On April 13, a Mercedes slammed into a family crossing the street in East Oakland. A 6-year-old and his mother were both killed. Another family member was critically injured. Foothill Boulevard, where it happened, is one of Oakland’s most dangerous streets for pedestrians.
At International Community School, on the afternoon of April 18, classes are canceled. Hundreds of elementary school kids, parents and teachers are marching from the school to the intersection in East Oakland where tragedy struck just days before.
The kids chant “we need a traffic signal” in Spanish. Teachers march with a banner that shows the photo of a grinning child: Angel Garcia-Vasquez.
Angel, his 30-year-old mother, Alma Soraya Vasquez, and his uncle, Jeymi Garcia Esteban, a 20-year-old student at Fremont High School, were all crossing the street from the local laundromat. It was a Saturday evening, before the sun went down. The police report says they were using the marked crosswalk when a car smashed into all three. The son and mother were killed on the spot. The uncle is still hospitalized and in critical condition according to school officials. The driver fled the scene.
Since the crash, locals are demanding more protection from cars.
Scared to cross the street
Eduardo Piña-Gonzalez, a fourth grader at International Community School, drew his own protest sign showing a traffic light with the words, “Justice for Angel.”
Angel was a kindergartener — so, a lot younger than Eduardo. But Eduardo says he used to play with him almost every morning.
“He never got mad at me,” says Eduardo. “He was like my best friend.”
Eduardo says he doesn’t feel safe in his neighborhood anymore.
“Before my mom let me cross — let me play in the street,” says Eduardo. “But now I’m too scared to do it.”
Eduardo says he misses Angel a lot.
Frankey Johnson, a staff member at International Community School, says the school “literally could not find a picture” of Angel without his big smile.
She says it’s a dual-language school, where half of the day is in English and half of the day is in Spanish. Most of the students come from immigrant families. Angel’s family came from Guatemala.
Johnson says the school community has faced eight tragedies since she started working at the site four years ago. Now, Johnson is about to lose her job, thanks to budget cuts. In her mind, it’s all related.
“I feel like Oakland is far more concerned about building luxury apartments than they are about fixing the roads, or dealing with traffic stuff, or dealing with schools, or funding schools or anything that actually matters to people who are middle or low income,” Johnson says.
Oakland’s own studies show that more disadvantaged neighborhoods, like this one, tend to have more pedestrian injuries.
Activism at the laundromat
The marchers get to Foothill Boulevard and 26th Avenue. This is the intersection where the family was hit.
There’s no traffic light, and no stop sign — not here, and not for at least two blocks in either direction, despite this being a busy street with apartments on both sides. On one side of the intersection is a memorial covered in photos, candles, and flowers. On the other side is Family Laundry, the local laundromat.
Laura Guevara, the co-owner, says they have offered the laundromat parking lot for vigils and fundraisers for the family.
“Whether it’s to grieve or to have fun, our space is theirs,” Guevara says.
Guevara says they’re planning an event with a local pastor, where they’ll draw pictures of traffic signs like the ones they want the city to build.
“Children come to our laundromat with their families every day, and they have told us they don’t feel safe,” Guevara says. “They need to be heard.”
By the time of this rally on April 18, transportation officials from the city have already come to look at possible improvements for this intersection.
“They said they need to do studies, but what do they want?” Guevara says. “This is the data points right here. Two people have been lost. Their lives are gone. That’s your data point. Do something.”
Oakland not a “Vision Zero” city
Later, I talked to one of those officials, Ryan Russo, the head of Oakland’s Department of Transportation. He says the city has about 30 traffic deaths per year, including seven to 10 pedestrian deaths.
Russo notes that there are a similar number of traffic deaths in San Francisco — a city with about twice the population.
San Francisco has a “Vision Zero” program — an effort to get that number down to zero by 2024. But although Oakland hired pedestrian advocate Nicole Ferrara two years ago to develop a Vision Zero policy, Oakland still hasn’t publicized a target of zero deaths the way San Francisco has.
Russo says whether or not Oakland calls itself a Vision Zero city, his goals are the same.
“We're already shooting to have zero pedestrian deaths,” Russo says. “Our goal is that no one is severely injured or killed on our streets.”
Russo says that Oakland has not historically dedicated any part of its budget to traffic lights — relying instead on new developments or grants to cover the costs. He notes that since Oakland voters passed an infrastructure bond in 2016, Mayor Libby Schaaf has proposed to devote funding to intersection improvements in the city’s next budget, now under consideration.
Intersections with more accidents get top priority
Two years ago, Oakland came out with a report on its most dangerous streets for pedestrians. Many of them run through poorer neighborhoods. But although parts of Foothill are on the list, those sections don’t quite cover the corner where Angel was killed.
Until last month, Russo says that corner didn’t have a “problematic crash history,” so other intersections nearby had higher priority.
“We actually had improvements on the drawing board about two intersections away to improve crossings,” Russo says. He adds that after last month’s crash, those improvements will be expedited to be delivered later this year.
The principal at Angel’s school, Eleanor Alderman, and Laura Guevara at the laundromat have been collecting signatures for a traffic light at Foothill and 26th.
Russo says his office will do a study on that intersection, and the corners nearby. But the study will take months, and a single traffic light can cost half a million dollars. It’s not a guarantee.
“It's really important that whatever intervention we do is the right intervention based on the conditions of that intersection,” Russo says. “If that you just do something to do something, you could do the wrong thing. And, and while that might feel good, you might not be making it better.”
Quick fixes — but no stoplight or stop sign
Still, there are some changes his office made right away. Just days after the crash, the Department of Transportation sent a group of maintenance workers to make the crossing more visible. I went back to the site to check it out with Guevara.
Guevara says about a week after the crash, city workers arrived outsider her laundromat. They repainted the crosswalk across Foothill and painted new crosswalks across 26th Avenue.
They also painted a bright purple island in the middle of the crosswalk on Foothill, and surrounded it with plastic reflective posts, about thigh-high.
Workers also added yellow signs pointing out the pedestrian crossing. But there is still no stop sign.
“I feel a little bit of satisfaction,” Guevara says, “but there’s more work to be done, and it needs to happen faster than they’re moving.”
Guevara says the colorful new additions just aren’t enough to keep her clients safe when they go to the laundry.
“They want to see a traffic light,” Guevara says. “They want to see more crosswalk signs, pedestrian signs. And that’s on the Department of Transportation. They have to do it.
According to the school principal, the family has raised over a hundred thousand dollars for medical costs, and to bury the dead in Guatemala. Police haven’t found the driver.
Eli Wirtschafter is KALW’s transportation reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org