The Park Street Triangle in Oakland’s Jingletown neighborhood has always been a bit of a mess: the one-way loop that connects Alameda’s Park Street and Oakland’s 23rd and 29th Avenues is difficult for everyone to navigate, whether driving, walking, or biking. Caltrans’ reconstruction of the 23rd and 29th Avenue bridges and interchanges presented an opportunity to untangle the Triangle and create more efficient and accessible circulation for all users – and in the process showcase Caltrans’ new complete streets focus. Unfortunately, like other troubled Caltrans projects, the agency’s redesign of the area may have actually made things worse.
Rather than fixing the Park Street Triangle, Caltrans inundated the Jingletown area with beg buttons and slip lanes to maximize vehicle flow and push pedestrians out of the way. At the intersection of 23rd Avenue, Kennedy Street, and Ford Street, Caltrans reconstructed three slip lanes, added two double right turns, and installed pedestrian beg buttons at all crosswalks. Crossing the intersection can now entail several minutes of waiting for walk signals at four separate, uncoordinated crossings. It’s equivalent to hitting four red lights in a row while driving, but each red light turns green only if you remember to press each button.
Beyond the Kafkaesque experience of crossing the intersection, the new design is confusing for drivers and bicyclists. The addition of new lanes, island, and slip lanes makes the Park Street Triangle even more complicated to navigate, especially for bicyclists who lack a continuous and intuitive route between 29th Avenue and Park Street. Some features truly make no sense: heading northbound on Kennedy Street, drivers are oddly presented with a right turn slip lane adjacent to a right turn lane; while the right turn lane is signalized, the slip lane crosswalk is controlled by an ambiguous flashing yellow light. Traffic engineering is dependent on keeping things simple: when drivers get confused, a single error can cause a crash.
While it may be tempting to dismiss the importance of the Park Street Triangle for pedestrians and bicyclists given its current low levels of activity, the intersection’s design further obstructs walking and biking within a growing neighborhood. Jingletown already has over 2,000 residents; in the future, Oakland’s Central Estuary Plan and the redevelopment of Alameda’s northern waterfront will bring thousands more residents within walking and biking distance of the intersection. Designing the Park Street Triangle for easy driving means that existing and future residents will likely continue driving even for short neighborhood trips.
Ironically, a 2005 traffic study by the City of Oakland recommended a much more reasonable design to eliminate the Park Street Triangle altogether. The recommended configuration was actually found to improve automobile Level of Service (LOS) and pedestrian and bicycle conditions, a rare win-win outcome for all users. However, Caltrans failed to incorporate this recommendation into its design, instead opting to exacerbate the shortcomings of the status quo. Yet, to be fair, the City was likely complicit in this design being chosen, and has pushed its own superfluous slip lanes and beg buttons elsewhere.
Sadly, Jingletown appears to be stuck with this design for the foreseeable future. Oakland has a huge backlog of street improvements and limited resources; while the City’s new generation of transportation staff hasn’t shied away from post-construction facelifts to fix deficiencies of new designs, it’s hard to see the Park Street Triangle getting redone anytime soon. It’s incumbent on the City and Caltrans to get these projects right the first time and for advocates to watch out for bad designs falling through the cracks. Otherwise, opportunities for incremental safety and circulation improvements go to waste.