Let’s give Telegraph Avenue back to people

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Telegraph Avenue is Berkeley’s most historical and celebrated street, but its current design is not working for students and needs to change. We use Telegraph Avenue to get our basic needs met. We run our errands on Telegraph, eat lunch, buy our essentials and travel to and from class. But its current design puts cars first and us — pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders — last.

By 2031, Berkeley will be adding 9,000 housing units, and many of those units will be in Southside. Telegraph Avenue and its environs will only get denser, so we need to redesign Southside’s streets for a sustainable, walkable future.

On the four blocks closest to campus, Telegraph Avenue shoves pedestrians onto narrow sidewalks and forces bus riders to wait as cars congest the street ahead. It is so dangerous for cyclists that most of them avoid the street altogether.

Fast-moving traffic also makes Telegraph Avenue’s intersections especially dangerous for those with disabilities. People with disabilities often cannot drive, and they rely on Southside’s cramped sidewalks, hazardous crosswalks and delayed buses to get around. Making Telegraph Avenue car-free would make it far more accessible for people with disabilities to get their basic needs met every day.

Most students walk, roll, ride bikes and take public transit; in fact, 95% of UC Berkeley students use these sustainable modes of transportation to commute to class. We need to reevaluate how we are using Telegraph Avenue’s valuable space and prioritize accessibility over mobility.

There is a difference between accessibility and mobility in transportation. Accessibility means that people of all abilities can get to a range of destinations. Mobility means that people can travel far distances.

On Telegraph Avenue, we are currently prioritizing mobility over accessibility by funneling as many cars through the corridor as possible. We do this at the expense of pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders who simply want to access a variety of destinations — many of which are necessary for day-to-day life — in close proximity safely and comfortably.

With so many destinations found within the small radius of Southside, we need Telegraph Avenue to be as accessible as possible.

True, some streets need to serve the purpose of mobility. Highways, for example, get people and goods from city to city. But some streets, particularly compact urban ones such as Telegraph Avenue, should not. As it currently stands, the street dedicates two-thirds of its 60-foot right of way to cars.

This is not how it should function. There are so many other routes that motorists can take, but there is only one Telegraph Avenue. A street as special as it should be a destination, not a place to pass through.

Our streets have not always been dedicated primarily to automobility, and they don’t have to be forever.

Cities around the world have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to give valuable urban space back to people.

For example, San Francisco’s restaurants rediscovered outdoor dining, turning hundreds of parking spaces into vibrant parklets. Residents and restaurants loved this new outdoor public space so much that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors decided to keep it.

In its current configuration, Telegraph Avenue from Bancroft Way to Dwight Way has no space for businesses to offer outdoor dining and display their merchandise and very little space for people to congregate and socialize. Instead, pedestrians shuffle quickly down cramped sidewalks to get from place to place, without having the time to fully appreciate their surroundings.

Imagine a Telegraph Avenue where the restaurants we all love have space to build parklets and offer outdoor dining. Imagine a Telegraph Avenue dotted with even more street musicians than ever before. Imagine a Telegraph Avenue where spontaneous, transaction-free connections, such as Jesse’s routine chess club at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Dwight Way, are everywhere. Imagine a Telegraph Avenue that helps students get their needs met, prefigures a healthier and more sustainable urban future and stands as a revolutionary beacon of hope for Berkeley.

There is no reason why Telegraph Avenue — the street we use most as students to access destinations and meet our basic needs — should be dominated by cars.

It’s time to take action. Right now, the city of Berkeley is redesigning four streets in Southside to better serve pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders. Telegraph Avenue is one of them.

Unfortunately, none of the designs the city is proposing would fundamentally change the street we have now. None of them alter how Telegraph Avenue’s scarce space is distributed. To fix Telegraph Avenue, we as students need to fight to make the city stop kicking the can down the road and finally, make Telegraph Avenue car-free from Haste Street to Bancroft Way. This is a once-in-a-decade window of opportunity, and we have to take it.

It’s important that students not only make their voices heard but also contribute to the discussion. Let the city know what you think Telegraph should look like instead. Together, we can transform Berkeley’s most inspiring street into a rich space of human expression, connection and vitality.

Sam Greenberg is an undergraduate student and co-founder of Telegraph for People.