A crosswalk at MLK and Parker in Berkeley
Collisions involving vehicles with pedestrians and cyclists have been an issue in the past two months, including cases where pedestrians were in crosswalks. Photo: Citizen reporter

There’s a dark side to having an environmentally conscious city hospitable to people willing to forego automobiles.

“It means we have more people walking and biking who are vulnerable,” Berkeley City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn told a couple dozen of her District 5 constituents Thursday, during a Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association meeting.

City officials and cycling and pedestrian advocates had gathered for a panel discussion at the Thousand Oaks Baptist Church after a number of automobile collisions involving cyclists and walkers caused alarm in Berkeley in January and February. The panel consisted of Hahn, Berkeley Traffic Division Manager Farid Javandel, Ben Gerhardstein, a founding member of Walk Bike Berkeley, Lt. Randy Files, the commander of the Berkeley Police traffic bureau, and BPD officers Brandon Smith and Alex McDougal.

This is despite the fact that two years ago downtown Berkeley was named the most walkable neighborhood of Bay Area mid-size cities by real estate brokerage Redfin and Walk Score. South Berkeley finished fourth and North Berkeley was sixth.

There were at least 30 injury crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists in January, including the one that critically injured Berkeley School Board President Judy Appel and her wife, Alison Bernstein, near their South Berkeley home Jan. 5. Appel “sustained countless fractures on the left side of her body” that required surgeries. Bernstein suffered a brain injury and skeletal fractures. Both are expected to make a full, or nearly full, recovery, according to a family friend.

Read more stories on pedestrian safety in Berkeley.

Police said in February there were at least 19 crashes that caused injury to pedestrians, down from the previous month, but still more than the previous February, in which police dealt with just six.

“It’s completely unacceptable,” said Hahn.

According to a report released by the city last month, 93% of Berkeley’s pedestrian fatalities and severe injury crashes happen on 14% of the city’s street miles. In the same report, the city identified “high-injury” corridors on streets such as Shattuck Avenue and Sacramento Street to Cedar Street, Ashby Avenue and University Avenue.

Traffic deaths in Sweden have decreased 70% since 1997 when the country debuted Vision Zero.

The city started taking public input in January on its Milvia Street Bikeway Project, aiming to make downtown safer for cyclists. The city’s 2017 Bicycle Plan says 8.5% of residents use bikes to commute, one of the highest rates in the U.S. The city’s boulevard network uses nearly 16 miles of streets to encourage cyclists to use safer streets featuring traffic calming elements. Overall, Berkeley has 51 miles of bike lanes and paved and unpaved paths throughout the city and UC Berkeley.

Much of Thursday’s discussion centered on Vision Zero, a plan implemented in cities all over the world, including San Francisco. The goal is to eliminate traffic-related fatalities by 2028.

Javandel said traffic deaths in Sweden have decreased 70% since 1997, when the country debuted Vision Zero.

“We want zero,” said Javandel. “The good news is Berkeley has been making progress in the last five years.”

Javandel said Vision Zero focuses on the “three Es”: engineering, enforcement and education.

Members of the panel acknowledged it’s impossible to eliminate the inherent human mistakes that frequently cause accidents. The key is to change the traffic conditions through engineering.

“We have to engineer roads, so everyone has an opportunity,” said Javandel. “It’s a totality type of approach.”

Suggested short-term remedies included more signage, re-painting of crosswalks and better streetlighting, which has been a citywide issue in recent months. Elevated failure rates have the city replacing streetlight fixtures systemwide. (The lights are still under warranty from San Jose company Leotek Electronics, which has accepted responsibility for the problem.) The lights are being replaced with newer, more efficient ones, the city says. Some people have complained that the current LED fixtures, with which the city began replacing its high-pressure sodium lamps in 2014, were too bright, while others say Berkeley streets continue to be too dark.

Sixteen of February’s 24 injury crashes happened at night, according to police data.

“The new streetlights will be energy savers,” said Javandel, suggesting savings could go into traffic safety improvements.

Too much brightness can be a problem where streetlights shine directly on a crosswalk, illuminating the top of a pedestrian’s head, instead of their whole body. Drivers may not see a human form, Javandel said, adding it’s better to have streetlights just off a crosswalk.

“These are some of the smart things we’ve learned, and we’re going to take into account,” he said.

Berkeley Police Lt. Randy Files, who runs the department’s traffic bureau, said enforcement only goes so far.

“We want everyone to drop their speed and be safe,” said Files. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re trying to raise money (with tickets).’ We don’t want to raise money. We want people to be safe.”

“If you’re on your cellphone and hit someone, it’s not an accident,” he said, “If you’re speeding, it’s not an accident. We need to stop making excuses for bad behavior. It’s our behavior that has to change, and that means everybody.”

Files said officers leaving the Traffic Bureau substation on Folger Street in West Berkeley “can’t get out of the driveway without writing four or five citations” (for driving while using a cellphone).

“It’s a pandemic,” he said.

Files said the level of enforcement is based on the busiest areas and drive times. Twenty-five percent of collisions happen during peak commute hours, he said. Files said, at full strength, the department has five full-time traffic enforcers.

“A city this size can use anywhere between eight and 12,” he said.

A member of the audience asked about bicycle helmet requirements. Javandel said the city might bring back its free helmet program, which was implemented in 2011 but was discontinued when funding dried up.

“The big thing is to get people to wear their helmets,” he said. “I’m sure we’ve all seen someone riding to school with their helmet (hanging from the bicycle), so they don’t mess up their hair.”

Files said some cyclists simply don’t understand that stop signs apply to them: “It’s something we’re going to address as a police department.”

Another audience member asked about red-light cameras, which Files acknowledged are “old” in Berkeley. Officer Brandon Smith said there’s a catch with red-light cameras.

“As people become aware (of the cameras), less tickets start coming in, and there’s less money to pay for it,” he said.

Files said, though there’s typically “one primary collision factor” in collisions, there are generally “multiple factors, rolled into one.”

However it happens, he said it’s up to humans to change the number of collisions.

“It comes down to the operator, whether you’re operating your feet and you’re walking, you’re riding, or you’re driving a vehicle,” Files said.

Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...