Berkeley must make Milvia Street safer for bikes

There is a push going on right now to improve Berkeley’s highest priority street for bicycling, and it is critical for students to get involved. First identified in Berkeley’s 1971 Bicycle Plan, Milvia Street has long been Berkeley’s primary north-south bikeway through Downtown. The idea almost 50 years ago was to ban car parking on Milvia Street, as well as on Channing Way and Hearst Street. While Berkeley has built narrow bike lanes, the city added parking to Milvia Street, just south of Channing Way. More recently, Berkeley celebrated the opening of a nearby larger Downtown Center Street Parking Garage, which is rarely completely filled. The city has done its part to provide parking to visitors and shoppers. But, it hasn’t made Milvia Street safe for bicycling in Downtown.

Bike East Bay is a nonprofit bicycle advocacy group working to change that in partnership with Walk Bike Berkeley while building upon the good work of the former Bicycle-Friendly Berkeley Coalition. We are pushing Berkeley to build separated safe bikeways on Milvia Street in Downtown by National Bike to Work Day, which is Friday, May 17, 2019. To be successful, the project needs the help of students. Some Downtown businesses and council members have expressed concerns about the idea because a small number of on-street vehicle parking spots need to be removed — an estimated 20 percent of spaces on Milvia Street in Downtown and a small fraction of the overall supply of parking in Downtown.

The irony is that bike lanes add to increased sales at local businesses. Study after study has shown this, including a Downtown Berkeley Shopping Survey in 2015 conducted by UC Berkeley students which concluded that people who bike to Downtown merchants spend an average of $520 per month, 31 percent more than people who drive. It is a common pattern to see merchant disapproval of bike safety improvements that involve parking removal — on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, where bike lanes were added in 2016, merchants in the KONO District remain displeased about parking changes despite the fact that they have actually seen increases in their sales since changes were implemented.

To address the parking removal concern on Milvia Street, city staff have developed a compromise proposal — make Milvia Street a one-way southbound street, from University Avenue to either Addison or Center Street or Allston Way (TBD). This allows on-street parking in front of ACE Hardware to be retained, while providing space for protected curbside bike lanes. The parking near businesses helps with loading. In addition, this design is great for pedestrians, as it would eliminate the dangerous left turn that vehicles currently take from northbound Milvia Street to westbound University Avenue. We hope the community can support this proposal. Thousands of people bike Milvia Street every day, including Berkeley High students, Downtown YMCA members, Berkeley library attendees, daily commuters to BART and numerous UC Berkeley students going to and from campus. Berkeley is California’s 3rd most popular city for bicycling after Davis and Palo Alto for cities with populations between 100,000 and 200,000.

City staff have stated that the “one-way” street redesign option needs to be studied further and that therefore, the project cannot be delivered by Bike to Work Day. Our organizations disagree. Imagine for a moment that the one-way southbound portion of Milvia Street extends from University to Center Street, two blocks in length. Vehicles heading northbound on Milvia Street past Allston Way will need to turn either left or right on Center Street to continue north via Martin Luther King Jr. Way or Shattuck Avenue. What needs to be studied? These are legal maneuvers drivers make today. A traffic engineer might argue something about added traffic at the intersection of Center Street and Shattuck Avenue. What of it? If, at times, there might be added traffic there, someone’s Waze app will advise them accordingly, allowing Berkeley’s grid network of Downtown streets to do its job for drivers. In our opinion, nothing needs studying, and bike safety on Milvia Street need not be delayed. The public should not have to wait 50 years to build the most important bikeway in the city on the least important street for driving Downtown.

Dave Campbell is the advocacy director of Bike East Bay. Ben Gerhardstein is a founding member of Walk Bike Berkeley.