People opposed to the plan for a new protected bike track on Hopkins Street in North Berkeley called the idea “cruel” and “abusive” during a city meeting last month, with one woman predicting the new infrastructure would cause “many fatalities.” Another opponent has launched a petition drive to recall a just-reelected city councilmember over her past support for the project.
Meanwhile, yard signs planted by critics of the plan have been vandalized, with someone slapping stickers under their slogan, “Save Hopkins,” to add “from neighbor NIMBYs.”
The two sides have flooded city officials’ inboxes with thousands of emails, and waged protracted battles over the project on social media.
“My kids and family have been telling me that I’m spending too much time on Nextdoor,” said Ben Fry, a supporter of the plan branded a member of the “bike mafia” on the forum. “I’ve been sucked in too deep.”
What began as an effort to improve street safety in some of Berkeley’s wealthiest neighborhoods after drivers struck and killed two people in early 2017 has morphed into one of the most heated debates in local politics, fueling conflicts online and in person between neighbors, merchants, advocacy groups and city officials.
Proponents of the plan want Berkeley to redesign Hopkins with improvements for pedestrians and a new 1.5-mile-long protected bike lane, running from Sutter Street at the foot of the Berkeley Hills to Kains Avenue in West Berkeley, past a popular strip of shops and restaurants.
Installing that infrastructure would require sacrificing parking spaces along portions of Hopkins that are too narrow to fit both the bike track and parked cars. There would be fewer spots to park in front of the businesses, while most of the residential blocks west of the commercial district would have no on-street parking at all; in total, about 200 spaces would be removed from the corridor.
Berkeley’s City Council is set to hold a special meeting on the project in April, which will be the third time a version of the plan has come before the council for a vote. Even that may not be the final word, as opponents of the project have indicated they’re considering legal action to block it.
In many ways the debate has resembled the contentious discussions that pop up any time cities consider plans that give bicyclists or pedestrians a bigger share of space on streets, like the tumult over efforts to remove cars from portions of San Francisco’s John F. Kennedy Drive and Great Highway.
But the Hopkins Street controversy often seems to be colored by broader debates over how Berkeley is changing and what kind of city it should be.
“It’s devolved into no longer [being] about bike lanes,” said Donna Dediemar, one of the project’s most vocal critics. “It’s turning into a culture war.”
Conversations with opponents of the lane frequently branch off into discussions about new housing development in Berkeley and other street projects that make driving less convenient in an effort to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety. Many opponents come from Berkeley’s fast-growing and often car-dependent senior population — and worry those changes are making the city harder for them to navigate.
Supporters describe the Hopkins Street project as a test of Berkeley’s commitment to creating safer streets for everyone and addressing its biggest source of carbon emissions, transportation. Many see an imperative to take on both the climate and housing crises by building a denser Berkeley, with the kind of bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure that scientists say is critical to reduce planet-warming emissions from cars.
“A lot of the strategies we have for making our roads safer and more sustainable involve making them slower, taking away car parking, and creating spaces for people walking, biking and taking transit,” said Ben Gerhardstein of the group Walk Bike Berkeley, which has been at the forefront of the push for the lane. “These conversations and these debates aren’t going away, and we need to get better at moving them along [and] making hard decisions.”
But Dediemar and other opponents say that focus on high-minded goals doesn’t consider the day-to-day needs of residents, businesses or visitors and it doesn’t make sense to route a bike line all the way down Hopkins Street.
“This is not the place for it,” Dediemar said of the bike infrastructure. “It’s only in the public good when it’s in the right place and the right circumstances.”
Will project ‘destroy the neighborhood’ or open it up?
The bike lane plan isn’t all that controversial at the eastern end of Hopkins, where the broad street leaves plenty of room for parking and the cycle track. As Hopkins continues west toward San Pablo Avenue, though, the street gets narrower and busier — and the city’s choices get tougher.
The focal point of the debate has been a fear among opponents that the loss of parking will harm Hopkins’ cherished district of artisanal and locally owned shops, and make life harder for the street’s residents. Critics have also raised a long line of other concerns, including that the barriers meant to protect cyclists will make it harder for cars to get out of the way of emergency vehicles, or that the cycle track will be unsafe for riders because it will pass dozens of driveways.
The through-line of their concerns is a belief that the project will significantly disrupt the neighborhood, while not delivering on its promised benefits of improving safety and encouraging more people to cycle.
“It’ll destroy the neighborhood,” said Art Kinsey, the owner of Northbrae Bottle Shop, which like nearly every business on the street has a “Save Hopkins” sign taped in its window.
A plan approved twice by the City Council last year would remove some of the parking close to the businesses — four of the 10 spaces on the block in front of Kinsey’s shop, and all of the parking on the block of Hopkins in front of Monterey Market — to make room for the new bike track, which would run between a row of parked cars and the sidewalk. Nearly all of the parking east of the commercial block and along side streets would be preserved.
Kinsey at one point said the plan for the bike lane was something he could live with, but has since soured on the idea.
“It’s a very big impact [and] is going to satisfy very few people,” Kinsey said.
Proponents argue the opposite is true — that the project will make badly needed safety improvements, and fears about the cycle track’s impacts are overblown.
The western half of Hopkins, from San Pablo Avenue to Monterey Market, has no bike lanes today. Cycling groups say that means only the most experienced and confident riders are willing to bike on the street now, because doing so means traveling alongside bigger, faster cars.
The cycle track, they say, will make it safer and more comfortable for less-confident riders — including kids, seniors and novice adults — to visit Hopkins by bicycle.
“They take some of that anxiety away,” said Fry, the bike lane supporter, who doesn’t let his 11-year-old son or 8-year-old daughter ride their bikes down to Hopkins’ businesses. If the track is built, he said, “I’m going to have a space to ride with my kids without having to worry about what’s going to happen to them.”
Supporters also see the lane as a project that can make transportation more equitable, by better connecting formerly red- and yellow-lined West Berkeley neighborhoods with Hopkins’ shops, the neighborhood’s schools and amenities like the North Branch Library and King Pool.
As the City Council’s vote on the project approaches, opponents of the current street redesign proposal are pushing for officials to keep its pedestrian safety improvements, but modify the plan by rerouting cyclists away from several of the busiest blocks of Hopkins and onto Ada Street, a quiet street that runs parallel to Hopkins for several blocks. They position the idea as a compromise that improves safety for cyclists while keeping nearly all of the street’s parking; bike advocates say the Ada plan has serious flaws, and note that it cuts off the portion of the bike track that would extend into West Berkeley.
Proponents of the project say the city can limit disruptions to the neighborhood by better managing the parking that remains on Hopkins, with steps such as meters to ensure prime spaces in front of businesses turn over regularly and “blue zones” giving people with disabilities priority for spots on side streets. More broadly, though, many contend it’s worth sacrificing convenience for drivers to create a safer street.
“We fundamentally believe that opening up Hopkins for everyone — making it accessible for people who want to ride a bike, or e-tricycle, or scooter safely — is a higher priority for the city than maintaining street parking,” Gerhardstein said.
Lack of information has frustrated both sides
Given its trade-offs, the Hopkins project was always going to spark a debate over how to allocate space on the busy roadway.
But people on both sides of the issue say flaws in the city’s management of the project have contributed to the often vitriolic public conversation surrounding it.
Berkeleyside has made multiple requests over the past several months to speak with Farid Javandel, the head of Berkeley’s Transportation Division, and city spokesperson Matthai Chakko to learn more about the project, understand the city’s process and give them an opportunity to respond to criticism. Those requests have been declined.
Opponents of the bike lane have regarded the process with skepticism from the start, and allege that city staff steered it toward the cycle track while brushing off their concerns.
“The process has been completely one-sided,” said Matthew Dimond, a Hopkins resident who opposes the project. “It became contentious because a plan was thrust upon people.”
Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who represents part of the Hopkins corridor and wrote the referral that launched the current street safety project after the fatal crashes in 2017, leveled a similar criticism.
According to Hahn, transportation staff were asked to take “a holistic and comprehensive look” at the street, “not at bike infrastructure alone, but a variety of community and transportation issues.” But while the potential changes to Hopkins include some of those features, Hahn alleged the transportation division led a process that has mainly focused on the bike lane.
Proponents reject that characterization and have accused Hahn of unfairly maligning city staff. A person involved in developing the project, who spoke with a reporter on the condition their name not be used, said Hahn sought a study that was too broad and complex for staff to pull off; Hahn said she asked staff if they needed more funding for the project, and was told they did not.
“The holistic intent of the funded referral was lost, and I would say that it was resisted at every turn,” Hahn said. “So the way that it became a conversation about ‘bike lanes versus parking’ is because that’s what staff and the consultants put out.”
Karen Parolek, the chair of Berkeley’s Transportation Commission and another member of Walk Bike Berkeley, tempered her criticism of the process by noting the Transportation Division faces a staffing shortage.
Still, Parolek said the city has not provided enough information about the Hopkins project to the public, which has left residents’ questions unanswered and added to their distrust. A page about the project on the city’s website, she noted, is vague and outdated; the only contact information it displays is an email address for a transportation planner who no longer works for the city. Meanwhile, misconceptions and false information about the project have proliferated online.
“The lack of a consistent, clear source of information about what’s being proposed has been challenging,” Parolek said.
Officials have not detailed how they plan to manage parking in the Hopkins business district, nor have they shared how services such as trash pickup or deliveries will work on residential blocks where parking would be eliminated.
The city also has not provided a recent cost estimate for the project, and while officials once planned to repave Hopkins and build the lane this summer, it’s no longer clear whether the project will be done in 2023.
Berkeleyside sent a detailed list of questions to Chakko and Javandel about the project covering those and other issues. In response, Chakko sent a brief statement that read in part, “We plan to provide a comprehensive update to the project through an April 18 City Council item, which will allow the council and the public to get all of the information at the same time.”
Both Hahn and Kesarwani — who represents the western portion of the corridor and is being targeted in the recall effort, which she called a waste of time — said they have not yet decided how they will vote on the Hopkins plan.
“I am once again seeking what I have always sought: complete and accurate information, so that I can understand the opportunities, the impacts and the trade-offs,” Hahn said.
Councilmember Terry Taplin, an avid cyclist who joined dozens of other supporters of the bike track at a rally on Hopkins Street last month, said he isn’t reconsidering his vote in favor of the project.
“What’s the point of committing to pedestrian and bicyclist safety … if we’re going to cower and backtrack?” Taplin said. “If we are serious about our climate action goals, our mobility justice goals, our equity goals [and] our safety goals, then the margin is parking.”
Project stirs debate in a changing Berkeley
While Taplin and other bike track proponents rode down Hopkins at the rally, they passed counter-protesters holding “Save Hopkins” signs. One of them was North Berkeley resident Barbara Gilbert, who said she doesn’t believe there is any need to change Hopkins Street.
Gilbert is one of several opponents of the project who believe they have uncovered a more sinister motive behind it.
“Without accessible street parking, property values and desirability of the affected and nearby homes would fall drastically, and developers would steadily take over and redevelop the area into an unrecognizable and undesirable highrise format,” Gilbert wrote in a column published by the Berkeley Daily Planet.
Parolek said the theory that her organization is out to destroy Hopkins Street’s businesses is absurd and hurtful, because she values them as much as anyone. And while there is a link between Berkeley’s growth and the push for bike infrastructure, she said it’s not nefarious — it’s an effort to create a more sustainable community.
The city is required to plan for nearly 9,000 new homes over the next eight years. As it grows, Parolek said, Berkeley must build infrastructure that makes it easier and safer for people to live car-free, and for families to share a single vehicle rather than have one for every adult, or the result will be worse traffic congestion, more dangerous streets and more carbon pumped into a warming climate.
“We can’t have all these people moving into town that all drive,” Parolek said. “We have to give them other options that make sense, and that are safe, and that they’ll actually do.”
But with key details of what the project will entail still unclear, plenty of people aren’t convinced it will improve their daily life on Hopkins Street.
Rosemary McDonnell-Horita, who lives along the street and uses a wheelchair and motorized scooter to get around, worries the barriers to protect the lane could make the street harder to navigate. While parking an extra block or two away from stores may just be an inconvenience for some people, she said, it’s a bigger barrier for those with limited mobility.
The ultimate concern for many people with disabilities, McDonnell-Horita says, is that the changes could “just leave us stuck in our homes.”
Supporters of the project say transportation planners will work to ensure new infrastructure responds to those needs. The status quo, they say, isn’t good for access either.
“Free on-street parking … is not accessible parking,” Taplin said. “A dedicated blue curb is infinitely more accessible than free, un-metered, on-street parking.”
Still, while McDonnell-Horita said efforts to create a better streetscape for pedestrians and bicyclists are worthwhile, they also need to ensure the new infrastructure improves access for people with disabilities — and she doesn’t see that in the plan for Hopkins Street.
“I just want to make sure that those folks in my community aren’t left behind,” she said.