Oakland is continuing to close off 74 miles of roads through their Slow Streets Initiative. The closures are supposed to give Oaklanders more safe, outdoor space while we shelter in place. But some residents in East Oakland aren’t open to the idea.
During a press conference on Fruitvale Ave. Mayor Libby Schaaf excitedly explains the Oakland Slow Streets Program. She says the purpose is to encourage drivers to slow down and provide more, safe outdoor options for practicing social distancing.
“We are here this morning to bring a little light to what is a troubling time for so many Oaklanders,” she says
I’m having cabin fever myself these pandemic days. Popular outdoor spaces like Lake Merritt and some Oakland parks are too crowded to social distance. So I could use some extra space. Online reviews are mixed. Some Oaklanders like the idea, some don’t. Others wish their blocks to be Slow Streets. But residents in some parts of East Oakland don’t share the mayor’s enthusiasm.
East 16th Street
“They came over my house and told me what the hell I'm doing,” says City Councilman Noel Gallo. He tells me that his neighbors were not pleased when they saw the folding barricades and “not a thru street” signs on their blocks.
Gallo continues, “I said I'm not putting up those signs. And so the next day I went by there and the signs were all gone.”
There, meaning East 16th street, in the Fruitvale neighborhood. Near The spot where the mayor announced the program. He says that street is on its third set of signs because people keep taking them down. Gallo lives one block over. And says, like his neighbors, he didn’t find out about the street closures until the day of the press conference. a rep from the mayor’s office disputes that city council members were not forewarned.
But Gallo says if he knew beforehand he would not have picked that street to close down— for safety reasons.
“What was happening a lot on the first day, you know, you would come up Fruitvale,” says Gallo.
Fruitvale avenue is a very busy street.
He continues, “ Then you got to make a right on East 16th like you done forever. But now to make that right turn...”
He says you could come close to hitting a other car going in the opposite direction. That’s because only one side of the street is open for drivers to enter and exit East 16th. Drivers at stop signs heading in opposite directions also have to figure out how to cross intersections without colliding.
I know this because I drove down thereand had to maneuver around a pickup up truck that was going West while I headed East.
While carefully cruising down the street, I notice people aren’t taking advantage of the open streets. They’re sticking to the sidewalk.
Gallo recently said that he’s going to take legal action to have the signs removed. So is that still a possibility?
“The neighborhood's taking care of it,” he says. “They're removing the signs.”
I cruise over to Deep East Oakland, near Eastmont Mall. The situation is similar. No one is in the streets.
Champ Stevenson is founder of the oakland scraper bike team. he lives around here on a slow street, but says safety remains an issue
“Cars drive past my house and they're going top speed, you know, around the barricades,” he says. “So folks in my neighborhood don't feel comfortable playing in the streets.”
Reckless driving has increased in the area since the shelter in place order. That’s what Loren Taylor tells me. he’s the City Councilman for Champ’s district. HE says there’s been a number of accidents, some fatal in the area. Sideshows haven’t stopped in East Oakland either.
Taylor explains, “Unfortunately, as folks see that there are less people on the street, then they feel as though they have more ability to drive the way that they want to.”
While driving in Councilman Taylor’s area I see a police officer putting up a barricade that has been knocked over. But Taylor says some do like the idea of the program and reducing traffic.
"I've gotten a number of emails from folks who want it on their street. They're like, 'I need it on my streets to slow drivers down.'"
Champ Stevenson initially liked the idea. but says the city should’ve spoken to the community first. and that’s been A major issue for some in East Oakland. Champ says his block received no notice.
“It was just one day folks woke up and noticed that there was these barricades in the middle of the street,” he says.
Councilman Taylor agrees.
“I think the biggest thing that I've heard from the residents who live on those streets is the lack of communication around it,” he says. “I think that's the problem with a lot of these programs. There's an assumption that if we talk to folks, say in North Oakland or West Oakland, we feel like it's going to be okay when we drop it in the East Oakland."
Warren Logan is the city’s Policy Director of Mobility and Inter-Agency Relations. He’s one of the city officials leading this program. I ask him if the city notified the community before the program’s launch.
He answers, “Yes. So there's Next Door, but if you didn't have a computer, then there's flyers that we posted up and down the streets.”
Logan also says city council members were notified through their daily briefing packet, but the news may have gotten buried. Still, the residents’ response prompted a meeting with community leaders in East Oakland.
“But going back in time, could we have done our communication better? Certainly, “ says Logan. “There's always room for improvement”
Giving Residents Some Direction
But a question that keeps popping up is why were those roads chosen for this program?
I ask Warren Logan, to see if he can make it make sense. He says Slow Streets are from Oakland’s 2019 Bike Plan to make the city safer for bicyclists. And they applied feedback from community members (including Champ Stevenson’s Scraper Bike Team), for the bike plan to slow streets.
Logan says, “Folks have communicated to us that there was unsafe driving behavior in their neighborhood and wanted to find innovative ways to encourage people to use the main street to travel across the city and not through their neighborhood.”
He says the slow streets initiative is flexible and can change based on community input.
“It's not like, like we're jackhammering in the ground and putting up all these fences, “ he says.
Logan emphasizes to me this program is about safety. But what about the safety concerns for drivers and pedestrians when the barrier is at the intersection of a busy street and a residential street?
He responds, “If you're traveling with the right speed limit, all of this will be just fine.
Logan also says the city is working with mapping companies to mark streets on Google Maps and other navigation apps.
“Hopefully people will get used to it and say, ‘Oh, I know there's that turn there. Let me slow down. Or does it go a different way?’”
And, this won’t last forever.
"This is a pilot," says Logan. "It is temporary, but the goal is that it'll run through however long the shelter- in-place."
Another Route To A Solution
Back in the Fruitvale neighborhood, Councilman Gallo wishes the city would fix other problems first.
“If the city wants to be serious about being safe, then hell, at least go fix the potholes, fix the street.” he says. “Repaint the crossing area, put a crossing light up. This is something we've been demanding for a long time.”
Gallo says he will reach out to the mayor’s office to figure out a solution for the East16th Street barricades.
To give the City of Oakland feedback on the Slow Streets initiative and take their surveys, visit here. And call 311 to report Slow Streets maintenance.