Opinion: Make Telegraph Avenue car-free

The historic and pedestrian swarmed street should be the first of many streets in the city to undergo this transition.

To adapt to the climate crisis every city should have many car-free streets. On such streets, public space should be filled with the public: pedestrians on a stroll, diners enjoying a meal with friends, cyclists on their way to school, and tourists on public transit ready to get off the bus and explore the neighborhood. Instead, most if not all American cities allocate a supermajority of public space to cars. Berkeley, while relatively walkable and bikeable by American standards, is no different.

Residents and visitors to any city opt to use public space, the street, as designed. Most streets in most cities have multiple lanes for cars and ample large spaces to park cars (where folks may leave their private property in public space) for free or very little cost. People choose the transportation option that is the fastest way to get from point A to point B and has the most comfort and safety. Many Berkeleyans indicate they are interested in bicycling more but are dissuaded by the lack of protected and comfortable bike lanes in our public space. 

Instead, these people must make trips by car. All the while, those who cannot (children, the poor, persons with disabilities) or do not use a car to travel around cities must rely on expensive and infrequent public transit, often delayed by car-induced congestion, or risk death anytime they walk, bicycle, scooter, etc., into public space designated for cars. Motorists, in turn, must navigate streets that allow them to travel at speeds that will maim or kill anyone should they make an error and collide with someone not also in a car. Motorists also waste stressful and sedentary hours of their days to make trips that would be healthier and more enjoyable on a carbon-neutral mode of transportation, like an electric bicycle or bus.

We do not need to live in car-dependent cities like Berkeley, places where many people feel cars are the only reasonable way to get around. We do not need to pay for expensive vehicles and incur the registration, fuel, insurance, and parking costs simply to travel about urban places. The simple but crucial step we must take to transition Berkeley (and all cities) away from car dependency and toward a post-carbon city is to designate certain streets as car-free immediately. We must reallocate much of our public space from carbon polluting cars to carbon-neutral forms of transportation by adding bus lanes, bicycle lanes, and more sidewalk space. 

The historic and pedestrian swarmed Telegraph Avenue on Southside should be the first of many streets in Berkeley to undergo this transition, followed by Shattuck Avenue Downtown, San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley, Euclid Avenue on Northside and others. These areas consist of the densest housing available, many public transit stops, ample pedestrian traffic, and hubs of diverse commercial activity. On Telegraph Avenue, every restaurant could reclaim the public space allocated to parking and construct popular parklet dining seating. Street and art vendors would no longer need to set up on the sidewalk and instead could create vibrant street life in former parking spots and car lanes. Protected bicycle lanes should be installed all the way down Telegraph Avenue into Oakland. Delivery drivers could continue to queue on Durant Avenue (where street parking should also be eliminated).   

Berkeley’s elected leaders speak about the urgency of the climate crisis but continue not to take any significant action to limit the number of cars in our public space and reduce emissions from the largest source of greenhouse gases in California. Since the beginning of the pandemic, cities like San Francisco and Paris have taken immediate action to construct more bicycle lanes, car-free streets, and reduce speed limits of vehicles in the urban core. Berkeley should emulate these actions by immediately making Telegraph Avenue car-free and demonstrating a commitment to a post-car and post-carbon city.

James Butler is a graduate student in environmental engineering at UC Berkeley and a member of the People’s Transit Alliance.