Berkeley bicyclists’ preferred route through downtown — a busy mile-long stretch of Milvia Street, from Blake Street to Hearst Avenue — is getting redesigned for added safety. Construction began in May on a project that will reduce portions of Milvia to a single lane and will protect bikers from car traffic by adding concrete barriers and relocating some parking spots so that they serve as bike lane buffers. The project is expected to be completed in January 2022.
“It’s a major milestone for the city in terms of safety and bike connectivity,” said Ken Jung, a civil engineer with the city of Berkeley and the project manager.
The project is a component of the city’s 2017 Bicycle Plan, which aims to create a safe, linked network of low-traffic streets designed for biking, and Vision Zero, an effort to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries through infrastructural engineering.
Milvia is the most widely used bicycle boulevard in Berkeley, and it also saw the most collisions involving cyclists from 2001 to 2012. To address safety concerns, the bike lanes will be the city’s first to be protected by a continuous concrete buffer. The project also creates a loading zone at the high school and eliminates what’s called a slip right-turn at Allston and Milvia, where cars don’t have to stop at a red light before turning, which is dangerous for cyclists.
Though the city first proposed protected bike lanes in its 1971 Berkeley Bikeways Plan, there are few in Berkeley: Parked cars and bus boarding islands separate cyclists from car traffic on a few streets, but none by a concrete barrier.
At the project’s completion, downtown Berkeley will lose 66 of the 135 parkings spaces on Milvia. A nearby Center Street garage, which replaced an older garage, added 300 additional parking spots (and space for 350 bicycles) when it opened November 2018.
During the planning phase in 2019, the city considered design options that removed parking spaces from Milvia Street entirely, causing concern among shop owners, who worried that decreased parking would hurt their business, and some drivers. One proposal that would have removed parking spaces from in front of the Ace Hardware at Milvia and Addison Street received particular pushback. “It will cream us if they do that,” Virginia Carpenter, who co-owns the hardware store, told Berkeleyside at the time.
But now that half the parking spaces on Milvia will be preserved, including some directly in front of ACE Hardware, the project has won the approval of the Downtown Business Association, with president John Caner describing the project as a “net positive.” “It’s a safe, sustainable way to get in and out of the downtown and reduce reliance on automobiles,” said Caner, a cyclist himself. “It brings more people, more vibrancy.” Carpenter declined to speak on the record about the redesign.
To make room for the bike lanes, limit car traffic and preserve some parking, much of the one-mile stretch of Milvia will become a one-way street. It will be one-way northbound between University and Hearst. It will also become one-way southbound between University and Blake, with several exceptions: It will remain two-way on the stretch from Center to Channing, which includes City Hall and the high school, as well as the most southerly block from Dwight to Blake by Alta Bates Hospital.
Described as a central artery for cyclists, Milvia sees the most bike traffic of any street in Berkeley, where 8.5% of people bike to work, the fourth-largest share of bike commuters of any city in the U.S. During the evening rush hour, more than 500 cyclists ride down the street. Running parallel to Shattuck Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Road, this portion of Milvia connects cyclists to downtown Berkeley, Berkeley High and Berkeley City College. As a result, the street is key to creating a network of bike boulevards that can get cyclists around Berkeley.
The project, including a community engagement process in 2019, design, and construction, will cost $3.9 million, with the money coming from Measure B and Measure BB, both countywide transportation sales taxes, as well as an Affordable and Sustainable Communities grant from the state.
“We need a connected network. We don’t have that in Berkeley, but Milvia gets us much closer to that,” said Dave Campbell, advocacy director for Bike East Bay. “We will often undoubtedly hear, ‘Why can’t you just go bike over there?’ We are already biking ‘over there.’ We’re not biking on Shattuck, we’re not biking on MLK. There has to be at least one street you can bike on that’s safe.”
This is who we’re building a #BetterMilvia for – really excited to see this project underway.
Let’s make this critical bike boulevard accessible for all ages & abilities. pic.twitter.com/obHFlYDOP4
— Liza Lutzker (@LizaLutzker) June 17, 2021
Charles Siegel, a founding member of Walk Bike Berkeley, started advocating for safer streets when his son was 3 years old in the hopes that Milvia would turn into a safer bikeway so his son could bike to Willard Middle School by himself.
“Of course, it wasn’t done in time, and we would not let him bike to school because it was not safe, so he had to walk to school. Now it is finally being done, and he is 39 years old,” Siegel wrote in an email to Berkeleyside.