Allan Crawford, former bike coordinator for the city who is now the executive director of advocacy group Bikeable Communities.
In downtown, the city saw a roughly 50 percent increase in cyclists and a roughly 50 percent reduction in vehicle collisions (as car speeds dropped 13 to 25 percent). And the local economy thrived, Crawford said. “New businesses are coming in because that’s the culture they want,” he said. “They are attracted by the bike- and pedestrian-friendly [streets].”
Studies of innovative transportation infrastructure in cities across the country have repeatedly demonstrated that bike infrastructure generates significant economic gains for cities. For example, in 2013, case studies from New York City’s Department of Transportation found that new bike lanes and pedestrian plazas correlated with huge increases in adjacent retail sales — jumps that substantially outpaced gains in comparable areas and on nearby streets.
After the city installed bike lanes and a tree-lined median on one avenue in Brooklyn, shops on the street experienced a doubling of retail sales — an increase that was twice the rate of sales hikes in similar neighborhoods that did not have transportation upgrades during that time.
Those are the kinds of benefits East Bay advocates expect to see with the Telegraph Avenue project, which they hope would then encourage similar redesigns of business corridors throughout the city. And if those kinds of forward-thinking projects become commonplace here, they could be transformative for Oakland.
In February, I joined East Bay Bike Party for the group’s monthly night ride in which hundreds of cyclists take to the streets in Oakland, spilling out into many neighborhoods across the city. Like many local events centered on cycling, it offers a clear indication that cyclists are a large and energetic constituency passionate about reclaiming public space. While a few motorists honked angrily at the seemingly endless mob of cyclists, many more drivers honked rhythmically, cheering on the colorful parade of bikes. Personally, I don’t generally enjoy massive group rides, but it’s hard not to have fun at East Bay Bike Party, which seems to draw a crowd that is actually as diverse as Oakland.
I was similarly impressed by the turnout out at a Bike East Bay two-day strategic planning summit in January, which drew more than 120 bike advocates for discussions on the future of bike advocacy in the region. On the first day, I shared a table with UC Berkeley students, a Walnut Creek couple with a young child, an amateur racer, and a cyclist who has worked to fix potholes in Oakland.
“There are more groups organized around biking than we even know about,” said Renee Rivera, Bike East Bay’s executive director. “There is just so much happening.”
At the summit, groups debated the best ways to increase the number and diversity of people biking in the region and also discussed whether it was time for the East Bay to consider a so-called Vision Zero policy — that is the stated goal of zero pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities, a message that cities across the country have begun to adopt. “We have designed our streets with being okay with the fact that they kill people,” Rivera told me. “Are we ready to start rethinking what we find acceptable?”
It’s a message that resonates with Michael Schwartz. In his day job as a San Francisco transportation planner, safety is at the forefront of his work, but after that Acura sent him flying off of his bike last fall, it put everything into perspective. “There’s this implicit agreement that if you want to do something like bike … you need to risk your life,” he said. “That’s kind of a crazy deal you’re making with society.”
He said he wants to see the paradigm shift through truly state-of-the-art street designs that eliminate that unfair risk. “The deal is you bike and you get to arrive safely, and it’s safe or safer than being in a car. Then people would do it,” he said. “That’s the kind of change you need.”
For now, however, Schwartz is focused on recovering from his crash, both physically and mentally. He has slowly been returning to a normal routine — and he’s hoping he can soon start biking regularly again.