City must make effort to provide greater safety for bicyclists

Anna Sapozhnikov/Staff

As a core volunteer at Biketopia Community Workshop, a nonprofit in South Berkeley where anyone can learn to fix their own bicycle, fill their tires or just get advice from seasoned cyclists, I have been asked time and again how to stay safe on the sometimes chaotic streets of Berkeley.  As someone with nearly 20 years of urban riding experience, I have plenty of advice to give them, from improving visibility with lights and colors to staying out of driver blind spots and avoiding points of possible impact, as well as seeking out one of the many bicycling safety classes hosted by Bike East Bay, a fellow bicycling advocacy organization with a long history of improving riding conditions in the region. I will continue to give this advice to all those who ask, but after last Tuesday’s near-fatal collision at Bancroft Way and Fulton Street, moving to the top of my list is to pester the city of Berkeley’s departments of transportation planning and public works, as well as council members.

Being a college town with the sort of environmental activism that encourages bicycling and de-emphasizes driving, Berkeley has an exceptionally high number of resident-riders, with a nationally high average of 9.7 percent of workers over the age of 16 commuting by bicycle.  In fact, one in every commute trip in Berkeley is taken by transit, walking and bicycling, making Berkeley top in California for this stat. Berkeley was also one of the first US cities to adopt a bicycle master plan in 1971, with the city later removing parking on five streets to install bike lanes. Imagine that happening today. The fact is that Berkeley has not kept up with its bicycling community with much urgency in the years since. The current bicycle master plan for the city was first published in 1998, with its last update in 2005, leaving it far behind the surge of new rider interest following the Great Recession of 2008 and the record-breaking gasoline prices that followed.

While the city will be completing a new bicycle master plan by the end of this year, any improvements to come will be too late for Megan Schwarzman, a resident who, despite taking extra safety and visibility precautions, remains in critical condition after being hit by a driver on Fulton Street just south of Bancroft Way. She was doing what many Berkeley residents do every day — riding with traffic, hoping that a car does not hit her. By unfortunate coincidence, this exact stretch of Fulton Street was repaved last year without a separated bike lane, despite requests from Bike East Bay to Berkeley’s Department of Public Works to include one. Citing concerns of time and resources, the city responded that such an improvement would require too much work to coordinate and paved the notably dangerous stretch without any visible consideration for cycling traffic. Berkeley is not unlike other cities in this respect. Concerns about slowing cars or removing parking take precedence over the safety of residents.

It’s not hard to imagine that if the Department of Public Works had responded to Bike East Bay’s request, Schwarzman might have been out of the path of that car, able to continue home to her husband and three children safe and sound instead of ending up in the emergency room of Highland Hospital.

As aware as I am of the time and process it takes to make changes in government organizations, the circumstances behind this collision are unacceptable for a city with such an extensive bicycle ridership. While the advice of the folks at Bike East Bay may have come too late to change the direction of street crews and civil engineers in the public works department, last Tuesday’s collision should spur a revision in the development of such projects, creating a requirement to engage those equipped to offer advice on how the roads should be improved with bicyclists in mind where official documents, such as an outdated bicycle master plan, fall short.

Interestingly, Bike East Bay is currently advocating for a two-way bicycling safety lane to be installed on the stretch of Bancroft between Dana Street and Shattuck Avenue, the site of the fatal bicycle crash of visiting professor Shlomo Bentin in 2012, after his close call with a dump truck heading in the same direction. Bike East Bay is working closely with the city, the Telegraph Business Improvement District and the district’s bicycle-riding Councilmember Kriss Worthington’s office on this project, according to their advocacy director Dave Campbell. But they can use all the support they can get to keep history from repeating itself.

Those who live, work and attend school in Berkeley must hold their elected officials and the departments responsible for improving road conditions to a higher level of service than they have been providing or suffer the unnecessary loss of life or injury to more of the city’s many cyclists. I believe that supporting Bike East Bay’s efforts, especially on the accident-prone streets surrounding this intersection, is a crucial part of that process.

Reaux Flagg is Co-Director at Biketopia Community Workshop and a UC Berkeley Alumna.

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  • Gene Nelson

    How about holding bike riders accountable? There are SOOOO many of them on the sidewalks downtown.
    Or sit at the crosswalk at Memorial Glade and the East Asian Library — watch cars stop for pedestrian crossings while bike riders come storming down the road and just ram on thru without stopping or caring about pedestrians.

    Heal thyself.

    • Lucian DiPeso

      Bike riders absolutely should be safe, courteous users of the road. However, I’m not sure how this advice is supposed to help Megan Schwarzman. She did not end up in critical condition because she rode her bike on the sidewalk–in fact, had she been on the sidewalk, she would not now be in danger of losing her life. Drivers, every single day, speed (the #1 cause of traffic fatalities in California), fail to use their indicator, fail to pass bikers safely, roll through stop signs, and on. Bikers, too, run stop signs habitually, ride on the wrong side of the street, etc. But, at the end of the day, drivers are operating 2 ton vehicles at high speed; bikers are operating 20 lb vehicles at ~10–15 mph. The only safe recourse, given that people–whether they operate cars or bicycles–are generally terrible at following traffic laws is to separate traffic by speed and weight. Bicyclists need their own space and infrastructure.

      • Gene Nelson

        So you make a comparison of drivers and riders, and noticeably you ignore pedestrians. Those are the people dodging bike riders on the sidewalk and in crosswalks.

        Every bad thing you say about drivers vs bikers applies to bikers vs pedestrians. Again, you want pedestrian support — stop abusing us on the sidewalks. I’ll support you when you police yourselves and not until then.

        • Lucian DiPeso

          Cars kill pedestrians. Cars kill bikers. Bikers do not kill pedestrians. However much it may be annoying and discourteous for bikers to ride on a sidewalk, many will continue to do so, so long as there is inadequate infrastructure for bikers. Bikers are forced to choose between dodging cars that can put them in the hospital, and riding on the sidewalk. Had Schwarzman abused pedestrians by riding on the sidewalk, she would not be in the hospital. This is the choice inadequate bicycle infrastructure forces on bikers. If you want bikers out of your way, then advocate for proper separation of vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic.

          • Sherman Boyson

            So you admit that bike riders treat pedestrians the way auto drivers treat bikers. You justify what abuses you do to pedestrians the same way drivers justify their abuses. You are your enemy.

          • Lucian DiPeso

            1) I do not ride on sidewalks. “I” does not appear in the paragraph above.
            2) I expressly distinguished the actions of drivers from bikers. My point was that bikers are responding to a fear of death or maiming, and that this causes them to annoy and disrupt pedestrians. The solution is to do exactly what the above article advocates, which is to provide adequate infrastructure to properly segregate traffic.
            3) Had the bicyclist in the above article been “abusing” pedestrians, she would not be in a hospital. Hence, see point 2.

        • Frank Kotter

          You wish for me to stand on the sidewalk and have a word with each and every person who has made the ‘less worse’ decision to be on the sidewalk as opposed to risking their lives in traffic? That is how I will earn your support for separate infrastructure to keep everyone safe? For how many days, weeks, years shall I do this?

          Puzzling proposition.

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