New push for Telegraph bus lane seen as step toward car-free future

Officials are considering plans to redesign four busy streets near UC Berkeley. City leaders rejected an effort to add bus lanes to Telegraph more than a decade ago.

Berkeley is considering several options for redesigning Telegraph Avenue. Among them is a plan that would reserve one of Telegraph’s two traffic lanes for buses, and raise the street to create a level plaza with the sidewalk. Credit: Nico Savidge

A plan to update several busy streets near the UC Berkeley campus is reigniting debate about giving buses priority over cars along Telegraph Avenue’s most iconic blocks.

The result could be a dramatically different Telegraph between Dwight Way and campus: An option planners are considering would reserve one of the street’s two traffic lanes for buses, and also raise the street itself to sidewalk level, creating a new plaza. Rigel Robinson, the councilmember who represents the neighborhood, said he supports the plaza option — and sees it as a stepping stone toward his goal of one day banning private automobiles from those blocks altogether.

“There is no greater place to be brave and ambitious than the Telegraph corridor,” Robinson said, because the dense neighborhood is already full of residents in dorms or apartment complexes who get around by foot, bicycle and scooter rather than driving. “This is the perfect place to prove the best practices that we know make streets safer and revitalize commercial districts.”

But the idea is already encountering some of the same resistance that doomed the last attempt to create bus lanes on the avenue more than a decade ago. With many businesses still reeling from the impact of COVID-19, several merchants said they are concerned about the proposal’s potential impact on customer parking, traffic congestion and loading zones.

“I’m still against it,” said Doris Moskowitz, the owner of Moe’s Books. “It’s hard enough to run a business here — we don’t want to put up any more hurdles.”

The changes on Telegraph Avenue are part of a broader project called Southside Complete Streets, which will also redesign sections of Bancroft Way, Dana Street and Fulton Street.

City officials have released several renderings of potential new street layouts, and are asking the public to pick their favorites and provide feedback in an online survey. A virtual open house about the project is planned for 6 p.m. Wednesday night.

Changes could include extending Bancroft’s existing bus lanes and installing new barrier-protected bike lanes along both Bancroft and Fulton. On Dana Street, the city could make permanent a pilot project breaking ground next spring that will create another protected bike track.

Existing bus lanes along Bancroft Way could be extended under the Southside Complete Streets project. Credit: Nico Savidge

To make room for the proposed changes, all four of those streets could eliminate or ban cars from existing traffic lanes, while some blocks would also lose parking spaces.

Other designs being considered in the project would preserve parking and car lanes, and as a result require buses or bikes to make do with less dedicated space.

Transit advocates hope Berkeley moves forward with more dramatic makeovers that will shift who is prioritized on the neighborhood’s streets: Drivers may have a slower trip as a result, they argue, but bus riders could zip past congestion in their dedicated lanes, while pedestrians and bicyclists would have safer journeys.

“We cannot be sustainable in the structure we have now that is so focused on cars,” said Pari ​​Parajuli, a UC Berkeley junior and member of the Associated Students of the University of California. “This is a very small start … but in the end the goal is to make a city that is walkable (and) accessible to all.”

The project is an opportunity to show “how serious the city is about transitioning away from private automobiles,” said Brandon Yung, a UC Berkeley senior who co-founded Telegraph for People, a new group that will push to banish cars from the avenue. The car-free Telegraph concept isn’t one of the options planners are currently considering in the Southside Complete Streets project, but Yung — who previously worked as a Berkeleyside freelancer — said he believes it should be.

“We have a lot of symbolic gestures to show that the city wants to move away from car-dependent environments,” he said, “but we have yet to see really drastic changes to the built environment toward that end.”

Officials hope to pick a plan for the redesigned streets over the coming months, and break ground on the changes in 2023. Construction and outreach is being funded by $8.3 million worth of grants from the Alameda County Transportation Commission and Caltrans.

There are some signs that Telegraph businesses’ views on a bus lane have softened since 2010, when they pushed the city to scuttle a plan to create transit lanes that would run through Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro. AC Transit launched service last year along a shortened version of that route; its new bus rapid transit line runs through San Leandro and East Oakland, before ending in downtown Oakland.

In 2019, Stuart Baker, then the executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, co-wrote a Berkeleyside op-ed with Robinson that championed a level plaza-style design for the avenue, calling for a “shared street” that “prioritizes public transit, pedestrians, and bicyclists.”

But the district’s current executive director, Alex Knox, said the group has not yet endorsed any of the four options planners are now considering for Telegraph’s future, and its members want to know more about what the changes could mean.

One proposal for Telegraph Avenue would raise the street to create a level plaza with the sidewalk. Traffic lanes would be lined with barriers to protect pedestrians, while one of the lanes would be reserved for buses. Credit: City of Berkeley

For instance, while the plaza design would include a lane for parking and loading zones, planners have not yet determined whether some spaces might be eliminated in a reworking of the street; Robinson says he wants to make sure loading spots are retained. Parking and loading zones are a key concern for Moskowitz, who noted that when customers come to Moe’s hauling collections of used books to sell, they arrive almost exclusively by car.

“I love the idea of us all living without cars — but because of the business that I’m in, it doesn’t make sense,” she said.

Restaurants have similar concerns about access to curb space, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.

“We rely so much now on delivery companies such as Door Dash and Uber Eats,” said Sliver Pizzeria CEO Eduardo Perez, “I’m not sure how they will be able to access us merchants with this setup.”

Knox said business owners are excited about other aspects of the Southside Complete Streets project, like improvements to pedestrian lighting and crosswalks. But he said it’s too soon to say whether its more dramatic changes will have support from merchants.

“That’s a fairly ambitious vision,” Knox said of the plaza proposal. “There’s quite a lot more that needs to be understood about what that means before we can say any one way is the right way to do it.”

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.