San Pablo Avenue stretches 12 miles and embraces huge numbers of commercial businesses — including the Rialto Cinemas Cerrito — as well as residences. Projected growth means it’s time to prepare the corridor for the future. Photo: LPS.1/Wikimedia

It’s a project so massive, it will likely take workers longer to complete than the Golden Gate Bridge and the first Bay Bridge – combined.

Two counties, seven cities, 12 miles and at least a dozen years: all are factors in preparing the San Pablo Avenue corridor for the future.

The goal is to develop a “long-term vision and near-term improvements for San Pablo Avenue that will allow it to function better and be safer for people who walk, bike, drive, and take the bus,” according to the Alameda County Transportation Commission (ACTC), which has started briefing local agencies on what’s coming.

The ACTC is hosting a public workshop about the plan tonight from 6:30-8 p.m. at the Emeryville Center of Community Life, and two more locally on May 14 and May 23.

The trick for planners will be re-adjusting one of the East Bay’s busiest corridors into something that can accommodate “a huge amount of growth,” ACTC planner Cathleen Sullivan told the Berkeley Transportation Commission, at its April 18 meeting.

San Pablo Avenue’s versatility complicates things, as the thoroughfare —which is State Route 123 —embraces swaths of businesses and housing, which limits the space to potentially be changed. Compromises among competing interests will be necessary to keep things flowing.

“There’s a lot of growth projected,” Sullivan said. “And conditions will get worse.”

45,000 new households and 33,000 new jobs are forecast to be coming to the San Pablo corridor area by 2040.

Extending from downtown Oakland all the way north to the Hilltop Mall region of Richmond, San Pablo is already one of the Bay Area’s busiest streets, even when things are relatively smooth on nearby freeways. Commute snarls and accidents cause additional traffic to spill onto San Pablo almost daily. The route is also a main bus artery and runs parallel to the Richmond BART line, which means thousands of transit users end up traveling around San Pablo to get to and from transit.

Planners face a monumental task of striking balance among commuters, residents and local businesses. An ACTC study released in March 2018 says there are approximately 74,000 households and 145,000 jobs scattered among the seven cities along the San Pablo corridor.

That’s before the coming eruption of growth.

The number of households is projected to grow by 1.5% each year, until at least 2040, which means 45,000 new households. Total employment in the area is projected to grow by 1.2% per year during the same time, meaning 33,000 new jobs, according to ACTC.

“Most of the cities’ land use and economic development plans envision a significant increase in residential development, with commercial uses concentrated at major intersections and other key nodes,” the report says.

Most planned development around San Pablo will be “replacing low-intensity strip retail with higher density residential or mixed-use development,” bringing more people with less room to commute.

According to ACTC, most construction in the San Pablo corridor planned by 2018 was slated for Oakland (4,281 units), El Cerrito (1,470 units), Berkeley (1,170 units) and Emeryville (882) units.

The report says the corridor is relatively low-income, compared to the rest of Alameda County, and has “a significant transit dependent population.” More than two-thirds of the households within the study area own one or no car. Many people travel by bus, on foot or on bicycles. Although the majority of San Pablo Avenue is considered relatively safe, “the existing pedestrian facilities are very uncomfortable in some areas of the corridor.” In the five years covered in the report (2009-2013), four pedestrians and one bicyclist were killed by traffic collisions in the corridor.

“Crossing conditions are pretty poor for bicyclists and pedestrians,” Sullivan said.

The area is served primarily by four public transportation providers: AC Transit, BART, WestCAT and Emery Go-Round. Four BART stations in the study area have more than 40,000 boardings per week day. Thirty-one percent of all morning travel activity – nearly 41,000 person trips – are BART-related, with about half via walking and biking.

AC Transit sees more than 19,600 bus boardings per weekday in the corridor, with more than 11,000 on San Pablo.

The report says the corridor “is generally characterized by a lack of a continuous and connected bicycle network.” There are small segments of bicycle corridors, but “not connected to one another to form a continuous facility, and San Pablo Avenue is difficult to cross in most areas along the corridor, serving as a barrier to east-west bicycle connectivity.”

“It’s super important for all these communities,” said Karen Parolek, a member of the coordinating committee of advocacy group Walk Bike Berkeley. She says, though it’s still early in the process, the group is happy to see the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists so prevalent in plans. “I’m glad (ACTC is) being as open and inclusive as they are. They’re thinking big picture, and it’s so important to these communities to do so.”

ACTC is working with three concepts.

Concept A features bus lanes adjacent to the median. Bike lanes would run next to the sidewalk. Transit would become faster and more reliable, with 72 Local and 72 Rapid bus lines combining into one service. Bike travel would be safer, but there would be limited opportunities to shorten crossing distances for pedestrians. There would be a significant reduction of parking and loading spaces and potentially more delay at intersections. There would also be no left-hand turn lanes.

“That’s a pretty big trade-off with this concept,” Sullivan said.

Concept A. See keys and concepts B and C. Image: ACTC

Concept B also sees dedicated bus lanes next to the median, but bike routes moved to adjacent streets, which would lessen the stress on those bicyclists, but make conditions more difficult for ones still using San Pablo. Bus flow would improve, and pedestrian crossings could become shorter. Concept B would eliminate the fewest parking and loading spaces of the three plans, but potentially add more delay at intersections.

Concept C doesn’t allow for a dedicated bus lane but puts a bike lane on San Pablo. AC Transit would remain as is, meaning slower and less reliable service as the area grows, according to ACTC. There would be some opportunities to shorten pedestrian crossings, though there would be fewer parking and loading spaces. Sullivan said mixed-use left-hand turn lanes could be added. Of the three concepts, this one would have the least impact on future delay and congestion.

Planners say it’s too early to determine the project’s cost, but funds from federal, state and local sources will likely come as work is done: in phases. That approach will also help neighborhoods adjust.

“There is really going to have to be an outreach component out there in the corridor during construction,” said Berkeley Traffic Commissioner Beverly Greene, who said the plan must benefit businesses in the corridor.

Officials understand not everyone will be completely satisfied with the long process and the inevitable traffic delays. “Short-term pains for long-term gains,” said Sullivan.

Parolek said safety concerns make San Pablo a safer option for bicycles than parallel bike routes in Concept B, due to better lighting and more activity. She said Walk Bike Berkeley would support “pedestrian scrambles” where all four ways of an intersection turn red to vehicles, allowing pedestrians to cross from all directions at once. It would also eliminate conflict between cars trying to turn right on a red and pedestrians in a crosswalk.

“It would really be for key intersections where there’s enough traffic to make it reasonable,” Parolek said.

The organization also wants “bulb-out” curb extensions, which narrows right-hand traffic turn lanes, giving pedestrians more space and visibility. They also reduce vehicle turn speeds and reduce illegal parking near crosswalks.

“The benefit is it shortens the distance that pedestrians spend in the street,” said Parolek. Cars tend to be a little more careful in turning that corner.”

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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,...