Berkeley City Council passes items to make streets more pedestrian-friendly

Gisselle Reyes/Staff

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Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson arrived at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, which saw a slate of transportation items passed, wearing a shirt emblazoned with “Street Parking is Theft.”

Efforts to make city streets better accommodate cyclists and pedestrians took center stage during the meeting, and council members voted to funnel funds slated for repaving streets toward streets used heavily by pedestrians and cyclists.

City Council also voted for an aspirational vision of a Telegraph Avenue revamp which would open up the street to all modes of transportation.

“For me, it’s an indicator that the city wants to reprioritize the public right of way for people who are not in a car,” said Ben Gerhardstein, a founding member of Walk Bike Berkeley.  “For me, that’s more of a symbolic thing that we’re starting to look at plans already in the book for how we are reshaping the public right away to make space for people first over cars.”

With a unanimous vote, City Council directed city staff to begin studying how the four blocks of Telegraph Avenue adjacent to UC Berkeley’s campus could be renovated to become a “shared street,” essentially tossing out limitations on pedestrian movement to sidewalks. The item cited the 94% of UC Berkeley students who commute to school without cars.

Recently, San Francisco banned private vehicles from traveling on Market Street. Robinson said the more than $6 million needed to accomplish the project would need to be cobbled together largely with the help of regional entities, state and federal grants.

The Telegraph Avenue item was sponsored by council members Lori Droste, Kate Harrison and Robinson, as well as Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín. The four also spearheaded other items to reprioritize public right of way for nondrivers.

“A lot of these items were asking is how well the streetscape and how well the public realm serves the needs of the future, and we need to ask who these streets were made for,” Robinson, who penned both items, said. “And the answer is cars.”

The most discussed item was a referral to earmark 50% of citywide funds for repavement of streets heavily used by pedestrians and cyclists, drawing schisms between council members eager to bring infrastructure dollars from a limited pot into their respective districts.

The item was informally coined the Berkeley Initiative to Build Improvements for Mobility, Bicycles, and Pedestrians, or BIBIMBAP by Robinson, Berkeley’s first Korean American council member.

Advocates for the BIBIMBAP referral argued its impetus was grave: Climate change and consistently high rates of pedestrian and cyclist collisions in the city were said to be reasons to take a much more aggressive stance on transitioning city infrastructure away from prioritizing cars.

The item connects multiple preexisting pieces of legislation by ensuring bike lanes and other safety amenities are included in any street repavement projects for city streets facing decades of deferred maintenance. Controversially, the item focuses funds on streets designated as in the city’s bicycle network or as high pedestrian collision streets — largely lying in more heavily trafficked parts of Berkeley’s flatlands.

Prompting disagreement on such geographic lines,  District 6 City Councilmember Susan Wengraf said it bypassed a committee process that would have taken longer and included more opportunity for revision.

“I want all of you to think about what you’re going to tell your constituents when there’s no money to pave your streets because 50% of the budget is going to the bicyclist network,” Wengraf said.

Arreguín took on a much more expeditious stance in funneling funds to the cyclist and pedestrian streets, arguing for equity in districts historically underinvested in West and South Berkeley.

“If I look at this map, I think we need to reprioritize these streets for the complete streets improvement they should be getting,” Arreguín said. “I think this is an equity issue to make sure South and West Berkeley get their share of resources.”

Some council members floated the idea of asking voters to pass a bond measure to fill the more than $200 million gap needed to sufficiently repair degraded city streets, according to city staff.

“We are finally getting to the place where we are dedicating resources to on-the-ground improvements and shifting resources that aligns with our stated policies and goals,” Gerhardstein said. “There’s a perception that there’s winners and losers in that, but the city wins when we prioritize people moving into a healthy, low-carbon way of getting around the city.”

 

Brandon Yung is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.