March 4, 1994

Oakland City Council

505 14th Street

Oakland, CA 94612

Re: Promoting Automobile Traffic at the Expense of Pedestrians


Is it the policy of the City of Oakland to favor cars over pedestrians? Apparently, it is. Everywhere I look, roads are being widened and made one-way, speeds are increasing, speed limits are not being enforced, and traffic signals are being set to give vehicles a larger share of the cycle.

Take, for example, the crosswalk that allows Kaiser patients and staff to cross Howe Street in the middle of the block. That crosswalk is necessary, of course, due to the huge number of people who need to cross there throughout the day. If it weren't there, everyone would jaywalk, because it would be enormously inconvenient to walk to the end of the block, wait for the light, and walk back on the other side of the street, every time someone wanted to cross. The crosswalk allowed pedestrians to cross whenever they wanted to.

Apparently because of some accidents at that location, the City, without even consulting Kaiser, put a signal at the crosswalk. Now, whenever someone wants to cross, they have to push a button, asking "permission" to interrupt the flow of vehicles (America's sacred cow), and wait a significant amount of time, before they are allowed to proceed. How demeaning! You really make it plain that pedestrians are second-class citizens in Oakland. You also give them again the temptation to cross illegally, and endanger themselves, in order to avoid having their valuable time "stolen" by you and your traffic engineer.

I think that pedestrian lights should be outlawed. They are used primarily to reduce the amount of time that pedestrians are allowed to cross their streets. Pedestrians should be allowed to proceed whenever the main light turns green. If a pedestrian light cannot be avoided (e.g. if pedestrians are rare at a given crossing), at the very least, the button should immediately cause the change cycle to begin (the light for cross traffic should immediately turn yellow). There is no reason why pedestrians should have to wait for left-turning vehicles, for example, before they are allowed to cross a street (e.g. at Broadway and Macarthur). (If there are no left-turning vehicles, they still have to wait!)

The only sensible solution on Howe Street is to close the street to vehicle traffic, except for ambulances, and create a pedestrian zone from the south end of Howe to the entrance to the parking garage. The entrance to the emergency room probably should be on Broadway, where vehicle access is easier. Instead of moving somewhere else, Kaiser should stay in its current, central, very transit-accessible location, and expand by tearing down its huge parking garage and replacing it with additional medical facilities. BART and eight bus lines give a degree of accessibility to Kaiser/Oakland that would be very difficult to duplicate. With transit accessibility like that, it is hard to imagine how anyone in the Bay Area could say that they need to drive there.

I am very much interested in hearing your traffic engineering philosophy. Measures that discriminate against pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users (e.g. synchronizing traffic signals, such as on San Pablo Avenue) and promote high-volume, high-speed auto travel create a very unpleasant environment and increase interpersonal alienation. For that reason, this probably contributes greatly to your high crime rate and the flight of middle- and upper-class residents to other cities.

Oakland is potentially a beautiful city, and most of it is easily accessed by walking, bicycling, and transit. But you are allowing (as are, unfortunately, too many cities these days) motor vehicle traffic increasingly to dominate it and turn it into something about as attractive as a parking lot.

Motor vehicles, in these numbers, won't be with us much longer. In about 20-30 years, as the oil begins to run out and be reserved for more important uses, we will need to begin ripping out the unnecessary roads, freeways, and parking lots that we are building today. Why not take a look down that road, and decide if we really want to go there? Do you have a department that is planning how to handle the end of the oil? If not, why not?


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.