Berkeley has begun to revise its bicycle plan. The current plan treats bicyclists as second-class citizens, and the new plan should do better. To understand what’s wrong with the current plan, it is useful to imagine the city treating car drivers the same way.
Imagine you are driving your car south on Shattuck Avenue to Oakland. When you get to Ashby Avenue, instead of the traffic light that is there now, a flashing light warns cars on Ashby about pedestrians crossing, which does not give the right of way to you as a driver. There is also a median in the center of Ashby. You are expected to wait for a break in the traffic on Ashby, drive to the median, then wait for a break in the traffic going the opposite direction so that you can scurry across.
No one would treat cars on through streets like this, but the current bike plan treats bicycles on Bicycle Boulevards exactly this way. When the California Street Bicycle Boulevard reaches Ashby, the plan calls for a flashing pedestrian light (which does not give bikes the right of way) and a median. Bicyclists will have to wait for a break in the traffic, rush to the median, and then wait for a break in the other direction. Given the heavy, aggressive traffic on Ashby, there would be a long wait to cross, and there would inevitably be crashes.
Berkeley has two types of through streets for cars. “Major Streets,” such as Ashby and San Pablo Avenue, have the heaviest traffic. “Collector Streets,” such as Cedar Street and Alcatraz Avenue, carry somewhat lighter through traffic. Wherever these streets cross each other, there is either a traffic light or a four-way stop sign so that cars can cross safely and conveniently.
Berkeley’s Bicycle Boulevards are our through streets for bicycles, and they should be treated as well as we treat our through streets for cars. Whenever a Bicycle Boulevard crosses a major street, there should be a stoplight. Whenever a Bicycle Boulevard crosses a collector street, there should be four-way stop signs. Or there should be something that works just as well.
Yet the current bicycle plan has many Bicycle Boulevard crossings with just a flashing pedestrian light and a median. It has many with just a flashing pedestrian light, which is even worse because bicycles have to wait until there is a gap in traffic from both directions.
There is no data about whether these pedestrian flashers work for bicycles. Some people say they make the crossings a bit safer because they alert drivers to look for someone crossing. Some people say they actually make the crossings less safe because roughly 10% of drivers typically ignore the flashers and fail to yield even to pedestrians, who have the right of way by law. Pedestrians are going slowly enough to stop when cars fail to yield, but bicyclists are going faster and are less likely to stop in time to avoid being hit by a vehicle that fails to yield.
Pedestrian flashers are particularly dangerous for children, who are more impulsive than adults and more likely not to tolerate the long wait that is needed until it is safe to cross.
Whether the flashers are a bit more or a bit less safe for bicycles, one thing is sure: They are not as safe and convenient as the crossings that we provide for cars. If we just have flashers at Bicycle Boulevard crossings, we are treating bicyclists as second-class citizens.
The current bike plan began by surveying Berkeley residents, which found that about 20% of Berkeley residents already bicycle regularly, and about 70% want to bicycle regularly but do not because they think it is unsafe.
The 70% will obviously not feel safe enough to bicycle if we expect them to cross streets with heavy through traffic with just a pedestrian flasher and median to protect them.
I have been bicycling in Berkeley for decades, but I would never bike across Ashby at an intersection with just a flasher and median. I am a confident bicyclist, but I am not suicidal.
Safe bike routes could potentially benefit up to 90% of Berkeley residents if we make them safe enough that the 70% begin to bike more. With such heavy potential use, Bicycle Boulevards should be given the same safe and convenient crossings as through streets for cars.
There are two reasons for giving our Bicycle Boulevards the same high-quality crossings that we routinely give cars.
The first is the environment. Transportation is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in Berkeley and the United States. The bike plan survey shows us that we can shift many trips from cars to bicycles by providing a safe system of bicycle routes, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing congestion, air pollution, and collisions.
The second is equity. The city should provide equal protection of the law to us all. That means that our through streets for bicycles should be safe and convenient, like our through streets for cars. It means we should not treat bicyclists as second-class citizens.
Charles Siegel was a member of the core group of Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition in the 1990s, when it convinced the city to include the Bicycle Boulevard Network in the 2000 Bicycle Plan. He is currently a member of the Coordinating Committee of Walk Bike Berkeley.