Oakland resident Shaniesa Williams wrote to Hey Area — KALW’s community-journalism project — to ask why there are so few traffic signals on International Boulevard.
Until recently, you could drive 11 blocks on International Boulevard — from 73rd to 82nd streets — without passing a single traffic light or stop sign. Cars plough through like it’s a highway.
“Crossing international is like playing double dutch,” says Williams. “You're constantly peeking your head out to wait for your turn.”
One afternoon in 2016, Williams’ son Jeremiah Shaw was crossing International on his way home after playing football with his friends. He was 19 years old at the time.
Williams says her son “was walking in the faded crosswalk like he's supposed to,” when he was struck by a speeding car. “He flies up, hits the car, hits the ground.”
Shards of the windshield shattered into Shaw’s back. He survived, but he says he lives with chronic pain.
A dangerous street’s troubling origins
When Williams first moved to Oakland five years ago, she says she noticed the lack of traffic lights, and thought the city wouldn’t do anything “until somebody's kid gets hit.”
After her own son was hit, she says, “they still didn't do nothing about it.”
She says the lack of street lights sends a message to her kids — that the lives of poor people, and people of color, don’t matter.
“It's like, ‘we don't care about your life,’” says Williams. “‘We're not concerned about your future because we're not even worrying about your present.’”
Nicole Ferrara, head of the city of Oakland’s new Vision Zero program, which aims to eliminate traffic deaths in the city, says that pedestrian safety in Oakland has everything to do with race and class.
Ferrara shows a pair of maps from a 2017 safety study by the city. One map shows the streets with the most crashes. The other map shows neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1930’s: the mostly black communities that the federal government said were too risky for banks to offer mortgages. There’s a lot of overlap.
“These historic decisions are still reflected in our street patterns today,” Ferrara says.
They’re reflected in traffic deaths too.
The city of Oakland found that Asian, Black, and Latinx people are killed in crashes at more than twice the rate of white people.
The city of Oakland has known for a long time that International Boulevard is dangerous for pedestrians. A city study in 2002 found that more people were hit there than any other street in Oakland — both in total, and in crashes per mile.
Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley recalls that “particularly in the ‘80s and ’90s,” International, then known as East 14th Street, “was challenging for pedestrians to cross.”
And yet despite this reputation, only a few traffic signals were added in later years. The stretch between 73rd and 82nd didn’t get so much as a stop sign or an illuminated crosswalk.
Adding a signal anywhere can run up more than $465,000 from planning to construction, says Ferrara.
“People ask why can't we install a traffic signal tomorrow? It takes a lot of work and coordination,” says Ferrara.
The city only adds a few traffic signals each year. And International is an especially hard place to do it. It’s a state route, which means Caltrans has to sign off on any changes.
The street also has many offset intersections, places where the cross street zig-zags through. That can add to the complication of designing a signal.
The city has a formula for where to add new traffic lights, but Supervisor Miley says it hasn’t always lined up with where they’re most needed. He says the only way to get around the formula is for a community to complain, “to say, ‘we want something here regardless of your standard, of your formula.’”
Historically, that process has favored wealthier, more organized neighborhoods. But that could be changing.
Last year, the city modified its formula for where to add pedestrian improvements. Now, low-income areas — and neighborhoods with more seniors, disabled people, and people of color — are supposed to get higher priority.
“So the higher the disadvantage, the more likely this community is to get resources,” says Ferrara, “and they don't have to complain to get them.”
A year from now, International will look radically different than it does today. AC Transit is building the East Bay’s first “bus rapid transit” line, a dedicated bus route with light rail-style stations.
In the process, local agencies are re-doing the corridor from Downtown Oakland to San Leandro, transforming a car-friendly speedway into a street that prioritizes transit and pedestrians.
According to AC Transit, the project includes $42 million in pedestrian improvements, such as high-visibility crosswalks, 400 improved curb ramps, and 39 new traffic signals, including 29 on International. Some have already been built, and one is planned for the exact intersection where Williams’ son was hit.
“I've been saying this for about five years, that we need traffic signals,” says Williams. “Somebody must have heard me!”
After years of planning and project delays, the street’s renovation is due to be completed in late 2019.
Ferrara says walking on International Boulevard will become much safer.
In addition to the new physical infrastructure, she says a shift towards transit means more people will walk and fewer people will drive, “which means fewer chances for crashes.”
Supervisor Miley sees another reason the project could protect pedestrians — one that may irk drivers.
The bus project will leave just one lane for private automobiles through much of the street, so that “traffic will be forced to slow down.”
But the city still has a ways to go before it reaches its goal of zero traffic deaths. Ferrara says severe or fatal crashes occur in Oakland “about every other day.”
“About 30 people are killed in crashes in Oakland each year,” says Ferrara. “So we've got our work cut out.”
This question came to KALW through Hey Area, a crowdsourced, collaborative reporting project. Got a question for Hey Area? Ask it below.