Annoying to some, appreciated by others, Berkeley’s pandemic-motivated street closure program is over. For now.
Launched in June 2020 as an emergency public health measure, the “Healthy Streets” pilot program has been winding down for months and officially ended this week, city officials said. The city hopes to continue elements of the program as part of its revised bike plan, set to be adopted in 2023.
The program, which involved cordoning off about 4.2 miles of roadway to expand car-free outdoor activity space, was a mixed bag for residents and for the city, according to a Nov. 18 memo from city manager Dee Williams-Ridley.
“By and large, the program feedback was positive, and the survey proved fruitful in understanding how to better meet the community’s needs,” Williams-Ridley wrote in the memo to City Council. “The program also experienced challenges.”
While many people enjoyed the extra space for walking, running and biking, others were confused by the program’s street signs and configurations, said Williams-Ridley’s memo.
The Healthy Streets infrastructure — barricades to block cars, plus signage — was also plagued by theft and vandalism, the memo said. And the city lacked the staffing to keep up with the problems.
They get knocked down— Jef Poskanzer (@jefposk) June 16, 2021
I set them up again pic.twitter.com/YzgQKLzztO
“All we are is dust in the wind…” pic.twitter.com/jseb5dtcEi— Jef Poskanzer (@jefposk) December 1, 2021
In enacting the street closure program, the city worked closely with the nonprofit Walk Bike Berkeley, which pushed for the pilot, said Liza Lutzker, a member of the organization’s coordinating committee.
“Our idea was there would be a network of streets that would really get a lot of people around the city in a way that was outdoors, socially distanced and also for exercise as well,” Lutzker said.
Cities including Oakland, Alameda and San Francisco had led the Bay Area in pandemic-related “Slow Streets” initiatives, and Walk Bike Berkeley strongly advocated for Berkeley to follow suit, she said. The organization is an active non-paid advocate in the city’s bicycle and pedestrian planning.
Lutzker agrees that Berkeley’s Healthy Streets program wasn’t smooth sailing — or rolling, or stepping.
Inadequate signs and traffic markers left drivers, bikers, and walkers confused, which led to frustration, she said, adding that the intent of the program was important and popular.
“A lot of what we took away from this was first and foremost the need for it,” Lutzker said.
Early in the process, Berkeley developed signage for project, which Walk Bike Berkeley found ineffective, she said. It was basically too homespun or temporary-looking, she said.
The organization urged Berkeley to use the more standardized “No Thru Traffic” road closure signs erected by cities like Oakland.
Berkeley’s initial signs were a mix of “watch for bikes and pedestrians” and “consider other routes.” Later, with volunteer assistance from Walk Bike Berkeley members, “Do Not Enter” signs were added by the city, Lutzker said.
“One of the biggest lessons learned is to use consistent signage with other cities,” she said.
Among those confused, were residents along the closed streets.
“Unfortunately, one of the issues was that it didn’t fit very well with a lot of local residents. … People were told not to enter their streets but to go around the block,” Lutzker said.
Another lesson was the need for hardy or permanent barriers separating car traffic from other modes, she said. “If we want to protect pedestrian and bicycle use of streets, then there needs to be traffic diversion mechanisms.”
The city agreed, according to Williams-Ridley’s letter to the council, which said: “Future healthy streets strategies will be more robust and aesthetic, using treatments such as islands, planters, bollards, bioswales and appropriate signage; identifying sustainable funding sources; and deployed after a more robust and thorough community engagement process.”
Lutzker pointed to the collision that injured of one of their members, Jackie Erbe, on a Healthy Street section as an example of the challenges of the program design. Erbe was hit by a car in a healthy street zone on Ninth Street in March, suffering a broken femur and fractured vertebrae. (The collision wasn’t mentioned in the city manager’s memo.) Lutzker said Erbe is recuperating and doing well today. She also said she does not blame the street closure for the collision.
Healthy Streets was applied to six sections of Berkeley roadways: Ninth Street, from Hearst Avenue to Dwight Way and Page Street to Hearst; Russell Street, from Adeline Street to Mabel Street; Addison Street, from Sacramento Street to Grant Street; Hillegass Avenue, from Woolsey Street to Dwight Way; and Virginia Street, from Shattuck Avenue to Sacramento.
The streets chosen were part of the city’s “low stress” bicycle network, a system of continuous routes, off of main roads, with signs, bike parking, and other features for biking.
The network is identified in the 2017 Berkeley Bike Plan, a blueprint for bicycle transit in the city that is currently being updated. City staff are currently seeking “to identify more long-term solutions to support the City’s bicycle boulevard network in ways that may look very similar to the Healthy Streets Pilot,” Lee-Ridley wrote in the memo.
The city manager pointed to a new state bill, AB 733, which allows local jurisdictions such as cities and counties to adopt traffic rules and regulations for “slow street” programs, such as Berkeley’s Healthy Streets.
Normally cities must comply with statewide laws for street signage, striping, and design. Uncertainty around the legality of the signage for Healthy Streets hindered the program’s effectiveness, Lutzker said.
The new law should put this to rest, she said.
“We want to create a small subset of streets in Berkeley that create a network for people to feel comfortable riding around safely for people of all ages and abilities,” Lutzker said.
“We don’t expect everybody to ride a bike, but we don’t want people to feel prevented from riding a bike because they don’t feel safe doing so,” she said.