Street repavings in Oakland don’t come along often. The City is presently facing an 85 year repaving cycle, meaning that streets that are repaved now may be with us until 2100 (the industry standard is 15-25 years). When a street is repaved, however, it presents a rare opportunity to examine how well it functions based on key community goals – such as safety, mobility, economic vitality, and quality of life. Combining the repaving and redesign processes is considered a national best practice among cities: it saves time and money and avoids duplicating work down the road.
Unfortunately, Oakland has missed a major opportunity to improve safety and quality of life on one of its most iconic streets, Grand Avenue. Over the past month, the City recently has repaved Grand Avenue between MacArthur Boulevard and Wildwood Avenue through the popular “Grand Lake” commercial district. Yet, thanks to bureaucratic inertia, the City will maintain the status quo car-oriented design without any effort to solicit feedback from the community to create a more people-friendly street.
Grand Avenue is one of Oakland’s widest streets, and most of this space is allocated toward cars. It includes four lanes of traffic and angled parking along its 80 foot right of way. This configuration poses several challenges to efficient and effective multimodal street operations. For starters, the street’s capacity exceeds how many cars actually use it: only about 16,000 cars travel on Grand Avenue each day, an amount typically accommodated in a 4 to 3 lane road diet (nearby Lakeshore Avenue, which carries 24,000 vehicles a day, received a 4 to 3 lane road diet in 2009). The outside traffic lanes don’t offer much capacity anyway: they are often blocked by cars pulling in or out of parking spaces, or waiting for a space to open up (as shown in the above image). The presence of angled parking creates potential for conflicts for cars backing up into the street with limited visibility – a configuration that is particularly dangerous for people biking. Also, pedestrian safety is not optimal due to the long crossing distances, potential for multiple threat crashes, and lack of median refuge islands. Needless to say, the existing conditions leave much to be desired.
Walk Oakland Bike Oakland (WOBO), in coordination with Bike East Bay, lobbied the City to consider a redesign of Grand Avenue that would address many of these safety and operational concerns while creating a more livable street. WOBO’s proposal included several key improvements:
- Back-in angled parking, to improve safety and visibility for all users while preserving existing parking capacity
- A 4 to 3 lane road diet, to calm traffic and improve pedestrian safety (typically reducing crashes by 20-30 percent)
- Buffered bike lanes, to improve bicycle safety and reduce conflicts between roadway users while connecting the missing link between bike lanes on either side of Grand to the north and south
Most importantly, all of the changes to Grand Avenue in WOBO’s proposal would have occurred in the existing right of way with only paint. Such a proposal could have been implemented with this repaving without any other major capital investments.
Sadly, the City moved forward with the repaving of Grand Avenue without seeking community input and evaluating WOBO’s proposal – a story that is all too common. While Oakland tries to sync its street maintenance and complete streets projects and has done so on a number of more straightforward projects, it has recently come up short on several key corridors such as Grand Avenue, Claremont Avenue in North Oakland and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Downtown Oakland. Iris Starr, manager of transportation planning and funding for public works, told the East Bay Express last month: “When the paving program is going full speed, we need to pick what we can do that is not the most complicated. And Grand Avenue is certainly one of the more complicated.” Maintaining the status quo on Grand Avenue and others was simply easier for city staff than mustering the leadership and staff resources to bring about change.
Oakland has a major opportunity to rethink its streets over the next decade. A confluence of factors, including the passing of Measure BB, a new transportation policy director, and dramatic increases in walking and biking create the right climate to deliver complete streets upgrades across the City. However, Oakland will not achieve its full potential if it wavers on projects that are “more complicated” and spends money twice. While Grand Avenue may eventually receive much-needed safety improvements, they will come years later at greater expense – a poor precedent for a City with a backlog of multimodal safety needs.