Escalating gas prices, the obesity epidemic, and global warming have done wonders for the national bike zeitgeist. But on the local scale, there's little progress to be made without an organized group lobbying for bike-friendly accommodations and a government willing to implement them. Oakland, it turns out, has both. And they often converge around a tenacious yet practical advocacy group called Walk Oakland Bike Oakland.
The three-year-old nonprofit is equally adept at community organizing and city planning. Originally established as an all-volunteer enterprise, it has gained considerable momentum and visibility over the last few years. To complement the work of an eleven-member board of directors and 24 committed volunteers, it recently hired its first paid staff member using grant money from Trek Bicycles and the Alliance for Biking and Walking.
Walk Oakland Bike Oakland's first campaign centered on the opening of the Whole Foods Market on Harrison Street near Lake Merritt in late 2007. The group's cofounder and vice chair Jen Jackson, who lives in the neighborhood, became concerned about increased traffic because of the market and the lack of pedestrian and bicycle access. So she canvassed her neighborhood for support and asked city Councilwoman Nancy Nadel to host a town hall meeting on the topic. Sixty people attended. "It was pretty clear that there was a lot of pent-up frustration in the neighborhood," Jackson said.
In the end, a number of recommendations from Jackson and her fellow advocates became move-in conditions for Whole Foods. Others have come to fruition since the store's opening, and still more are in progress. Successes include the installation of additional bike parking in front of the store, traffic calming bulb-outs at Vernon and Lee streets, pedestrian crossing signals on Harrison Street and Bay Place, and bike lanes on Harrison between Orange Street and Interstate 580. "It's exciting," Jackson said. "The community has been incredibly involved. There's an untapped group of folks who would like to see more bike lanes out there."
Jason Patton, City of Oakland bicycle and pedestrian program manager, said he's grateful for Walk Oakland Bike Oakland's presence in city government, especially when it pushes Oakland to do things it normally wouldn't. "Working with organized groups who have views and positions is much easier than working with a heterogeneous public," he said. "It helps tremendously when there's a self-organizing factor in the community."
The next major battle for Walk Oakland Bike Oakland is taking place downtown and along one of the city's most prominent arteries. The organization is pushing for safe and uninterrupted bicycle access from North Oakland to Jack London Square along the Broadway corridor and has established a long-term public campaign around it called Bike Broadway.
The city committed to the new bike lanes in its amended 2007 Bicycle Master Plan — developed in part with Walk Oakland Bike Oakland's input. The lanes would create a continuous north-south route nearly five miles long through the heart of Oakland. In fact, Patton said, the city plans to eventually construct bike lanes all the way up Broadway to Tunnel Road in the Oakland hills.
Of course, planning and implementing are two different things, so Walk Oakland Bike Oakland's gaze hasn't strayed far. First on its agenda: new bike lanes on the paired one-way streets of Franklin and Webster between 14th Street and Webster's terminus at 25th Street, as well as along Broadway between 22nd and 25th streets. Originally planned for this March or April, the city delayed the new bike lanes to spring or summer of 2011 so that they can be built while those streets are undergoing construction.
Concurrent with its work downtown, Walk Oakland Bike Oakland is pushing for improved bicycle and pedestrian access further up the Broadway corridor through the city's Broadway/Valdez District Specific Plan, which addresses redevelopment of a low-density and retail-deficient region between Interstate 580 and 23rd Street.
Walk Oakland Bike Oakland board member and treasurer Roger Miller is one of 35 people in the Broadway/Valdez community stakeholder group. As new proposals for the region surface, he works to integrate Walk Oakland Bike Oakland's vision. "What we want to have happen is pedestrian- and bike-friendly development," he said. "We don't want there to be an emphasis on promoting lots of big-box stores with huge parking lots."
Instead, he's fighting for street-level retail, proper bike lanes and parking, crosswalks, and sufficient street greenery and lighting. An initial public meeting takes place Thursday, January 28 at First Presbyterian Church, 2619 Broadway, where city staff will seek feedback on six proposals for the district.
With new downtown bike lanes in the works, and a pair of inaugural Sunday street-closure events called Oaklavia planned for later this year, Jen Jackson is optimistic about Oakland's future as a bike-friendly city — even though funding and timing are likely to remain tenuous. "You build it and they will come," she said. "I really believe that. You build more highways and they will come. You build more bike lanes and they will come."