Caption: Berkeley's Public Works Department hosted a January 30 open house at Berkeley High School Library to solicit public input on the city's Milvia Protected Bikeway Project. Photo: Stuart Luman
Berkeley’s Public Works Department hosted a Jan. 30 open house at the Berkeley High School library to solicit public input on the city’s Milvia Street Bikeway Project. Photo: Stuart Luman

Berkeley’s Public Works Department unveiled plans last week to redesign Milvia Street, from Hearst Avenue to Blake Street, to make it safer for bicyclists traveling through the city’s downtown.

The Jan. 30 open house at the Berkeley High School library was the first of several public forums on the protected bikeway plan, which will include other changes such as a redesigned intersection at University Avenue. Such revisions were recommended in the city’s 2012 Strategic Transportation Plan, the 2017 Bicycle Plan and other city planning documents.  

According to the 2017 Bicycle Plan, 8.5% of Berkeley residents use bikes to commute to work, one of the highest rates in the nation. The city has a boulevard network, spanning nearly 16 miles, which encourages cyclists to ride on lesser trafficked roads that feature traffic calming elements such as medians and speed bumps. The network is part of a total of 51 miles of bike lanes and paved and unpaved paths that extend throughout the city and the UC Berkeley campus.

Between 2001 and 2012, Milvia Street was the most travelled of the city’s seven bicycle boulevards, and the boulevard with a majority of total collisions, again according to the Bicycle Plan. It is a major connector of North and South Berkeley, allowing riders to get to Berkeley High School, city offices, the main post office, the central library, the YMCA, BART, businesses and shops and the weekly downtown farmer’s market.

Source: California Highway Patrol Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS); 2008-2018 / Milvia Street Bikeway Project

“[Milvia Street] carries people who are commuters, bicyclists going to schools, and students; it’s a very vulnerable population,” said Andrew Lee, a senior transportation engineer at Berkeley-based Parisi Transportation Consulting, which is working with the city on the project, and attended the open house to answer questions. “It runs parallel to Shattuck and connects to all kinds of important intersections and essentially gets all the way to Ashby BART. It’s just a critical corridor.”

The plan calls for Milvia between Hearst Avenue and Blake Street to be redesigned with a protected bikeway of slightly less than one mile, where cyclists could ride on a dedicated path that is separated from car traffic, similar to what the city has already built on Hearst Avenue and Bancroft Way adjacent to the UC Berkeley campus.

“Milvia is the least important street in downtown Berkeley for driving and the most important street in the entire city for bicycling.”
— Dave Campbell,
Bike East Bay

Proposals for potential street redesigns include one-way protected bike lanes on each side of the street that eliminates parking spaces, a cycle track with two directions of bike traffic on just the eastern side of the street, or several blocks of Milvia converted to one-way traffic in order to have space for protected bike lanes, parking spaces and commercial loading zones. Several of the designs would eliminate parking spaces and loading zones entirely on sections of the street.

Dave Campbell, advocacy director for Bike East Bay who attended the open house, supports a design with two one-way protected bike lanes that eliminate the most parking. He feels it is the cleanest and quickest option to get the project done.

“Bike advocates have been pushing for 20 years to get Milvia bikeway complete,” he said, while inspecting the city’s posters. “And, mind you, it’s the least important street in downtown Berkeley for driving and the most important street in the entire city for bicycling.

Campbell pointed out that the city had said it would build a protected bike lane on Milvia by the time the nearby Center Street parking garage opened two months ago. “They’re behind schedule,” he said.

Additionally, Mayor Jesse Arreguín pledged at Bike East Bay’s annual fundraising event in November that a pilot protected bike lane would be open by Bike to Work Day, which takes place on May 9.

“We need something on the ground quickly,” said Ben Gerhardstein, a founding member of Walk Bike Berkeley, who was at the open house and said he hoped that a separated, temporary bikeway would be ready by Bike to Work Day to allow residents to respond to a design in action. “If it works great we can stick with it, if it doesn’t we can scrap it and do a different final design.”

“I wonder about the equity of [the plan]; not everyone is young and able, and you have families that have to get around.”
— Michael Katz, cyclist

Michael Katz, a North Berkeley resident who also attended the open house and identified himself as a bike commuter, often rides Milvia to the central library, to Trader Joe’s, and to other downtown locations. He was concerned that plans to remove parking from Milvia were unfair to those who rely on their cars.

“My concern is really with restricting access to the street for people who can’t bike,” he said. “The street has notable destinations, like the high school and all kinds of city offices. If you take away a whole lot of vehicle access and a whole lot of parking, it makes it good for us cyclists, but I think only 5-10% of trips are taken by bike, so I wonder about the equity of that; not everyone is young and able, and you have families that have to get around.”

Katz supported the design options that include a two-way cycle track on one side of the street and that preserved parking, even though he usually doesn’t like such “caged” bike lanes due to the danger it creates for riders when they try to take a left turn across traffic. But in this case, he thought it might be the best design for the most people.

Waiting on the money

According to the city’s Milvia Bikeway Project webpage, construction could begin by May 2021 depending on funding. Funding for construction has not been secured at this point, however, according to Eric Anderson, an associate transportation planner and pedestrian and bike program coordinator for the city, and the timeline is far from firm.

“We are aggressively pursuing funding to construct the Milvia Bikeway Project,” he said. “Right now we don’t have funding to build it, until we have funding we don’t have a firm project timeline.”

The city was awarded $350,000 from the Alameda County Transportation Commission to pay for conceptual engineering, drawings, analysis and public outreach that will extend through 2019.

The city has applied for $3.35 million in additional funds from both state and county sources to pay for the rest of the project. According to Anderson, the city was rejected in a first round of consideration by Caltran’s Active Transportation Program. However, he said a second round of funding could still provide Berkeley with the necessary money later this year. Furthermore, the city is pursuing full funding from the Alameda County Transportation Commission.

Downtown business concerns

“It will cream us if they do that,” Virginia Carpenter, owner of Ace Hardware at 2020 Milvia St., said of proposals to eliminate parking on a section of the street. Photo: Google Street View

A redesign that would eliminate all parking along sections of Milvia is a major concern for John Caner, head of the Downtown Berkeley Association. His organization, however, does support the idea of a two-way cycle track on the east side of the street, which eliminates some parking but preserve spaces next to Ace Hardware.

“We’re very concerned with the loss of parking on both sides [of Milvia], in particular the impact on Ace Hardware, which is a beloved store in Berkeley,” he said. “It could potentially put Ace Hardware out of business.”

Virginia Carpenter, who owns Berkeley Ace Hardware with her husband Bill, is extremely worried about the impact of the street redesign as well. Any bikeway plan that costs her parking or loading zones in front of her store would be a death knell for her business, she said, which already suffered the loss of its dedicated parking lot when it was forced to move from University Avenue and Walnut Street two years ago.

“How can you be a hardware store without any parking. You just can’t.” — Virginia Carpenter, Ace Hardware

The hardware store has been in her family since her father bought it in 1946, and it has been in operation in Berkeley since 1895, she said. “It will cream us if they do that,” she said of plans to eliminate parking as she sat at her desk in the back of the hardware store the day after the open house. “How can you be a hardware store without any parking. You just can’t.”

Carpenter is opposed to several of the proposed designs, including one that would allow her to keep parking spaces but would add a bike lane between the sidewalk and parked cars.

“We have to watch for bicyclists coming back and forth and they don’t stop,” she said. “And if we’re out there with six bags of concrete and we try to take care, it’s a big mess in my opinion.”

She is willing to try the two-way cycle track option on the eastern side of Milvia, removing parking on that side but keeping her parking and loading spaces. However, she is reserving the right to change her mind. “I don’t want it but I’m acceptable to try it,” she said of such a design. “But if I don’t like it or if it [negatively] affects my business then I don’t want it. It’s as simple as that. And will I have a say-so in that? I can almost guarantee you 99% that I will not.”

City officials insisted at the open house that they are working with local businesses and that any plans under discussion are open for redesign and reconsideration before anything permanent is built. The City Council has also discussed providing more parking and loading spaces on Addison Street for Ace Hardware.

A call to Councilwoman Kate Harrison, who represents the downtown district that includes the hardware store, was not returned by press time.

The bigger picture: Vision Zero

The redesign of Milvia Street is part of a broader vision the City Council has for redesigning and rethinking Berkeley’s transportation infrastructure to eventually eliminate crashes, injuries and fatalities.

The idea is part of a program known as Vision Zero, which originated in Sweden, but has been adopted by municipalities around the world. Vision Zero seeks to change the way streets are designed to make them safer and more equitable for car, pedestrian and bicycle traffic. It also seeks to incorporate and mitigate human error in transportation design, so that when people make mistakes, which they will, it won’t lead to unnecessary deaths. According to the Vision Zero website, more than 40,000 people die in the United States each year due to preventable traffic collisions.

“It’s really a model I think that most cities should try to achieve, increasing safe, healthy equitable mobility for all,” said Councilwoman Lori Droste, who represents District 8 and is leading the effort for the council. “It’s gaining momentum in many American cities.”

Droste and other City Council members became aware of Vision Zero about a year ago, when council received a report on pedestrian safety and the Vision Zero plan during a work session. A month later, Droste was invited to attend the annual vigil held by the parents of Zachary Cruz, who was killed almost ten years ago in Berkeley when a truck hit the 5-year-old while he was crossing Warring Street at Derby. In light of past collisions and a series of tragic crashes and serious injuries in January, the city has made Vision Zero and pedestrian safety the highest priority for the council’s work throughout 2019, according to Droste.

On Jan. 29, the City Council voted to form an interdepartmental task force including representatives from the city manager, police, public works, fire and public health departments. Progress reports will be presented to the council twice a year on how well the city is doing realizing its Vision Zero goals, there will be community meetings with city officials, and a $200,000 budget request has been made for a full-time staff person and additional staff time.

“It’s a significant problem and … we need to put our money where our mouth is,” Droste said.

Correction: This story was updated after publication to clarify that John Caner and the Downtown Business Association support redesigns of Milvia that add protected bike lanes and eliminate parking on the eastern side of the street and preserve parking for Ace Hardware.

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Stuart Luman is a freelance writer based in Berkeley. He has previously been an editor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a fact checker at Wired Magazine, and a high school English teacher in East...