For a truly public space, demand car-free Telegraph

Illustration of Telegraph St
Jamie Scott/Staff

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At a community meeting November 10th, the city of Berkeley laid out proposals and received feedback on several plans that reimagine Berkeley’s Southside area.

A project called “Southside Complete Streets,” which attempts to shift the flow of traffic to be more friendly to pedestrians and public transit vehicles on a handful of Southside streets, including the one-way section of Telegraph Avenue, was discussed. While these plans are encouraging, they fail to go far enough to meet the popular demand and logistical necessity of making Telegraph Avenue car-free.

Telegraph Avenue is the heart of Berkeley’s Southside. Thousands of people walk on it every day, and it hosts dozens of vendors, local businesses and community resources such as public chess tables.

Yet, because of congested and ineffective car lanes, pedestrians are relegated to a fraction of the space that Telegraph Avenue provides. This has huge implications for how people access Telegraph, making it harder to get around and more dangerous to breathe in the air and to walk in the street. Small businesses are also prevented from fully accessing their customer base.

Additionally, it makes it much more difficult for people with mobility aids to get around due to the dramatic reduction of areas accessible by wheelchairs and crutches.

In short, Telegraph has become somewhere to get from one place to another, not a place to enjoy the unique history and culture of Berkeley. This must change.

A car-free Telegraph Avenue would unlock the full potential of the street to become a true community and public space. Imagine an extension of the pedestrian-first design that already exists on UC Berkeley’s campus, with urban trees, patios for restaurants, public art, bikeways and clean public transportation infrastructure.

Telegraph could become a pedestrian plaza in the heart of the Southside — a venue for events and concerts and a true community space where people can congregate and enjoy the rich culture of Berkeley.

Cleaner air and quieter streets, especially when paired with urban trees and benches, would also help to alleviate the chronic lack of green space on the Southside while helping to meet the basic needs of all Berkeley citizens.

In addition to removing a local source of urban heat and noise, a car-free Telegraph Avenue could substantially reduce local greenhouse gas emissions and the ever-present risk for pedestrians of car crashes. California’s biggest source of carbon emissions is transportation, and Telegraph Avenue is the perfect place to build car-free infrastructure that will encourage people to walk, bike and to take public transportation.

Research also shows that chronic exposure to busy streets — particularly streets with idling trucks and cars — increases the risk of developing respiratory and heart disease, especially in children and young adults. Getting rid of cars on Telegraph would improve health outcomes for the tens of thousands of people who live, work and travel on it every day.

Businesses would benefit too. A 2021 in-depth analysis of Yelp data in cities across the nation showed that restaurants received huge boosts in business (sometimes with a 60% increase of consumer interest) when nearby streets were made car-free.

On Telegraph Avenue specifically, pedestrians and public transit users make up more business patrons than those using all other forms of transit combined. A car-free Telegraph is therefore a win-win situation for students, pedestrians, environmentalists and local business owners.

Berkeley’s own polling data at public meetings shows overwhelming support for more pedestrian and bike-friendly options on Telegraph. There is a clear public mandate and material benefit to a car-free Telegraph, and the city must honor that mandate with action. However, even with the obvious benefits of a car-free Telegraph, the city of Berkeley has yet to produce a truly car-free option for the Southside Complete Streets Program.

The most progressive option still leaves almost half the width of the street to cars and busses, relegating the vast majority of people to a couple of thin strips of the street and maintaining many of the current hazards.

Making Telegraph Avenue car-free would improve the health, climate, community and economy of Berkeley’s most vibrant communities. Car traffic on Telegraph is an outdated and ineffective way to transport people, and it makes no sense to sacrifice precious land and clean air for a transportation network that transports a tenth of the number of people traveling at peak hours compared to those who walk.

It’s time for the city to remove the car and parking lanes from the Telegraph Avenue Redevelopment Plan and to give that space back to its people. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring Telegraph Avenue into the 21st century and to make it into a place of community and public access, as well as raise it as a model for other cities envisioning a future beyond cars.

We should seize this opportunity and be as bold and visionary as possible, instead of settling for something we know will be less effective and less popular in the long run for the sake of short-term convenience. The city must invest in a truly public space on Telegraph Avenue.

Jacob Dadmunis a fourth-year society and environment major at UC Berkeley.