Cyclists crossing Sacramento near the North Berkeley BART station. Photo: Nancy Rubin

When Israeli neuroscientist Shlomo Bentin died after a bicycle accident last Friday, many of the commenters on Berkeleyside were convinced they knew the culprit: the poor state of the pavement on Bancroft Way. “The pavement quality going down Bancroft is in absolutely atrocious condition,” wrote one commenter. “The reason this could have a bearing on this accident is that cyclists often must deviate from an ideal line in order to avoid htting a huge crater, pothole or logitudinal fissure thereby forcing them to swerve more into the line of traffic.”

Berkeley police are still investigating the accident, and there is no way yet to know whether the pavement is at issue. But cycling advocates and transport experts agree that pavement quality is a factor in both bike safety and bike use.

“The condition of the roadway plays a significant role,” said Dave Campbell, program director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition. “If you hit a pothole on a bicycle you can go down, and lots of terrible things can happen when you go down.” 

“For bikes, there’s a greater sensitivity to the pavement condition, in terms of the ability to ride smoothly and maintain control,” said Farid Javandel, manager of the city’s transportation division. “Years ago I hit a pothole on my bike and got two flat tires. In a car, I would have been momentarily bounced a bit.”

Both Campbell and Javandel point to the recent repaving of Milvia Street, one of Berkeley’s Bicycle Boulevards, of an example of how important improvements can be.

“It was horrible, horrible, horrible,” Campbell said. He said he’s noticed more bicycle traffic on Milvia since the repaving.

Javandel said the city’s engineering department, which does the street improvement work, does what it can with the available funds. It prioritizes heavily trafficked streets, and streets where the money spent on maintenance can be most effective. “In addition to the streets that carry high volumes of cars, we want to maintain the streets that carry high volumes of bikes,” he said. “We encourage the engineering division to try to get to those as soon as we can.”

Bike lanes and bike boulevards are part of Berkeley’s bike-friendly strategy. Photo: Nancy Rubin
Bike lanes and bike boulevards are part of Berkeley’s bike-friendly strategy. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The problems of Berkeley’s pavements was the focus of a City Council worksession last November. City Auditor Anne-Marie Hogan at that worksession made clear that improving the city’s pavements was an urgent task: “If we can’t afford to fix the streets now,” Hogan told the City Council then, “our children and grandchildren are definitely not going to be able to afford to fix the streets.”

Hogan’s data showed that the average pavement condition index (PCI) in Berkeley is 58, which is “at risk”. But poor pavements, with a PCI of 25-49, make up a quarter of Berkeley’s streets, and failed pavements, with a PCI of 0 to 24, are just over 12%.

Since that worksession, the City Council has debated street paving on a number of occasions. In May, Councilmember Kriss Worthington mocked Mayor Tom Bates for leading a “pothole city council” because of his focus on the issue to the exclusion, in Worthington’s view, of other issues. Bates disagreed: “What seems to me the overriding problem of this city is the streets and the state of our water systems.”

The council’s decision to place a $30 million streets and watershed improvement bond on the November ballot was driven by these concerns.

The biggest impact, however, on Berkeley’s pavements — and particularly for cyclists on the pavements — may result from the Alameda County Transportation Expenditure Plan, on the ballot this November as Measure B. The $8 billion plan specifically allocates $220 million to Berkeley over the next 30 years for streets. Measure B also devotes 8.4% of its funds to measures aimed at bicyclists and pedestrians.

“Measure B sets a minimum for cycling-related expenditures, and I think that’s definitely a step that my division is happy to see,” Javandel said. “It reflects what we’ve been trying to do in Berkeley.”

EBBC’s Campbell said Berkeley already does a good job for cyclists, but believes improved paving will encourage more people to get on their bikes.

“People who dont ride feel the streets are unsafe,” he said. “But as more people bicycle there’s safety in numbers. The best thing we can do for bike safety is get more people riding. Berkeley is one of the safer cities to bike in precisely because there are more cyclists on the road.”

Neuroscientist Shlomo Bentin killed in bike accident [07.16.12]
Cyclist killed in accident involving a dump truck [07.13.12]
Berkeley Council approves pools measure, debates streets [06.27.12]

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...