Oakland ‘slow streets’ road closure program comes to an end

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It was an idea hatched in the early days of stay-at-home orders triggered by the pandemic: Close off a few blocks in certain residential neighborhoods so cooped-up residents could step outside to get some fresh air and walk or bike around without having to dart out of the path of speeding cars.

Several Bay Area cities embraced the so-called “Slow Streets” concept, just as they did the growing trend of closing off downtown blocks so restaurants could set up tables on sidewalks, parking lots and curbside parklets to serve diners who weren’t allowed inside.

Today, cities throughout the region are rethinking how much of their streets to give back to cars. Oakland, which set aside 21 miles for Safe Streets, is pulling back many of its barriers. So is Berkeley. Alameda is going the other direction, keeping its streets slow for another year. And San Francisco has chosen a middle path: four streets will be slow.

“What we see now is time for an evolution of ‘Slow Streets,’ ” Oakland Department of Transportation Director Ryan Russo said.

“In the initial phases of COVID, the community needs were that people were cooped up, kids weren’t in school, people needed to move around their neighborhood, there was no after-school soccer or gymnastics,” Russo said.

“There was very little of anything, so we put up these barricades, and people really came out and used the streets for walking and scooting,” he added. “But it’s not really the need we’re in right now. We’re in a different phase. Kids are going to Little League. We’re seeing a decline in that kind of use.”

At least early on, the program received plenty of positive support, and it did allow many people to use streets in their neighborhoods for recreation, according to feedback the transportation department got in surveys it conducted.

But the level of support varied across demographics and neighborhoods.

“The thing about Slow Streets is they worked differently throughout the city. Some areas worked very well, others you might not have even noticed a difference,” said Dave Campbell, the advocacy director of Bike East Bay.

Though effective at blocking or at least slowing traffic, the program didn’t address some of the most pressing safety concerns people had, he said.

For essential workers who were still commuting to work, as well as many residents in East Oakland neighborhoods, traffic safety was a bigger concern than making street space available for physical activity.

In 2020, Oakland police reported a surge in traffic-related deaths — 33 people were killed, up from 27 the previous year. Speeding, failure to yield and running red lights were among the reckless driving incidents blamed for the spike, according to city documents.

It wasn’t a new trend either. A 2018 report found that the city sees about two “severe or fatal” traffic collisions each week, disproportionately involving seniors and people of color who live near the more dangerous streets. The majority of accidents are concentrated in 6% of the 800 miles or so of streets the city maintains.

Cognizant of such statistics, the city’s transportation department expanded the Slow Streets program in May 2020 to include 15 “essential places.” There, it added extra barriers to help residents safely get to grocery stores, COVID-19 test sites and other destinations.

In those locations, roadway fixtures such as permanent concrete “safety islands” or more permanent barriers will be built to protect pedestrians.

Meanwhile, the city will also explore installing traffic-calming measures in the Slow Street spots that were based off planned bike routes, Russo said.

In addition, the department will try to make it easier for neighborhoods to do “pop-up” Slow Streets if they want to reclaim blocks for non-car activities. Currently, block party permits that shut down streets require efforts such as petitioning neighbors to sign off on it.

Russo said Slow Streets and programs like it seem to have changed many people’s thinking about how they can repurpose their streets either temporarily or for good. Businesses that once may have been leery of bike lane additions or road lane reductions have seen how changes in street use can be beneficial.

“It’s an awakening about what our right of way can be. We’re really stewards of the public right of way, which is such an important asset for the community,” Russo said. “There is still so much potential of what these spaces can do.”

The Department of Transportation will present an update on its Slow Streets changes to the Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission’s virtual meeting on Jan. 20 at 6 p.m. The meeting is open to the public and at https://www.oaklandca.gov/meetings/bicyclist-and-pedestrian-advisory-commission-bpac-meeting-jan-2022.

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