Alameda Peeps Fight for Traffic Safety
The influential grassroots group is leading an effort to make the Island’s streets safer.
Heather Little said the turning point for her was when 77-year-old Philip Lee was killed on Mother’s Day when struck by a car on Shoreline Drive.
Photo by Chris Duffey
It’s no secret that Alameda has a serious traffic safety problem—and that it’s getting worse. According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, a statewide information clearinghouse, Alameda ranked eighth worst, both in terms of accidents involving vehicles and pedestrians and those involving autos and bicyclists, among 103 cities of similar size statewide in 2013, the last year in which full data is available. In 2012, Alameda ranked 18th and 12th worst in those categories, respectively.
And an increasing number of activists say Alameda’s political leaders and its citizenry need to come together to make the Island’s streets safer. In fact, the city’s largest grassroots group—Alameda Peeps—is now making traffic safety its No. 1 priority.
In recent weeks, activists with Alameda Peeps—which as of late May, counted more than 5,100 members on the Island—have set up informational pickets on street corners to bring attention to traffic safety and have attended city council meetings to implore councilmembers to address the issue. “If you have ever asked cyclists if they’ve ever been scared to ride these streets, 100 percent would say, ‘Yes’, ” said Alameda Peeps member Heather Little at a recent council meeting.
In a follow-up interview, Little said the turning point for her was when 77-year-old Philip Lee was killed on Mother’s Day when struck by a car on Shoreline Drive. “For me,” she said, “that was the last straw.”
Little and other activists believe Alameda’s safety woes are related to the Island’s changing demographics and lifestyles. As more young families have moved to Alameda in the past half-decade in search of better schools and lower crime rates, the number of pedestrians and bicyclists on city streets has swelled. But many motorists have failed to adjust and seem stuck in the 20th century when cars reigned supreme.
Some drivers, by contrast, argue that jaywalking pedestrians and helmetless bicyclists who roll through stop signs are at fault. And to be sure, there are plenty of cyclists and pedestrians who could be more safety-conscious, but accident statistics don’t back up motorists’ assertions about who is most often to blame. According to a 2014 Alameda Police Department report, for example, of the 41 accidents involving vehicles and pedestrians in 2013, drivers were at fault in 36 of them—or 88 percent. And in 26 of those crashes (63 percent), motorists struck a pedestrian while he or she was in a crosswalk.
Little’s husband, Mark Little, is still dealing with multiple injuries he suffered when a motorist ran him off the road in April while he was riding his bike. He suffered a double fracture in his clavicle. “It was pretty scary,” Heather Little said.
Indeed, road rage is a serious issue on the Island. Several school-age children recently came to City Hall to tell councilmembers about their harrowing experiences with angry motorists. Alameda Peeps leader John-Michael Kyono is hoping that such testimony will spur action. “When kids show up at a city council meeting and tell you that ‘drivers have shouted f-bombs at me,’ that’s going to have an effect,” he said in an interview.
According to Kyono, Alameda Peeps is seeking to work more closely with the city, Alameda police, the fire department, the school district, and the grassroots group Bike Walk Alameda to hammer out plans to make the Island safer. One obvious solution is more prominent signage for motorists to be on the lookout for pedestrians and cyclists. Members of the group also want Alameda police to step up its enforcement of the city’s traffic laws.
Other cities, like Oakland, have had success by creating more bike lanes and purposely narrowing streets—a process known as “road diets”—in order to slow down motorists and improve safety. In fact, Oakland has embarked on an ambitious road diet plan in an effort to become one of the most bike- and pedestrian-friendly cities in the nation, building bike lanes on numerous streets and narrowing some main thoroughfares—like a stretch of Telegraph Avenue in Uptown—from four lanes to two. The plan is designed reduce vehicle speeds and coerce people to get out of their cars and either walk or hop on a bike.
“Every city that’s done this has seen an incredible increase in people walking and biking,” said John Knox White, an avid cyclist and Alameda Planning Board member who is working with Alameda Peeps on its safety effort. Right now, in Alameda, “when we’re out on our city streets, we don’t feel safe,” Knox White added.
So is anything going to happen? Councilmember Jim Oddie warned in an interview that adding more bike lanes is both expensive and controversial. Many motorists don’t like them and are afraid they’ll lose parking spaces, so they fight hard to block them. But Oddie thinks Alameda Peeps could change hearts and minds because of the group’s size and influence.
Kyono is upbeat about the impact the group will have. “When we get motivated,” he said, “things tend to move rapidly.”