A few weeks ago, we were on 20th Street in Downtown Oakland during the morning rush hour. We noticed the sidewalks were absolutely packed with people walking from BART and buses, yet the street itself had hardly any automobile traffic. So, we decided to do a quick count to test how the street was being used during one of the busiest times of the day. The results presented a staggering contrast between how the street was designed versus who was actually using the street.
On Tuesday, November 18th, over a span of 15 minutes (between 8:50 and 9:05), we counted 367 pedestrians, 12 bicyclists, 126 vehicles, and 6 buses on 20th Street between Franklin and Broadway. Adjusting for vehicle and bus occupancy, this roughly translates to 165 people in cars and 150 people in buses. Therefore, approximately 53 percent of people on 20th Street were walking, 24 percent driving, 22 percent riding the bus, and a little under 2 percent biking.
Given this mode split, one would expect 20th Street to dedicate a significant amount of street space for walking. Instead, 75 percent of street space is dedicated to moving cars: approximately 65 feet of the total 85 foot right of way is roadway, while each sidewalk is 8-10 feet wide. The street features four lanes of traffic and a combination of turn lanes, parking, and loading zones for the remaining space.
At first glance, this allocation of street space might seem okay – cars take up more space than pedestrians, and the popular NL Transbay Service shares the roadway. But in reality, traffic volumes do not necessitate four lanes, especially lanes that are 12 feet or wider that encourage speeding. Meanwhile, sidewalk width is woefully inadequate when considering that the pedestrian through zone is actually only 5-7 feet. Coupled with frequent driveways, cracked sidewalks, few street trees, and inactive storefronts, 20th Street is not a great place to be a pedestrian.
20th Street is also not a great place to bicycle. It features no bike lanes and a dangerous, unnecessary through-double-right turn at Franklin, limiting its appeal to only the most dedicated, confident cyclists. The lack of bike lanes represents a key gap in the city’s network, inhibiting the connection between Grand Ave and BART along with access to Lake Merritt and a major employment hub.
The most important question, however, is what 20th Street will become. As San Francisco experiences an office and residential real estate boom, the land uses on 20th Street remain surprisingly unchanged from their 1980s suburban form. Surface parking lots, drive-thru banks, vacant storefronts, and 2-3 story buildings line the street, save for a few large office buildings that drive most of the pedestrian traffic. But this is changing: a number of significant developments are on the horizon as demand spills over into Oakland, potentially bringing new high rises and renovations of presently abandoned spaces like the old Sears building. With this development will come more jobs and residents to the area.
20th Street is therefore at a critical inflection point in its evolving identity: will it grow into its presently overbuilt automobile infrastructure and become a car-oriented center much like Pleasanton, Walnut Creek, and other suburban East Bay employment hubs? Or will it orient itself toward becoming a people-oriented urban hub where walking, biking, and BART/AC Transit are celebrated?
This discussion of 20th Street is a microcosm for existential issues facing Downtown Oakland and the city as a whole. Oakland’s livability remains scarred from decades of car-first planning: while pockets of street life exist in neighborhoods like Temescal, Piedmont Avenue, Rockridge, Uptown, Fruitvale, Chinatown, and Jack London Square, they remain fragmented by car-oriented streets and land uses that inhibit walking, biking, and transit use. The City is working hard to address these issues through proactive planning: in Downtown, a circulation study and specific plan are currently underway to envision future transportation networks and land uses.
What might a better 20th Street look like? First, it would have more sidewalk space, both for people walking and for street trees, wayfinding, art, café seating, and other features that activate a street. Crosswalks would be more visible and cross shorter distances. Second, it would feature bike lanes (preferably protected) to close the key network gap and encourage more people to bicycle. Third, it would include better bus stops that make riding the bus a convenient and enjoyable experience. Fourth, it would facilitate automobile traffic at appropriate speeds as well as loading activities. A conceptual diagram of such a street is shown below; a more detailed analysis is necessary to assess the tradeoffs between reallocating space to various modes.
The identity crisis of 20th Street has produced two environments: the built environment, engineered to serve cars, and the human environment, where pedestrians have adapted to their surroundings. To resolve the conflict between the two, Oakland needs to closely examine how the street functions today and how it could function better tomorrow. A better 20th Street could help catalyze the transformation of the Uptown/Lake Merritt District and ensure that new growth creates a vibrant public realm.