Bike-Friendly Changes Afoot for Central Avenue

The anticipated upgrades are all in the name of safety.


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Photo by Chris Duffey

Bike lanes, a new traffic signal, and a central turn lane are in store for Central Avenue, a $9 million undertaking that should make a troubled stretch of the major thoroughfare safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

After two Alameda City Council meetings dominated by passionate comments from the public, the council unanimously approved a design proposal to make safety improvements and infrastructure changes to Central Avenue. Central Avenue is a designated state highway, Highway 61, between Webster and Sherman streets without bikeways other than a path between Pacific and Lincoln avenues.

The proposal, explained Jennifer Ott, chief operating officer for Alameda Point, recommends adding protected bike lanes to roughly 95 percent of the Central Avenue corridor, putting a new signal on Third Street in front of Encinal High School, and reducing Central Avenue’s four traffic lanes to three with the middle lane for left turns.

The affected area is along Central between Pacific Avenue and Main Street and Sherman Street and Encinal Avenue. The 1.7-mile segment passes Paden Elementary School and Encinal High School. Some details, particularly Central Avenue’s intersection with Webster Street, still need to be settled.

According to a staff report based on data from the Federal Highway Administration, several of these changes would reduce left-turn collisions, enhance visibility of pedestrians and cyclists, and improve traffic flow. But the main concern driving the redesign came from pedestrians and cyclists. A report compiled by the Alameda Transportation Commission stated that 89 people have been injured on Central Avenue over the past decade, with pedestrians accounting for 20 percent of injuries and cyclists 25 percent. The citywide percentage of collision injuries for pedestrians and cyclists is about 16 percent.

“The design makes the streets safer for biking and walking,” said Lucy Gigli, president and advocacy director for Bike Walk Alameda. Gigli noted that at the intersection of Sixth Street and Central Avenue, residents have installed red flags that pedestrians can wave at cars as they cross the street to make themselves more visible.

Safety has been the paramount concern among pedestrians and cyclists, who packed both City Council meetings to support the redesign. According to the city staff, roughly 5,000 students attend schools in the West End area and many bike to school. Malia Vella, an Alameda attorney who attended the meetings, said that she hoped this plan would make children feel more at ease biking on Central Avenue.

“A lot of people bike around as their primary mode of transportation, especially kids getting to and from school,” Vella said, noting that the reconfiguration will force cars to slow down on the road. “I’m really happy this is finally coming through.”

Not all cyclists are content with the plan. Scott Mace, an Alameda cyclist who lives on Central Avenue, said that he was not thrilled by the proposed installation of narrow bike lanes, which he said are deceptively safe.

“In principle it’s a very good idea,” Mace said. “But it’s what many of us cyclists call a ‘door zone’ bike lane. By that I mean when a parked vehicle is there, and the motorist opens the door, it blocks most of the bike lane.”

Mace has firsthand experience with the risks of the door zone. In 1999, he was “doored” by a parked car and narrowly avoided serious injury. Mace said he now shares the road with cars, which he considers safer than protected lanes.

Mace isn’t the only person worried about the safety of protected bike lanes. Sandip Jariwala, president of the West Alameda Business Association, said that the protected bike lanes seemed unsafe because delivery cars would be allowed to temporarily park in them. Jariwala said that WABA was not disappointed by the various safety improvements slated for Central Avenue. But he was not convinced by the staff’s claim that removing a traffic lane on Central Avenue would reduce congestion or collisions.

“We’re not saying there shouldn’t be bikes on the street,” Jariwala said. “But instead of eliminating the lane, can we have a shared lane?”

John Knox White, a transportation planner and former member of the Alameda Transportation Commission, pointed out that Central Avenue was identified by the city in 2008 as a priority project. He argued that this redesign is a critical part of making western Alameda more bike-friendly.

“Alameda basically has no bike lanes west of Webster Street,” Knox White said. “This would be the first bike infrastructure made on the West End that actually connected anywhere to main streets.”

Before the project can move forward, it will need to sort out its funding. Caltrans has agreed to supply $232,000 in a community-based transportation planning grant, and Measure B will provide some additional funds. But Ott said that the total cost of the redesign will reach approximately $9 million, which will require finding other sources of revenue.

“The next step would be to seek grant fund-ing for the actual design, construction and planning for the project,” Ott said.

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