The Problem with the Oakland Street Closures

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A while back. I wrote about the importance of streets and sidewalks during the pandemic, and how I thought the Oakland Slow Streets project was a great model for cities to follow. As you’ve probably heard, in Oakland, California the city has installed small barriers on over 74 miles of mostly residential streets, creating a network of local traffic streets all throughout the city.

Not long afterward, though, I had a conversation on Twitter with Tom Holub, an Oakland bicycle planning researcher that made me think more about the project. Holub is a fellow bicycle planning wonk that I know from a visit he made to Minneapolis a few years ago. I called him up last week and we chatted about why bike and walk advocates should be more cautious about following Oakland’s lead.

During our chat, Holub mentioned multiple times the recent white paper released by the Untokening project on how to think about planning and engagement during the pandemic. It’s a great take on pandemic planning, and please give it a read!

As Minneapolis unveils its own “stay healthy streets” network, these are questions worth thinking about. Let me know what you’re seeing and experiencing in different parts of the city.

Meanwhile, here’s my edited interview with Tom Holub:

[Interview by phone.]

Q. Tell me about your background. Where are you coming from when you think about bicycling in Oakland?

I live in Oakland. I ride my bike here, and have been car-free in the Bay Area for 30 years. I’ve been on the edges of bike advocacy for all of that time, but I have never been too directly involved. I’m more of an encourager than an advocate. I organize rides for people, and I have a website. So that’s what I’ve been doing for many years.

I went back to school in the Urban Studies program at Berkeley to delve more deeply into what’s going on with cycling and cycling advocacy in the US. As part of my fieldwork for program, I visited a number of US cities including Minneapolis. Originally, I was thinking about the problem of this connection between cycling infrastructure and gentrification which gets a lot of discussion. And I started out trying to think about that as cause and effect: Is cycling causing gentrification, or is it the other way around?

Part of what I concluded — and seeing some of case studies that I ran into out there, particularly the North Minneapolis greenway — is to wonder why we have come to associate cycling infrastructure with gentrification. It feels like the two aren’t directly connected, but the narrative shows up in lots of places. That wound up being the focus of my thesis, and it continues to inform the work I’m doing.

The short answer is that it’s about who gets to make decisions about what happens in the city, what vision is being implemented, and who’s included in that. It’s not specifically the bike or the bike lane. In fact, people in disadvantaged communities bike more than affluent white dudes, which is the image we have of urban cyclists. But when you look at stats nationwide, low income Latinos are more likely to ride bikes than high income whites. So why is it we visualize the high income white as the target for the bicycling programs we have in the city?

 

Q. So everyone has seen the photo of the street in Oakland with the barrier on it, with the cone, and the people riding bikes in the middle of the street. But what’s it actually like on the ground in Oakland right now?

So, its very different in different parts of the city. I live relatively near 42nd street where that photo was taken, in the Temescal neighborhood, which has become pretty significantly gentrified over the last 20 years. And it’s the highest cycling neighborhood in Oakland, so I think it’s been very well received here. Everybody is excited about it, and they view it as a victory in that neighborhood for what kind of change they would like to see in the city.

I have to come at that from a position of basically agreeing, but needing to be a little critical of it. It is a vision that’s ground in a particular set of values around how we should use urban space, and who should get to make choices about that. And there’s a lot people in that neighborhood who adhere to a particular “new urbanist” idea about the way the city should be.

But in many other areas, there are different sets of values. In this time of COVID-19, East Oakland is a little like North Minneapolis. It’s not a gentrified neighborhood, but it is low-income, multi-ethnic and struggling in lots of different ways. The Alameda County health department just released a map of where COVID-19 cases are concentrated, and East Oakland is one the heaviest places for a lot of reasons. It’s where people have the least access to health care, have more underlying conditions, and where a whole bunch of essential workers are coming from. They are the people driving the buses and running the Postmates food delivery. They’re people who are having to be out here and having to be at risk and getting sick and dying. They are facing real life threats, are trying to keep a roof over their heads, and are at real risk of housing insecurity– much more so than the people in more affluent areas of the city.

East Oakland Street

Tom Holub recently led a bike tour of East Oakland.

 

So where the slow streets program winds up coming into this: I recently rode all the streets in Oakland that are part of the program, and I didn’t see anyone out there jogging. “I need a place to jog” is not high on the priority list of people in East Oakland. They are thinking, I need to not die. Or I need to make rent. I need to keep my family safe.

So the criticism that I have — and it really connects with this white paper that the Untokening Project put out on mobility justice in the time of COVID-19 — is that the way that the program rolled out with the in-person press conference — the only one that Oakland has given at that time — is that it’s strange. This program is something a lot of people already wanted to do. They already wanted to install these neighborhood bike routes. It’s in the Oakland bike plan that we would like to install traffic diverters, speed bumps, and other kinds of calming measures.

I don’t disagree. In a lot of these cases, these are appropriate measures in some of the streets. But to come in and say, we’re going to do this across the whole city and without any community input and we’re going to claim its because of COVID-19? This does not really address anything about the problems that are caused by COVID-19.

 

Q. This reminds me of bike boulevard engagement, which sometimes worked well in the Twin Cities and sometimes did not go well at all. Does engagement still matter in the present moment? If so, how do we do it?

There’s couple of answers to that. First, we’re in this particular moment of societal stress, and I think it is risky. The risk is that what tends to happen in our society when any change happens in the city, is that it benefits people with the most power. That’s the default thing that happens. People with the most money or voice get to provide the most input and implement their vision for the city. If you’re not paying attention to that, you’re going to reinforce the existing inequities.

So if you care about the existing inequities — and most streets advocates like me hold values around equity and justice and would like the city to be a more just place — you have to be wiling to engage in deeper ways in communities that aren’t necessarily bought in your vision. Often these are already particularly disadvantaged communities.

My concern with Oakland and the slow streets program is that right now we can’t have a real engagement process. Its not possible to have the sort of public meetings and discussions that lead to a good shared outcome. So you really should be careful with anything you’re implementing right now that isn’t directly related and is not a direct response to concerns out there with COVID-19.

For example, our Bay Area bus system has made the buses free and is doing rear door boarding for all the buses, to reduce exposure particularly for drivers and operators of the buses. That’s a real response. If you have something that’s directly responding to stuff like that, then yeah that’s an emergency situation. But if you’re using the emergency situation to implement something that you wanted to implement anyway without public input, that’s problematic.

East Oakland Street 2

East Oakland safe street.

Q: So what do we do now?

Specifically in response to COVID-19, I would be reading the Untokening paper on mobility justice in the era of COVID-19. There is a lot of stuff there that is really important.

Personally, I think we need to make sure the work we’re doing is really addressing the problems of the most vulnerable. The example I gave of making the bus system safer is good example. But there’s a controversy right now in the Bay Area about masks on BART, our subway system. They just announced they’re going to start ticketing people, to enforce masks on public transit. And people have pushed back, saying are you going to be providing masks?

Look, if we actually want to address the problem, give people masks. Buy a bunch of masks, get them for a buck, and then give them away. Are we really trying to make things better, or are we trying to use enforcement mechanisms as social control?

So, I think we need to keep checking in with ourselves and asking: Is this thing we’re doing really addressing life safety issues and community safety issues?

We’re in a place where we need to be foregrounding community safety issues and life safety issues. That’s where we are and that’s what I think we should be doing.

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7 Responses to The Problem with the Oakland Street Closures

  1. The Overhead Wire April 30, 2020 at 4:21 pm #

    If you want to listen to the city’s side of things feel free to check out this podcast episode I did with Warren Logan. https://usa.streetsblog.org/2020/04/23/talking-headways-podcast-how-oakland-got-it-so-right/

    PS: I didn’t write the title to this post, its much more nuanced in discussion.

  2. Alex May 1, 2020 at 12:55 pm #

    If I’m understanding the critique, it is less about what Oakland did (something that wealthy white residents wanted) than what Oakland didn’t do (not clear on what this is since the specific complaints given here aren’t Oakland’s responsibility I don’t think). Still, I wonder why there needs to be public process about restricting through traffic from local streets. Why should residents of a particular block get to decide whether cars are allowed to travel at high speeds through their block? It sounds like St Paul decided to fill potholes rather than close streets to through traffic or reprogram beg buttons to recall — should they have a public meeting about every block they’re filling potholes on?

    • Dan Choma May 2, 2020 at 10:25 am #

      I’m glad you bring up pot holes! People have a looooot of thoughts about pot holes! (No joke, it has come up in literally every single community meeting in the past 10 years)

      For Saint Paul, the Department of Public works (the pot hole people) is particularly lacking in transparency. Their website just has a phone number and then you get caught in a nightmarish Kafka phone system.

      https://www.stpaul.gov/departments/public-works/street-maintenance

      As a contrast, other city divisions have online reporting tools, better staffed departments for reporting, etc. Public works is essentially a black box, so much so that the previous administration hired a bunch of consultants to figure out how to fix it. It was a part of Mayor Coleman’s 2016 budget address. ( https://www.stpaul.gov/news/mayor-colemans-2016-budget-address )

      My personal opinion is that there are a ton of different things that the city could be doing in order to make Public works more transparent. Pot holes and Plowing are serious issues in my neighborhood (which is far from affluent). The general word on the street is “the city doesn’t listen to us about potholes and plowing!” I do think that a public meeting may be a nightmare for the city, but everybody wants one. There is a very distinct need for better community engagement, re: public works.

      Honestly, if a savvy representative from Frogtown were to come up with a cheap plan to help engage the community about public works issues like plowing similar to this dope thing they did in Cincinnatti (and only cost like $100K! That’s 1/7 of the price of Shot Spotter! What a deal!) I think the community at large would benefit and one of the primary community complaints could be alleviated with effective, fair, transparent, community input.

      https://insights.cincinnati-oh.gov/stories/s/Snow-Plow-Tracker/usdr-2hia/

    • Mike Sonn
      Mike Sonn May 3, 2020 at 2:29 pm #

      I think it is a lot about what people think Public Works do vs what they actually do. Many believe Public Works is there only to maintain the status quo: pave pot holes, plow snow, repaint lines, widen roads when car traffic is slow, and maybe fix a broken water pipe here and there. Which is why people scream and yell so loud when Public Works spends money on something other than immediate car-related fixes/solutions. “What? Bikes?! That’s not why I pay taxes to the city!”

      This then slides into engagement and process. What I’ve found in St Paul, and other major cities I’ve advocated in, is that process is two fold:
      – a pat on the head from the agency. Meaning, they’re just doing it to check a box, not actually get meaningful feedback.
      – delay, defer, deny from citizens. Here I mean that those engaged mostly want to maintain the status quo and will use endless process to the movement towards change to a halt thence leaving what is there in place.

      To Dan’s point below, I think a lot of this can be addressed in Public Works (or other agencies) actually hiring communications specialists, instead of trotting out engineers for public meetings. What does Public Works do? What realms are they in charge of and what aspects of those realms? Public Works is completely within their mandate to reconfigure road space usage, especially when it benefits the safety of those using the street, the health of those who live along the street, and the fiscal health of the city by lowering future maintenance costs. However, if all you see Public Work’s mandate as being fill potholes and plow snow then of course all this other action seems unnecessary, wasteful, and inconvenient.

  3. Ian R Buck May 5, 2020 at 3:55 pm #

    His point about making sure that our crisis responses are actually going to solve the problems of the crisis also ties into a concern I have: we don’t want bike advocates to be seen as constantly screaming into the void. If we pursue every bike project we can imagine, it hurts our credibility when we’re fighting for the ones that are just barely politically feasible.
    So when Minneapolis started closing parkways for pedestrian use, we started brainstorming ideas for streets that could use that treatment in St Paul. Our community had lots and lots of ideas, but Andy and I pared that list down significantly before sending a letter to the city.

    • Mike Sonn
      Mike Sonn May 6, 2020 at 9:07 am #

      Counter-point: why are we doing the negotiating before even getting to the table. Larger picture take on this is that I’m sick of always coming to the table with half the demands we’d like to see, this applies to nearly every liberal/progressive program. I’m tired of doing the work of the electeds, they are the ones who are suppose to weigh the concerns of other concerned parties. And why are advocates asked to do the political calculations on that?

      I understand focusing advocate energy but I don’t agree with asking for a pitence because we are worried about some fabled feasibility. We become our own worse enemy. NIMBYs don’t even need to show up because we’ve done their work for them.

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