Oakland’s deadly 35th Avenue to get flashing lights, but will that be enough to save lives?

OAKLAND — Two years ago, Oakland received a $2.7 million federal grant to make safety improvements to a long residential stretch of 35th Avenue deemed one of the city’s most dangerous corridors for pedestrians because of speeding cars.

Since then, at least three people have been killed trying to cross the busy street, which many drivers use as a cut-through between Interstates 880 and Interstate 580.

As recently as last month, a 55-year-old man was struck by a hit-and-run driver when crossing 35th Avenue at Brookdale Avenue and died later in a hospital.

In July 2018, a 34-year-old bicyclist, Deontae Bush, was struck and killed on 35th at Galindo Street. And a few months before in April, 9-year-old Zayda Monge was hit by a speeding SUV on 35th at Paxton Avenue; she died later at a hospital and the hit-and-run driver was sentenced to six years in prison this year.

Other accidents, while not deadly, were horrific too.

In August 2018, a car speeding on 35th Avenue veered off the road and crashed into an empty apartment at Brookdale Avenue. And in January 2019, a 14-year-old boy on a bicycle was dragged four blocks after he was hit by a car near the Fruitvale BART station on 35th between San Leandro and East 12th streets.

Councilwoman Sheng Thao, whose district includes most of 35th Avenue, tweeted after last month’s deadly crash that the city’s transportation department assured her improvements would be coming soon.

“I am heartbroken we did not have these sooner but will continue to fight for pedestrian and bike safety citywide,” she said in the tweet. “We should not have to have a tragedy to force us to improve dangerous streets.”

Although the promised work is supposed to finally start later this month, bicycle and pedestrian advocates are already saying the planned improvements won’t be enough to prevent more tragedies.

Ryan Russo, Oakland’s transportation director, said in an interview that some new crosswalks will be added and a total of 10 intersections along the 1.5 mile stretch of 35th Avenue between East 12th Street and Interstate 580 will either get pedestrian-activated signals or flashing pedestrian crossing signals. The work is expected to be completed in the fall.

The intersections that will receive flashing pedestrian crossing signals are at East 18th Street, Harper Street, Lynde Street, Deering Street, Allendale Avenue, Hageman Avenue and Mangels Avenue. The three intersections to get a pedestrian-activated signal and crosswalk are at Salisbury Street, Davis Street and Brookdale Avenue.

One intersection, 35th Avenue and Wisconsin Street, already received a pedestrian-activated traffic signal called a “HAWK” (high-intensity activated crosswalk) in August 2018.

Thao told this news organization she thinks improvements to the corridor will help slow down traffic but she’s open to more being done if needed.

“I do know it’s not perfect,” she said. “Other mechanisms will need to be put in place. But it’s a strong move forward. … I truly believe it will be helpful in saving lives.”

Still, Thao said, she wishes the transportation department had moved a little faster. “I do hope in the future with grant money coming in, we do implement those dollars as soon as possible.”

Asked why it’s taken so long to begin the work since the $2.7 million Highway Safety Improvement Program grant was awarded two years ago, Russo said it simply takes time to do designs, seek bids from construction companies, select one, then make sure the electrical infrastructure for the lights is safe and can withstand high winds and earthquakes.

“With delivering projects, we all wish it could happen faster. We’re working on ways to expedite as much as possible,” Russo said.

Russo said the improvements should help motorists “make better choices” and he is confident the signals “should have a dramatic effect” on the east-west flow of traffic.

But bicycle and pedestrian advocates like Bike East Bay are more concerned about the kind of improvements planned than the delays. “It’s actually a pretty quick turnaround time,” said Dave Campbell, advocacy director for the group, at least “by Oakland standards.”

Speed is the biggest issue that needs to be addressed, he said. City officials did not directly respond to this news organization’s inquires about whether a traffic or speed study was conducted on 35th Avenue.

“Throwing traffic lights at a speeding problem on a neighborhood street is not the right solution,” Campbell said, noting 35th Avenue is first and foremost a residential street where people live and send their children to school.

Although flashing lights might help some, they won’t save a young girl playing in her front yard who dashes out to get a ball that rolls onto the road from a speeding car, he said. In September 2016, a two-year boy playing outside an apartment complex on 35th Avenue was fatally hit by an AC Transit bus when he ran onto the street to catch a ball.

What Bike East Bay would like to see instead are stop signs, speed bumps or other “traffic calming” measures.

But such improvements would have to be funded locally, he said, and Oakland may be reluctant to do so because more stop signs could disrupt AC Transit’s bus schedules or even slow down fire trucks. And a slower 35th Avenue might send some drivers into adjacent streets to avoid backups, Campbell acknowledged.

“There are no easy solutions, but if the highest priority is safety … we need to do more. We have to keep going on at it from every angle,” he said.

Thao said she’s OK with possibly adding stop signs, but speed bumps could be problematic for fire trucks that need to get through quickly. As for bus schedules, she said that’s not really an issue.

“I think it would all be for the better to slow down traffic,” she said. “What we’re seeing right now, it’s dangerous. For me, it’s all about saving lives.”

City spokesman Sean Maher said there needs to be a balance between safety and the function of a “main thoroughfare” such as 35th Avenue for bus and emergency vehicles.

“As a result, we abstain from physical features like stop signs and speed bumps that bottleneck traffic on an arterial street,” he said.

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Author: Angela Ruggiero