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.