A safe crossing event held by Walk Bike Berkeley at the intersection of California Street and Dwight Way on May 8, 2019.
A safe crossing event held by Walk Bike Berkeley at the intersection of Dwight Way and California Street on May 8, 2019. Credit: Walk Bike Berkeley

Update, June 1: The city of Berkeley has decided to proceed with minor street and crosswalk improvements this summer and to pursue a median “refuge island” on Dwight Way to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to cross one lane at a time.

Original story, May 16: After two children on bikes were hit by cars at the intersection of Dwight Way and California Street four years ago, the city began exploring ways to make the crossing safer. 

Although the speed limit on Dwight is 25 mph, area residents say cars often drive faster than that along the busy street, which is considered a major arterial that carries more than 11,000 cars a day. This intersection is considered dangerous because California is a “bicycle boulevard” that is part of a network of streets intended for cyclists, and school children routinely walk and bike across Dwight to nearby schools.

The city’s latest plans for Dwight and California include two options: installing a median in the middle of the intersection, where pedestrians and bicyclists could stop while crossing Dwight, or installing flashing lights triggered when pedestrians or bicyclists want to cross Dwight. 

These plans met with mixed reviews from city residents during an online community meeting Wednesday, including some who said they don’t go far enough to stop traffic and others who believe the median – which would prevent left turns onto Dwight Way – may increase neighborhood traffic.

Dwight Way median
One proposal calls for a new median on Dwight Way, which would provide a “refuge island” in the middle of the intersection for pedestrians and cyclists. Credit: Berkeley Public Works Department

The plan is expected to help implement the city’s 2017 Bicycle Plan to improve a network of “bicycle boulevards” that includes California Street, while also helping the city reach its goal of zero traffic collisions resulting in severe injuries or deaths by 2028, as outlined in its Vision Zero plan, which the City Council reviewed last month.

Vision Zero takes on a new sense of urgency in light of the recent fatal crash on Marin Avenue, which is one of several “high-injury” streets identified in the city’s Vision Zero annual report, along with Dwight Way and California Street. The report noted that on average, three people die and at least 32 people are severely injured each year in Berkeley traffic collisions. 

“People are getting killed on a regular basis,” California Street resident Zach Franklin said during the city meeting, referring to the Marin Avenue crash as well as a 2013 crash in which 5-year-old Michael Cruz was hit and killed by a motorist in a Derby Street crosswalk. “I’m scared for my kids’ lives. … We have to treat this as the public health crisis that it really is.”

Ari Fendel, who is now a sophomore at Berkeley High, was hit by a car on April 27, 2017, while bicycling along California Street on his way to Martin Luther King Middle School, which is north of the Dwight Way intersection.

“A car hit my bike, I flew onto the car, cracked the windshield, and I rolled off into the street,” he said during the town hall meeting, adding that he spent the night in a hospital due to a concussion and broken arm. “It was really traumatic. It took me months before I was willing to get back on a bike again. … I really hope there are going to be safety features in place like a light or something to keep me and other kids like me from getting hit at that intersection because that really sucked.”

Franklin and several other residents – including many who are part of the Walk Bike Berkeley group that has been advocating for improvements at the Dwight and California intersection for years – favored the installation of a median on Dwight Way, which would cost about $400,000. Although this would not stop traffic, it would allow pedestrians and bicyclists to cross one lane of Dwight at a time instead of both lanes at once and Dwight’s lanes would be narrowed at the intersection in an effort to slow traffic. 

Options for improvement

The median is the city’s preferred alternative, project manager Ken Jung said. But it may take longer than anticipated because the city needs to bid for construction and solve some drainage and grading challenges. However, Jung said, the city expects to complete some less-expensive improvements to the intersection this summer, including relocating a crosswalk, extending sidewalks and possibly repaving the roads.

Councilmember Kate Harrison said her office secured $400,000 two years ago with the intention of installing “High-intensity Activated crossWalK beacons,” known as HAWK lights, at the intersection, which would include red lights and require cars to stop. But Jung said the cost of those beacons now exceeds $400,000, so the city is instead considering Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons, known as RRFBs, which are flashing lights that warn motorists that pedestrians are entering the crosswalk, but do not require cars to stop.

Harrison told Berkeleyside she would ultimately prefer a HAWK light, but she is happy the city will move the crosswalk and improve the sidewalks soon. She said the city may install bollards in Dwight Way to get a sense of how a median might work. She is also pushing for crossing guards at the intersection during school hours, when many children cross Dwight Way on the way to nearby campuses.

And while Harrison understands the concerns of local residents who want to make left turns onto Dwight, she said that might increase the danger for children crossing the street. Instead, Harrison is investigating a suggestion made by a resident to install a designated left-turn light from Sacramento Street onto Dwight Way, as well as speed humps on residential streets such as Jefferson Avenue, to encourage traffic to use major arterials instead of driving into neighborhoods.

“We have to have a place for drivers, bicycles and walkers,” she said. “We need a better network of bike boulevards.”

Although the city has designated several streets as bike boulevards, it has found that many residents fear using them due to safety concerns. It has rated intersections on these boulevards based on the “level of traffic stress,” with 1 lowest and 4 highest. The rating at Dwight Way and California Street is 3, meaning only 16% of bicyclists feel comfortable crossing the intersection.

The two options the city is considering would lower that level to 2, meaning 79% of residents would feel comfortable crossing Dwight Way.

Charles Siegel, a Berkeley resident who advocated for the city’s bike boulevard network in the late 1990s, told Berkeleyside he has been waiting two decades for safer crossings at major intersections such as Dwight and California. 

“I think the median idea is a good first step,” he said. “But they should also add either a HAWK beacon or a traffic light so there will actually be a safe crossing, so the children will not have to look and dodge traffic. They should treat bicycle boulevards with the same respect as collector streets, where they would not just put a flashing light.”

Harrison agreed with some area residents who said flashing lights may not be effective enough and could actually give pedestrians and bicyclists a false sense of security as they venture into crosswalks. She said she was nearly hit by a car herself while in the crosswalk at Dwight and California during an event organized by Walk Bike Berkeley two years ago drawing attention to the dangerous intersection.

Jung said the city would not consider installing a four-way stop at the intersection because Dwight Way is a major arterial, which the city does not want to significantly impede. However, it has installed a “speed feedback” sign atop a 25-mph speed limit sign at the intersection that shows cars how fast they are traveling.

Vision Zero: The big picture

Dwight and California is one of many dangerous intersections the city aims to improve in its Vision Zero plan, which is modeled after similar plans in cities across the country.

“We are focused on improving safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, who are hurt and killed at rates that are double that of the percentage of their trips taken,” city spokesman Matthai Chakko wrote in an email, noting that bicyclists and pedestrians account for 80% of collisions resulting in death or severe injury, while accounting for 40% of trips. “We also know that increasing safety on a small subset of our streets can have a big impact.”

Ninety-one percent of the city’s severe and fatal collisions occur on only 16% of its streets, which are designated as “high injury,” Chakko added. “Vision Zero focuses on the most significant factors associated with severe and fatal traffic collisions in order to make the greatest impact.”

These are: speeding, failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, failing to yield to oncoming traffic while making left or U-turns, failing to stop at red lights, and failing to stop at stop signs. Top traffic violations for severe and fatal vehicle-involved collisions in Berkeley included these as well as bicyclists traveling at unsafe speeds.

Locations of severe and fatal crashes, 2010-2019. Credit: Berkeley Public Works Department
High-injury streets, 2010-2019. Credit: Berkeley Public Works Department

Freelancer Theresa Harrington has worked as a reporter since 2000, including education coverage at EdSource and city and education beat coverage at Bay Area News Group. She has been recognized with multiple...