Berkeley is planning the future of Hopkins Street and how best to mix cars, bicycles and pedestrians along the well-traveled North Berkeley avenue.
The discussion is electrifying hundreds, maybe thousands, of people with differing concerns. Some want protected bike lanes while others are worried that cutting back street parking will negatively impact the strip of stores that are among the most loved in Berkeley.
The discussion has gotten so heated on social media with different groups accusing one another of misinformation that Berkeley has extended its public outreach period on the Hopkins Corridor Traffic and Placemaking Study from April to June. The process began in October.
“If we learn that members of the public are confused, the focus should be on what we need to do to better communicate,” said Councilmember Sophie Hahn, whose district includes Hopkins Street and who requested the study after pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities in 2017.
The study, conducted by the city’s Public Works Department with assistance from consultants, is examining how to improve safety for all modes of transportation in the corridor, considered a high traffic accident area, while enhancing neighborhood experience. Some options being explored include narrowing traffic lanes, expanding bike lanes, adding high-visibility crosswalks, flashing pedestrian beacons, or sidewalk bulb-outs.
So far, the study has held two remote public outreach workshops: an overview, in October, and a closer focus on street treatments including bicycle lane configurations, in March. Attendance was good, said Farid Javandel, a traffic engineer and Berkeley’s transportation manager.
A newly added third workshop is planned for June, which will focus largely on placemaking, which Javandel defined as adding features such as benches, landscaping, gathering spaces and art.
The goal, he said, is for a preferred corridor plan to be identified next fall.
Hahn said she is determined to make sure a robust and thoughtful community transportation study is completed. She criticized the city this week for not doing more thorough outreach to all interest groups, and for not making timelines clear on the project website.
Hahn herself is also the subject of criticism mainly from bicycle advocates, who claim she has backed away from ardent support for bicycle lanes along Hopkins Street.
“What we’ve seen and heard from her is double-talk,” said Ben Gerhardstein of Walk Bike Berkeley, an advocacy group of volunteers deeply involved in the planning process. “She said in her reelection campaign that she wanted to prioritize the safety of people biking and walking over vehicle parking, and her current actions [public comments in social media and emails] indicate otherwise,” he said.
To which, Hahn responds, “It’s patently false and I’m sorry they’ve chosen to be in such an adversarial position. They never reached out to me. I’m a strong advocate for bike and pedestrian safety and I actually think we can meet the needs of all the stakeholders by doing a careful study.” Hahn added that she hasn’t taken any final positions on solutions for Hopkins and is waiting for study findings.
Bumpy start to study
Reaction to the first two workshops underlies much of the criticism of the process and confusion. A portion of the street is lined with well-known businesses such as Monterey Market, Monterey Fish Market, Magnani Poultry and Hopkins Street Bakery. Many businesses say they weren’t included in the study outreach, though decisions around parking affect their livelihoods. Others say businesses are deliberately spreading false information about the process to stir public opinion against bicycle lanes.
Passionately differing opinions about transportation plans are common and not unexpected, but misconceptions are hurting the process, said Javandel, who is helping oversee the study.
“The thing that perhaps caught us a little off guard was the confusion around the project timeline,” Javandel said. “The study is happening all this year.  Some people took that to mean that the final meeting is in June and paving [street work] would begin immediately.”
The actual street work would not begin before 2023, Javandel said.
“The sense of time urgency caused a lot of anxiety over the concept,” he said.
Dueling petitions are circulating online
For example, a widely distributed Change.org petition called “Pause and Reset the Hopkins Street Corridor Traffic Study,” started three weeks ago by Kelley Johnson, daughter of Paul Johnson, the owner of Monterey Fish Market, says the city “plans to do away with 100% of all street parking between Gilman and McGee on Hopkins” and that work will start this summer.
Neither is true, Javandel said. “No decision has been made what to do. Any claim that it’s a done deal isn’t accurate. We have a lot of processes left to do. There’s a long way to go.”
Comments in the petition, however, offer a window into the divided views on Hopkins.
“I want to support our local businesses instead of going to the large grocery stores. But I am ‘old’ and cannot bicycle from my home in the hills in Berkeley where I’ve lived for 35 years. To me, this is another statement that if you’re not young and fit, you don’t belong here. Please keep this area open to older people who aren’t necessarily so able-bodied,” one resident wrote, echoing a sentiment expressed by many others.
The Twitter feed of Walk Bike Berkeley says:
The city won’t meet its climate goals without making walking and biking safe and attractive. And 90% of Berkeleyans want to bike – but don’t because of safety concerns. pic.twitter.com/5mh37gzgCe
— Walk Bike Berkeley (@WalkBikeBerk) April 1, 2021
“So speak up!” the tweet continues. “Let’s make Hopkins safe for people to walk and bike when it’s repaved (slated for 2023)! And let the businesses on Hopkins know that you walk, bike, or take transit to them and want it to be safer and easier for people of all ages and abilities to do so.”
The 90% is calculated from the city’s 2017 bike plan, according to Gerhardstein, from Walk Bike Berkeley.
The group has launched its own online petition to counteract the one launched by merchants and “drivists.”
Bike lanes are the heart of the tension
Bike lanes have definitely hit a nerve with Hopkins watchers.
Workshop #2, held in March, presented three bike lane options with different levels of protection to bicyclists: two-way separated from car traffic with physical barriers and/or distinct delineation; one-way separated; and buffered, or separated by street paint but shared with cars.
All of the options include significant loss of street parking in the commercial block between McGee Avenue and California Street or Monterey Avenue.
Based largely on feedback from this workshop, the city is now considering creating new bike lanes circling off of Hopkins Street at McGee Avenue, along Ada Street and returning to Hopkins at California Street, or further west. These are called low-stress bike lanes, designed for slower biking on less busy streets, Javandel said.
The idea is to bring some bike traffic off of Hopkins, which would allow more street parking to stay.
Hahn said these kinds of alternate ideas should have been presented at the workshop on bike lanes, rather than as a response.
Nothing is decided, Javandel emphasized, and public outreach continues.
“The residents who walk and bike a lot don’t seem too upset by the prospect of losing parking, but among the residents who drive and park more for their business or to get where they’re going, that’s more common,” Javandel said.
Studies show that many businesses are helped, not hurt, by improved bicycle access, he adds.
How did it start?
The Hopkins plan is part of the city’s commitment to Complete Streets, a widely used comprehensive planning process that tries to balance the interests of all street users, on and off the road. Berkeley adopted Complete Streets in 2012.
Examples with protected bike lanes include redesigns of Hearst Street, and Adeline Avenue between Shattuck and Ashby avenues.
Hopkins is slated for paving in 2023, under the city’s regular street paving schedule.
Hahn asked the City Council in 2017 to fund a study looking into additional enhancements in the Hopkins corridor that could be done in concert with the paving.
“In 2017, the city of Berkeley experienced two fatalities as a result of car accidents involving pedestrians or cyclists,” Hahn wrote to the council in 2018. “Both occurred in the heavily trafficked Hopkins /Sacramento/Monterey corridor (the “Hopkins Street Corridor”) one at the intersection of Hopkins and Monterey involving a pedestrian and the other on Sacramento Avenue near Hopkins, involving a cyclist. These tragedies are just two of the most recent and deadly incidents in this busy area, and highlight the need for a comprehensive traffic study of the Hopkins Street Corridor.”
The corridor is consider high injury, Javandel said, for bikes, cars, and pedestrians.
Hahn asked that the study examine the diversity of Hopkins Street users — walkers, bikers, cars, public transit, businesses, churches, schools, parks, the North Berkeley branch library and the gas station at Hearst Avenue and The Alameda. The placemaking should, she wrote, “Ensure design and style of improvements add to the charm and character of this highly valued and historic neighborhood commercial district, and. . . Any other considerations that may further enhance placemaking and the safe and vibrant use of public spaces.”
She acknowledged that the pandemic may be affecting the study process and progress, but said this shouldn’t be an excuse for the city not doing a thorough analysis. “It’s been difficult for everyone to operate during Covid, but I think it’s our job to do our job well,” Hahn said.
Javandel said staff will increase individual outreach to businesses, schools and churches. A comprehension planning process has always been the goal, he said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all solution. We need to accommodate everyone’s needs in balance.”
Update, April 21, 3:30 p.m. Kelley Johnson, of Monterey Fish Market, contacted Berkeleyside after publication to say that the city’s first two workshops left her with the conclusion the project would begin this summer and that only bike lane options removing all street parking in the commercial area were on the table. She said this is the information she based the petition on, and she assumed it was correct. Councilmember Hanh said last week that if people are confused by the study, the city is failing to educate adequately.
Updated, 11:50 a.m. The headline was changed from “Should there be larger bike lanes on Hopkins Street in Berkeley?” to “Should there be bike lanes on Hopkins Street in Berkeley?” after a reader pointed out that the portion of Hopkins Street in front of the commercial area does not currently have bike lanes.
Correction: This article was updated on April 20 to clarify the relationship between Kelley Johnson and Paul Johnson. She is his daughter.